New trails of discovery

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Sheela and Madhu in "Chemmeen" (1965) in which the director Ramu Kariat brought together exceptional talents like Marcus Bartley (cinematography), Hrishikesh Mukherjee (editing), Vayalar Ravi Varma (lyrics) and Salil Chowdhury (music). The film, based on Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's novel of the same name, won the first National Best Film Award for Malayalam cinema.

A scene from the only surviving full-length silent movie in south Indian languages, "Marthandavarma" (Malayalam and Tamil, 1931).

Sathyan and Miss Kumari in "Neelakuyil" (1954). Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

P.J. Antony and Sumithra in "Nirmalyam" (1973). Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

P. Bhaskaran. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Ramu Kariat. Photo: The Hindu Archives

In "Uttarayan" (1974), G. Aravindan's first film. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

In "Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol" (1975). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Adoor Bhasi in John Abraham's "Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mammootty and Mohanlal in "Twenty:20" (2008).

P.A. Backer. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Bharathan. Photo: The Hindu Archives

G. Aravindan. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

John Abraham. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

From "Chitra Sutram" (2010).

Cinema was adopted enthusiastically by the pluralistic society of Kerala, just emerging from feudalism and casteism in the early 20th century, as an ideal medium to project its dreams, desires and, later on, its disillusionments.
100 years of Indian Cinema

CINEMA arrived in Kerala barely a decade after the Lumiere brothers put up their historic show at the Grand Café, Paris. The first screening took place in 1906 in Kozhikode, when the itinerant showman Swamikannu Vincent screened some films with his Edison Bioscope. Interestingly, it was on the same shores that another adventurer named Vasco da Gama too arrived four centuries ago with his fleet. Both the encounters—one with colonialism and the other with cinema—blazed new trails of discoveries and desiring.

Like elsewhere, film screenings became an integral part of village fairs and festivals, fed by film prints that arrived from all over the world. Film production came much later. The first Malayalam silent movie, Vigathakumaran (Lost Child)by J.C. Daniel, was made only in 1928, followed by Marthandavarma (V.V. Rao, 1931), a historical, based on a renowned literary work. Incidentally, the latter is the only full-length silent film that still survives from among hundreds made in south Indian languages, thanks to the efforts of P.K. Nair.

After these two silent films, it took another seven years for the first Malayalam talkie, Balan (S. Nottani, 1938), to come out. By then, cinema fever had gathered momentum, with several theatre personalities of the time joining the bandwagon and catalysing the process of its indigenisation. For a pluralistic society that was fast breaking out of the shackles of feudalism and casteism, cinema provided the ideal medium to envision and “project” its dreams and desires. Engaging with the rich and varied storytelling and performance traditions of the region, cinema soon carved a space and idiom of its own, eventually creating a new sensorium of universal appeal.

The Malayalee romance with cinema soon gave shape to a vibrant art form and a thriving industry that became known for its artistic concerns, thematic diversity and a certain kind of social realism, establishing its singular presence on the national film scene, substantiated by its significant presence at the National Film Awards and the Indian Panorama every year.

Another distinguishing feature of Kerala is the vibrant film society movement in the State, and its insatiable thirst for world cinema, evidenced by the immense popularity of various “International Film Festivals” mushrooming all over Kerala.

As an industry, Malayalam cinema has consistently managed to withstand the onslaughts of Hollywood and the Hindi and Tamil industries. Production-wise, from an average of around six films a year in the 1950s, it went up to 27 in the 1960s and 82 in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it peaked with 114 films, and in the 1990s, with the advent of television, slumped to 57. The last decade witnessed some signs of recovery with a marginal rise to 63 films. Last year’s production figures surprised everyone with a sudden spurt to 120 films, which, according to industry sources, is expected to continue at least in the next couple of years.

Early decades: Imagining a new Kerala

From the beginning, Malayalam cinema strode a path of its own. Unlike other languages, puranic stories, mythologicals and “sant” films were never popular in Kerala. Even the first silent films and the talkie dealt with social, secular and historical themes. Another distinct feature has been its symbiotic links with literature, which continues to hold its sway and is still evident in its imageries, narratives and even film criticism. Until the 1950s, in the absence of production facilities in Kerala, only a handful of films were made in Malayalam, and films from other languages, especially Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, dominated the scene. With its rising popularity and, in turn, demand for films, the stage was set for local production, which led to the establishment of Udaya Studios at Alappuzha in 1947 by Kunchakko, and Merryland Studios at Thiruvananthapuram by P. Subramaniam in 1951.

“Our cinema should speak the way we actually speak; the characters in it should eat the way we eat, and dress like we do,” this is how the makers of Neelakuyil, the landmark film of the 1950s, described their path-breaking attempt. These words immediately bring to mind similar pronouncements by Dadasaheb Phalke, who too wanted to see Indian images on the screen. This desire to see Kerala in film was also a desire to imagine and bring into being a Kerala through the new medium of cinema. Cinema, extending and incorporating similar attempts in literature and theatre, went on to create a modern, secular audience by reaching out to them through narratives that cut across linguistic, social, community and class barriers. This new kinetic sensation fired the dreams, fantasies, desires and imagination of the viewers, giving them visceral shape and form, which were to determine the contours of popular imagination in the decades to follow.

Like mythologicals, nationalist or patriotic films too were few and far between in Malayalam. The landmark films of the decade like Jeevitha Nauka (Boat of Life, K. Vembu, 1951), Neelakuyil (Blue Koel, P. Bhaskaran and Ramu Kariat, 1954), Newspaper Boy (P. Ramdas, 1955) and Rarichan Enna Pouran (Citizen Rarichan, P. Bhaskaran, 1956) looked at the future with a lot of circumspection. For instance, though Neelakuyil has a typical representative of modernity like a schoolteacher as its protagonist, he turns out to be an ambivalent figure who lures and impregnates a Dalit woman and ditches her. Likewise, the other three films too are about the struggles—caste, class as well as moral—of their protagonists to claim their rightful places in the new world. These films, all made around the time of the formation of the State of Kerala in 1956, encapsulate the national imaginary of Kerala in various ways. As a fallout of the leftist cultural interventions of the time, it was a classless society that these films imagined, a future nation that is devoid of inequalities, exploitation and casteism.

The first generation film-makers of the 1950s and the 1960s introduced an array of talents in all the fields —screenplay, acting, lyrics, music—to create and define the “Malayalam” cinema of the coming decades. Notable film-makers of this period include P. Bhaskaran, Ramu Kariat, A. Vincent and K.S. Sethumadhavan. Chemmeen(Shrimp, Ramu Kariat, 1965), based on the celebrated novel by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, which won national and international recognition, could be considered the high point of this period along with Mudiyanaya Puthran (Prodigal Son, Ramu Kariat, 1961), Bhargavinilayam (Ghost House, A. Vincent, 1964), and Yakshi (K.S. Sethumadhavan, 1968).

With Malayalam cinema finding its own idiom and place, a new genre of secular music in the form of film songs brought into being a popular pan-Malayalee music that freely drew from folk, classical, Carnatic and Hindustani traditions. Almost all the major writers of the period like Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, Ponkunnam Varkey, Uroob, and M.T. Vasudevan Nair were part of the film fraternity in one way or another, giving its narratives the flesh and blood of Malayalee life and times. The 1960s also saw the entry of an array of talents who gave voice and figure to the Malayalee cinematic idiom: actors like Sathyan, Prem Nazir, Thikurissi Sukumaran Nair, Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai, Kumari, Sheela and Sarada; lyricists like P. Bhaskaran, Vayalar Rama Varma and O.N.V. Kurup; music directors like K. Raghavan, G. Devarajan, Dakshinamurthy and Baburaj; and singers like Kozhikode Abdul Khader, Yesudas, Udayabhanu, Suseela, P. Leela and S. Janaki.

The 1970s: New awakenings

The 1970s saw a new awakening in cinema with a bunch of young film-makers—graduates from the film institute or those inspired by the film society movement—entering the scene; they were exposed to world cinema and made films that revolted against the existing aesthetic and narrative styles. The narratives of the earlier era, even when they dealt with individual struggles and dilemmas, were essentially bound up with social/class liberation, and their protests and aspirations were dialectically placed against upper-caste/class interests within the narrative. But in the 1970s, the dreams and despair of the individual—that too of middle-class/caste young men—gradually came to the fore. If the protagonists of the post-Independence decades were angry and fought against the past and present systems, the heroes of the 1970s were disillusioned with themselves, the system and the future.

P.N. Menon’s Olavum Teeravum (Waves and Shore, 1970), a film fired by the realist aesthetic and shot almost entirely on location, was the trendsetter that broke the claustrophobic ambience of the studios and theatrical modes of rendition. Swayamvaram (One’s Own Choice, 1972) by Adoor Gopalakrishnan brought about a much more definitive rupture. Even while portraying a conventional theme of the trials and tribulations of a runaway couple, it explored new grounds in form and treatment. K.P. Kumaran’s Athithi (The Guest, 1974), another important work of the period, dealt with the abstract yet down-to-earth theme of waiting, and of Kerala society that was fast turning into a money-order economy. Aravindan’s Uttarayanam (1974) was about the loss of the ideals of the post-Independence youth in a corrupt and decadent society. As against such “modernist” and existentialist narratives, film-makers like P.A. Backer (1940–1993) produced films that consistently portrayed the lives and struggles of the oppressed and the marginalised: orphans, sex workers, landless peasants, labourers and solitary rebels. His significant films include Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol (When River Kabani turned Red, 1975), a bold, avant-garde film made during the dark days of the Emergency about an underground activist and his love; Chuvanna Vithukal (Red Seeds); Manimuzhakkam (Bell Tolls, 1976); and Sanghaganam (Chorus, 1979). Other notable films of the period were Nirmalyam (M.T. Vasudevan Nair, 1973), about a temple oracle caught in the inexorable currents of social change; Swapnadanam (K.G. George, 1975), a psychological thriller; Aswathamavu (K.R. Mohanan, 1978), about the existential disillusions and musings of a writer; and Yaro Oral (Pavithran, 1978), an experimental film with surrealistic dimensions.

The ‘Cinematic’ decades

The 1980s and the 1990s were two decades when Malayalam cinema had a huge presence in the national art film scene, with auteurs like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, John Abraham, P.A. Backer, Mohan, K.G. George and P. Padmarajan making films at regular intervals. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films ( Kodiyettam, 1977; Elippathayam, 1981; Mukhamukham, 1984; Anantaram; 1987; Mathilukal, 1990; Vidheyan, 1993; Kathapurushan, 1995), noted for their thematic versatility and mastery over form, were firmly placed in the Malayalee milieu and probed various aspects of its life and polity. The films of Aravindan (1935–1991) like Kanchanasita (1977), Thampu (1978), Kummatty (1979), Esthappan (1980), Pokkuveyil (1981), Chidambaram (1985), Oridathu (1986) and Vastuhara (1991) were marked by an oneiric quality. They were formally innovative and explored new realms of experience and imagination.

One of the most enigmatic figures in Malayalam cinema of the period was John Abraham (1937-1987), whose works are imbued with a deep sense of humanity. In a way, they dealt with the very impossibility of being human and creative. His first film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Tamil), is about a donkey in a Brahmin village and is a black humorous look at casteist society. His next film, Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal, was about a small peasant who is caught in the storm of social changes and is forced to withdraw from the world. His last film, before his tragic death in 1987, Amma Ariyan, was a poignant journey through the emotional and mental ruins of a radical past. It was produced by Odessa Movies entirely through small donations from the public.

Unlike the film industries in other parts of the country, the “new wave” of the Malayalam industry was not a state-supported phenomenon. It was made possible by enthusiastic cineastes, enterprising producers and cooperative efforts. For instance, all the early films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan were produced by Chitralekha Film Cooperative. Some of his and Aravindan’s films were produced by an industrialist, Ravindran Nair. With regard to the audience base for art films also, the Kerala situation was always different: nurtured by a vibrant film society movement, it is never limited to the cities, but spread all over the State.

While the “new wave” film-makers were hogging all the attention and putting Malayalam cinema on the world map, commercial, mainstream cinema was also undergoing slow but significant changes. The formal and technical innovations that distinguished the new wave were being gradually absorbed by the mainstream, as were the actors and technicians it introduced.

The 1980s: sex, violence and political corruption

By the 1980s, an osmosis was under way, making redundant the boundaries that separated “commercial” from “art” cinema. A crop of film-makers—the practitioners of “middle cinema”—burst onto the scene, prolific among them being K.G. George, Mohan, Bharathan, Padmarajan, Fazil, Satyan Anthikkad, Lenin Rajendran and Balachandra Menon. The work of Padmarajan and K.G. George stand out for the intensity and verve with which they dissected Malayalee sexuality and threw open various facets of femininity, lyrical and romantic, violent and lustful. In the commercial mainstream, it was I.V. Sasi who explored a larger canvas for his narratives. After Avalude Ravukal (1978), which was a trendsetter of sorts that made forays into the national soft porn market, Sasi, in association with his scenarist T. Damodaran, made a series of political melodramas based on newspaper reports and public political scandals of the 1980s. The major themes of the period were entanglements in marital/love life and corruption in public life. Sex and violence formed an inevitable part of the narrative. This decade also saw the gradual exit of Prem Nazir, the star of the earlier decades, and the entry of new faces like Sukumaran, Soman, Jayan, Mamootty and Mohanlal, with the latter two emerging as “superstars” in the next decades.

The 1990s: responding to globalisation locally

The 1990s saw a sea change in themes as well as audience expectations and tastes. Nehruvian dreams about mixed economy had receded and the national economy was undergoing structural changes. The buzzwords were liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation. The “opening up of the sky” and the proliferation of TV channels brought in a virtual flood of images and narratives from all over the world. The plethora of tele-serials that dominated Malayalam TV channels virtually ate into the hitherto thematic terrains of the film narratives. The coming of television also transformed the audience base of cinema. With the sobs and soaps reaching the drawing rooms directly, there was a withdrawal of the family audience from the theatres, dividing the world into two: Male-Cinema and Female-Television. This was also the time when male heroes began to achieve superhuman dimensions in film narratives and women were totally marginalised. The film industry, working within limited economies of scale and unable to compete technically with Tamil or Hindi films, retreated for a while to the slapstick and the sleaze—the only areas where the indigenous has an assured market and cannot be combated from the outside.

Some of the prolific film-makers of the period were Sathyan Anthikkad, Sibi Malayil, Fazil, Priyadarshan, Srinivasan, Kamal, Jayaraj, Balachandra Menon and Lohitadas. Their films dealt with socially relevant themes treated with a tinge of élan and humour. Their strength rested basically on the script and many of them were commercially successful. Thematically, the 1990s saw a spate of films centred on the upper-caste milieu; with their rituals, costumes, concerns and mannerisms usurping the normative/narrative centre. The minorities, especially Muslims, were gradually marginalised and forced into stereotypes and appear as exceptions to the “norm” and the “normal”.

A new macho hero image emerged through a slew of films during the period, like Dhruvam (1993), Aram Thampuran (1997), Valyettan, and Narasimham (2000), that added another dimension to the ascent of Mohanlal and Mammootty as “superstars”. Violence formed the core of these macho hero figures, and the communal overtones were also unmistakable. In contrast, the films of actor-scenarist-director Srinivasan dealt sarcastically with the ironies and dilemmas that haunted contemporary Malayalee life and polity. The scripts he wrote for Satyan Anthikkad, with the superstar Mohanlal and himself playing the lead roles, were also huge commercial successes. The 1990s was also a period when Malayalam cinema won accolades abroad. Many films of Shaji N. Karun, T.V. Chandran, M.P. Sukumaran Nair, Shyamprasad, Murali Nair and Jayaraj won acclaims at various film festivals abroad, with Murali Nair’s Maranasimhasanam (1999), an acerbic satire on the degeneration of communist politics in Kerala, winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes. T.V. Chandran has been a prolific film-maker whose works deal with various aspects of women’s life in Kerala and Malayalee masculinity. Shaji Karun, cinematographer in most of Aravindan’s films, made an impressive debut with Piravi (1988), which won several international awards, followed by films like Swaham (1994) Vanaprastham (1999) and Kuttisranku (2010).

Though the “‘new wave” is officially dead, the energy and enthusiasm created by the various international film festivals conducted in the State (the major one being the International Film Festival of Kerala organised every year by the State-run Film Academy which is attended by thousands of cineastes across the State) have been bearing fruit. Evidently, it has produced fresh talent and new probes.

Challenges of scale and location

Apart from the momentous entry of television, another major shift during the last decade was the advent of digital technology. This inexorable shift from analogue to digital radically transformed all the domains of cinema—production, distribution, exhibition and reception. Available in easily replicable and exchangeable formats, the new situation created new virtual audiences for cinema but affected box-office collections. Cinema elsewhere addressed this issue by creating spectacular images on screen, thus prompting the audience to watch it on big screens. Along with it, there was also the spread of multiplex screens that offered high-net-worth viewers a quality viewing experience.

In the Malayalam film industry, both these trends are still at their nascent stages. Because of its low economies of scale and limited market, it was almost impossible to create spectacular productions capable of living up to the changing and highly globalised tastes and expectations of the new audience. On the exhibition front, even while theatres are being closed down at an alarming rate, only a few multiplexes have come up. All this has led to a situation where Malayalam films are finding it difficult to compete with films from outside even in the local market.

Despite all this, there are signs of hope. The last few years witnessed the rise of a slew of “small” films in Malayalam, especially by youngsters, who are at ease with new technologies and its formats and are making earnest attempts to create sensible and sensitive “regional” creations of their own. While their formats and styles are deeply influenced by global and national trends, their thematics are firmly rooted in Malayalee life and mindscapes. Films like Chitra Sutram (Vipin Vijay), Akam (Shalini Nair), Chappa Kurishu (Sameer Thahir), Ustad Hotel (Anwar Rasheed), Salt n’ Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam, Da Thadiya (Aashiq Abu), Aadimadhyantham (Sherry), Traffic (Rajesh Pillai), Adaminte Makan Abu (Salim Ahmed), Ozhimuri (Madhupal), Melvilasam (Madhav Ramdas), Annayum Rasoolum (Rajeev Ravi), Shutter (Joy Mathew), Friday (Lijin Jose), and Papillio Buddha (Jayan Cherian), most of them by debutants, augur a new trend in Malayalam cinema.

They brought in an array of young talents like Fahad Fazil, Dulquer Salman, Murali Gopi, Nivin Pauly, Asif Ali, Rima Kallingal, Anne Augustine, Remya Nambeesan, Maithili and Honey Rose. They have broken the shackles imposed by the superstars on the industry. More importantly, these films brought the audience back to the theatres and spread a new sense of confidence in the industry. Their choices, very significantly that of themes, their fresh and more daring approach to treatment and formats, one hopes, will inspire and attract more talent to convert these lonely attempts into a wave.

So, at present Malayalam cinema is an industry that is “regional” and “regionalised”; one that is struggling to negotiate its space within a highly globalised market economy and a briskly changing technological environment. While at the cultural level, the crisis relates to its thematics and identity, at the economic/industrial level, it is a struggle for survival. As an industry and as an art form, it has to negotiate its way through this complex maze that is crisscrossed with issues and concerns of social, economic, ideological, and political dimensions.

C.S. Venkiteswaran is a National Award-winning film critic and documentary film-maker based in Thiruvananthapuram. He has published books and articles on visual media and cinema in Malayalam and English.

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