What ails Malayalam Cinema today?

Note- this was an article originally written in mid 2009 but now re-edited/written keeping in mind the current ongoing strike in the Malayalam movie industry.

Posters about the film industry strike outside a theatre in Kerala

It’s a known fact that by & large Malayalam and Bengali films have gone on to stand out for the quality of movies getting made over the years. While Bengali cinema has seen masters like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak etc during the yesteryears and is now being represented by the likes of Gautam Ghosh, Rituparno Ghosh etc, Malayalam cinema too has had its maestro’s like Adoor Gopalakrishnan,Aravindan, Bharathan,Padmarajan,T.V.Chandran etc who have brought movies of a different perspective to the intelligent audience. The difference between the Malayalam & Bengali film industry lay in the fact that while mainstream cinema in Bengali in the last 2 decades especially had degenerated into typical potboilers which were not for the intelligent audience, in case of Malayalam cinema by & large the mainstream cinema was also of high standard. Movies made by stalwarts like Sathyan Anthikkad,Sibi Malayil,Fazil, Priyadarshan etc went on to revolutionize the 80’s and the 90’s.

This brings us to Malayalam cinema of the present. Why do we constantly hear complaints about the quality of movies going down? Why do people long for the kind of movies of the 80’s and 90’s even today? Is the situation out of control? Let’s take a lot at the situation and some of the factors going against Malayalam Cinema presently.

Genuine shortage of good films

Adaminte Makan Abu

In the recent past what were some of the most successful films? In 2008 there was Twenty: 20, a commercial khichdi which went on to break all records of the Malayalam film industry. In 2009 for a major part of the year it was 2 Harihar Nagar which was the most successful (till Pazhassi Raja thankfully overtook it). And in 2010 we has Pokkiri Raja, a multi-starrer which played to galleries. Of course we have had some good films as well of late like a Pranchiyettan and The Saint, Paleri Manikyam, Adaminte Makan Abu etc but more often than not these films stand out as exceptions. Veteran filmmakers like Fazil, Sibi Malayil etc struggling with their recent films like Moss & Cat and Living Together ( both by Fazil ) or Apoorvaragam and Violin ( both by Sibi Malayil ) are nowhere close to some of their glorious films made earlier. Priyadarshan hasn’t been making Malayalam films of late (after a long back he has now returned with Oru Marubhumi Kadha which is due for release shortly), Joshiy has been happy making multi-starrers like Twenty: 20, Robinhood, Christian Brothers etc which maybe making money but certainly not trendsetting.

Lack of audience for middle of the road cinema

Veettilekulla Vazhi

It’s a shame that in Kerala today a genuinely good film like Jayaraj’s Gulmohar, which saw writer-director Ranjith making an excellent debut as an actor or M.G.Sasi’s Adayalangal struggles to get a theatrical release. And even for some good movies done by Mohanlal like Akashagopuram or a Pakalnakshtrangal, the audience preferred to stay away, preferring to instead watch him in a Twenty: 20 or a Kurukshetra. Salim Ahamed’s Adaminte Makan Abu swept the National Awards and is doing very well in the festival circuit right now but it could hardly survive a week at the theatres. Even a star like Prithviraj finds it easy to reach out to his audience with an Anwar or a Thriller but struggles to bring out a movie like Veettilekulla Vazhi which again was noticed in the festival circuit. I can just go on & on about such cases, because there are just so many of them.

Influence of Hindi,Tamil & Telugu Cinema

While one always knew that Malayalam cinema stood for realistic portrayals and also appreciated it, both the filmmakers and the audience were satisfied that they were able to reach out to the expectations of each other. The audience in Kerala has always been intelligent and preferred to see realism in Malayalam movies and left the larger than life and the glossy stuff to Hindi & Tamil cinema. So much so that in recent times SRK and Vijay have become very big stars in Kerala also on account of their popularity among the youth. This was still all right but seeing the ever increasing popularity of Hindi & Tamil movies in the state, some of the film makers decided to go in for more gloss in their own movies. Thus bringing in typical mass dance numbers and other symbols, more representative of a Hindi or a Tamil movie. In the bargain the element of realism so much an essential part of Malayalam cinema started getting lost. A film like Pudhiya Mugam or Pokkiri Raja are clear cut examples for this kind of a trend. If you change the actors you might just not even notice that these are actually Malayalam films.

Badrinath- Malayalam Version

Another problem has been that of the Malayalam dubbed versions of Telugu movies flooding the theatres in Kerala. While Hindi & Tamil movies have always found patronage in Kerala, they are finding more acceptance nowadays due to the fall in standards in Malayalam cinema. So a film like Ra.One gets a wide spread release in Kerala also as everywhere. But it is the wide release of the Telugu dubbed movies which is proving to be a big nuisance. What started as just an experiment is now becoming a big hassle for the industry. Allu Arjun is now nearly as big as Vijay or some of the Malayalam stars themselves as most of his films have been doing well in Kerala. So much so that his last film Badrinath ( dubbed version ) had a simultaneous release along with the Telugu version in A.P and other markets. For the producers and the distributors, this is a cheap option- the cost of dubbing is not high & the movies get widely released for a 1-2 week run. This sometimes even acts as a stumbling block for the release of a small Malayalam movie.

Shortage of Theatres

The multiplex culture is yet to invade Kerala (as of now there are just 2 multiplexes in Kerala, both in Cochin with a few more planned ahead) and so it’s still the traditional single screens and the cineplexes which rule the roost. Over the last few years a lot of theatres have given away to shopping complexes and other constructions due to either business or other reasons. A huge city like Cochin- Ernakulam does not today have more than 10 -12 direct release theatres (Ernakulam+Fort Cochin+Tripunithira area) and that makes the availability of screens also a major problem especially if it’s a small movie getting released. So when multiple releases happen always the smaller films tend to suffer the maximum.

Stars holding Sway

Nearly 3 decades old in the industry and the 2 M’s Mammootty and Mohanlal still rule the roost. They continue to do 5-6 movies a year and try to balance the middle of the road cinema with the commercial movies. Dileep and Jayaram  are hanging in there, while the others including Suresh Gopi hardly seem to hit the bulls eye these days. Among the younger stars it’s only Prithviraj and to an extent Jayasurya and Asif Ali who seem to have some kind of connect with the audiences. When it comes to the heroines the problem is even different. Most of the Malayalam heroines like Nayantara, Bhavana, Amala Paul, Mamta Mohan Das etc are more prominent in the other South Indian languages. Navya Nair and Gopika have now retired after their wedding (while Kavya Madhavan is now back to the field after a failed wedding). So a new bunch of heroines are required to bring in the freshness. People like Ann Augustine, Rima Kallingal, Archana Kavi, Remya Nambeesan etc certainly seem to hold promise and only time will tell us if they manage to leave a lasting impression.

Silver Lining in the cloud?

So is the situation completely out of control? Are all the factors mentioned above too  much to handle? No, I still feel that the situation can be brought under control.
Given below are some ways to overcome the same and bring back the earlier days of the Malayalam Film Industry-
1. Prominent film makers like Sathyan Anthikkad, Sibi Malayil, Joshy, Fazil etc to make movies on the lines of what they’ve worked in the past but keeping today’s generation also in mind ( or else gracefully retire ).
2. More emphasis on script to be given. People like Ranjith, Blessy,Lohitadas, Sreenivasan,T.A.Razzak etc to lead the way. Bring out more works of literary giants like M.T.Vasudevan Nair.
3. Encourage work of talented directors like Blessy, Shyama Prasad, Lohithadas, Ranjith etc who can bridge the divide between mainstream & middle of the road cinema.
4. Continue to make use of digital cinema- Qube & UFO to help in releasing the smaller movies
5. Curtail the release of dubbed releases by fixing a maximum number of movies allowed per year.
6. Catch them young- the Kerala Government can through their own Film Society (Kairali) organize mini festivals in college campuses and enable the students to get exposed to critically acclaimed Malayalam movies.
7. The bodies like MACTA (Malayalam Cine Techinicians Association Federation), AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes) and the Producers Council should come forward to genuinely encourage and make good cinema. Why cannot there be budgets set aside for making some small intelligent movies patronized by these bodies itself?

All said and done all is not over and I am sure that important stake holders should be working on some of these points listed above and maybe some other points not listed here. As far as the near future is concerned then I’m hoping at least that we continue to get films like a Salt N’Pepper, Traffic, City of God etc which stood out in 2011 and managed to at least stay afloat among the general line-up of films which keep releasing week after week.

Also it’s a humble request to all the concerned associations in the industry (representing, producers, exhibitors, distributors, artistes etc ) to let go of their ego and call of the ongoing strike at the earliest. At the time of posting this there have been no new Malayalam release for the last 3 weeks 😦


2 thoughts on “What ails Malayalam Cinema today?

  1. Excellent article Sethu….After reading it i feel that even the audience is as much a bigger culprit for the current state of affairs along with film makers.

    When you have some brilliant piece of art coming out and thats proves a mediocre success, then by and forth it will always remain a rarity.

    A huge transition is required for Malayalam cinema and i hope it will surely happen in future.

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