Saturday, March 20, 2021

How I discovered Malayalam cinema and enriched my life

The world is a very big place and we can never even be aware of every nook and cranny.  It is hard to imagine all the different languages and how they shape our thinking. 

To develop a film industry it is necessary to build a base first.  Netflix, Prime and Hotstar have all discovered there is a diaspora in their markets that retain an interest in their original cultures.  The streamers also have the problem of filling space for their regular audience and have learned that the invention of subtitles has opened new markets for these foreign language films.

I never heard of Malayalam until recently and probably would not have if streaming services had not opened up my awareness.  True enough it is not just masterpieces that are available, although they help open the door.  Malayalam with approximately 36 million speakers in Kerala, India and spread around the world has somehow learned the formula for successful films.  For the entertainment consumer we really don't appreciate all the elements that fit together for our enjoyment, but for films, such elements as writing, directing, cinematography, editing, acting, design, lighting, sound and many more are necessary.  For me, Access Bollywood was a good source of information and has since listed and made references to regional language films of India and Pakistan.

My discovery was in stages.  First I came to love Bollywood (beyond the stereotypes) and learned almost by accident there were regional languages with their own cinematic history that overlapped with Bollywood.  

An early exposure was to "Aalorukkam" (2018) that seemed like a long boring search of an old man for his son not seen in 18 years.  Then he was shocked to learn that his son was now a daughter and living as a wife with a child.  He reacted perhaps as one might expect of an old man in a backward culture and left disgusted.  The movie had an ambiguous ending where he stopped the taxi he was in and we were left to ponder if he had changed his attitude.  Since then I have learned that Kerala is in fact more progressive regarding transsexuals than many other parts of the world.

"Ok Kanmani" (2017) was seen only because it was presented to me as the original of a poor Bollywood movie.  It had Dulquer Salaam in the lead and I agreed it was the superior of the two.

"Uyare" (2019) was the big breakthrough for me.  Listed as my second favorite movie seen in 2019  It was very well put together with very likeable actors and even after watching the trailer I was caught off guard by a pivotal plot event.  It is pictured at the top.

"Virus"  (2019) seen during the Covid-19 pandemic was about a medical staff trying to contain a viral outbreak.  It had both Parvathy Thiruvothu and Tovino Thomas who worked so well in "Uyare."  Based on a viral outbreak that was contained in Kerala, India after heroic efforts.

 "Take Off" (2017) is set in Iraq and Tikrit during the ISIS attack and is realistically gory in parts.   Parvathy appears again, but this time appearing older, more mature on a second marriage with a child.  Fahadh Faasili  is becoming more recognizable and credible. Writer-editor Mahesh Narayan made his directoral debut with this film, but has worked in Telgu, Tamil and Hindi films.  Read more:


 "Kilometers and Kilometers" (2020) has Tovino Thomas playing a simpler man with money problems who agreed to tour with an American woman on his motorcycle.  Typical romance with the two at cross purposes, but with some beautiful scenery.  Tovino and Gopi Sundar (the composer) were listed as producers.  Jeo Baby was writer and director and has gone on to "The Great Indian Kitchen" (2021).

"Drishyam" (2013) was not seen by me until this year, however I had seen the Hindi version  in 2015 and wrote about it (see  Jeethu Joseph originally wrote the script for another director, but when asked to change some details and use a younger actor decided to direct it himself.  The film set box office records becoming the highest grossing Malayalam film at the time.  It has been remade in several languages including Kannada, Telegu, Tamil, Sinhala, Hindi and Chinese.  My first awareness of Mohanlal.  Siddique was another prominent Malyalam actor that I had earlier seen in a memorable Telegu movie, "Naa Bangaru Talli" (2013)

"Drishyam 2" (2021) was a sequel.  Where we thought the mystery details had all been wrapped up in the original there were logical consequences.  Mohanlal was there to further protect his family with his clever strategies.  

"Pulimurugan" (2016) probably more of a typical Mohanlal vehicle as an historical action film.  It broke many of the box office records set by Drishyam

"Grandmaster" (2012) with Mohanlal playing a police detective.  Siddique had a cameo role.  It was a significant film as it was the first Malayalam movie released with English subtitles. 

The other big male star in the early days was Mammootty.  Both men were in action movies and projected a quiet mature masculinity.  They were the leaders others relied on. 

Bhoothakkannadai" (The Magnifying Lens) 1997)  has Mammootty as a prisoner who has skills used by prison staff.  His magnifiying lens allows him to sneek a view of the outside, but we learn it is a bit distorted.  Writer director A. K.started as short story writer and playwright.  Some of his early film scripts were commercially successful in the Malayalam language.  This was his first film as a director and it earned some regional awards.

"Karutha Pakshikal" (2006) shows Mammootty as the poor father with three children and one of them blind.  Family sticks together despite odds.  Really a tragic ending, but stoic acceptance.

"Kerala Varma Pazhassiraja" (2009) was set in British colonial times with Mammooty playing a rebel. The British were using their divide and conquer strategy,   Much of the action is in a Wuxia style.

"Unda" (2019) a police force is requested to protect an election in hostile territory.  There are Naxalite rebels that we seldom see.  Reveals ignorance of local customs   Mammootty is a police leader who gradually learns to adapt.

"Pathemaari" (2015) a story about migrant workers and return home every three years or so--a few become wealthy, but most just survive.  Dubai gains labor for their ambitious projects and Kerala, India gets money. for those left behind.  Mammootty won an award for his part.  Mammootty, like many others has acted in other languages such as in my favorite movie of last year:   Gave me a lesson in geography, not realizing where Kerala was located, but in this film Malayis sailed in a traditional sailing ship to Dubai and later by more modern means.  

I believe  I saw a clip of Dubai used in "Bangalore Days" with similar narratives and voice about a radio host greeting her listeners was used  in "Pathemaair" (2015).  I am not sure which city was in the clip, but it certainly seemed identical.  Perhaps an explanation might be that Anjali Menon had spent part of her life in Dubai.

"Bangalore Days" (2014) turned out to be one of my favorites this year.  Briefly it is a well structured romance with a good mix of comedy and drama. For my experience it uses a number of unique plot tools.  The actors are noticeably believable.   Discovered writer director  Anjali Menon and went onto explore more of her films.   Dulquer Salaam, son of Mammootty, and Fahadh Faasili have meaty roles, while Parvathy Thiruvothu has a supporting role.  Check:

"Ustad Hotel" (2012) written by Anjali Menon was the second release for Dulquer Salaam.  A frustrated Swiss trained cook ends up working with his grandfather in Kerala. 

"Koode" (2018) directed and adapted by Anjali Menon was a fantasy romance.  Starring Prithvirag Sukumaran in only my second viewing of him and Naziya Nazim as the female lead.  Parvathy is in another supporting role further demonstrating her versatility.   

"Urium:  The Warriors who Wanted to Kill Vasco Da Gama" (2011)  Kerala was the first landing point of Vasco Da Gama who quickly discovered spices in big demand in Europe.  He was later killed there.  I had only a vague idea where Kerala was, but this film helped focus the significance of the location.  Cameos by Bollywood stars Vidya Balan and Tabu.   Prithvirag Sukaumaran as an action hero.

"Mumbai Police" (2013) despite title was not set in Mumbai, but rather Kerala.  An unexpected twist.  Prithvirag Sukamaran is a police office trying to recover his memory after figuring  out the culprit and has to reconstruct what happened.  A few surprises along the way and a very big twist at the end.

There were numerous other films of varying genres and qualities, but this list is a good place to start your own exploration.  After viewing these examples I will be on the lookout for the better Malayalam films.

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