As Indian cinema celebrates its centenary, we take a look at how Malayalam cinema has evolved through the ages since the first Malayalam ‘talkie’ was released 75 years ago.

This year marks the centenary of Indian cinema and the 75th anniversary of Malayalam ‘talkies’: it was in 1938 that Balan (by S. Nottani), the first talking film in Malayalam was released. All through the decades, both cinemas have exhibited resilience – as an industry, an art form and as a medium of popular entertainment. This assumes significance when most national film industries all over the world are succumbing to the onslaught of Hollywood. In contrast, Indian cinema has not only managed to survive but has indeed thrived, making inroads even into the international market.

Although Malayalam cinema had been going through a low especially since the advent of television, during the last few years it is showing remarkable signs of revival. From an average of around six films per annum in the 1950s, film production in Malayalam went up to 27 in the 60s and 82 films in the 70s. In the 80s, it peaked with 114 films, and with the advent of television in the 90s, it slumped to 57 and 63 in the last decade. Last year’s production figure of 120 came as a surprise to industry watchers, but is expected to continue for some more years.

During the last eight decades of its existence, Malayalam cinema had followed a path of its own. From the beginning its narratives were animated by a certain sense of social concern in content and realism in form. For instance, ‘mythologicals’ or ‘sant’ films were never a major genre in Malayalam cinema though they had a significant presence in all other major film cultures in the country. The first film (Vigathakumaran, 1928) was a social drama, the next, Marthandavarma (1931), a historical, and Balan, yet another family drama.

Gathering momentum

By the 1950s Malayalam cinema was on its own feet; film production gathered momentum with the establishment of Udaya Studios at Alappuzha in 1947 and Merryland in Thiruvananthapuram in 1951. The ‘50s and ‘60s were formative decades in terms of visual language, acting styles, scenarios and most importantly, music. Directors such as P. Bhaskaran, Ramu Kariat, A. Vincent, and K.S. Sethumadhavan, scenarists such as Ponkunnam Varkey, M.T. Vasudevan Nair and Uroob, actors such as Sathyan, Prem Nazir, Kumari, Sheela and Sarada, singers of the likes of Abdul Khader, P. Leela, P. Susheela, S. Janaki, K.J. Yesudas and P. Jayachandran, lyricists such as P. Bhaskaran, Vayalar Rama Varma, Sreekumaran Thampy and O.N.V. Kurup and music directors such as G. Devarajan, M.S. Baburaj, K. Raghavan and V. Dakshinamoorthy created a cinema that was ‘Malayalam’ in spirit and content, giving form and voice, soul and body to Malayali life and struggles, dreams and frustrations, hopes and imaginations.

A transformation in the look and feel of Malayalam cinema and a definitive shift in sensibility took place in the 1970s with the entry of a new wave of filmmakers. Many of them such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, K.R. Mohanan, K.G. George and so on were from the Film and Television Institute of India; some such as Aravindan, K.P. Kumaran, Pavithran, and T.V. Chandran were inspired by the film society movement, which had spread throughout the state; while others such as P.N. Menon, P.A. Backer, Bharathan, and so on were exploring new idioms from within the industry.

Their films dealt with various aspects of Malayali life of the times, the disillusionment with the Nehruvian national imagination and rebellion against it, the existential angst of the urban educated youth, the anger against various forms of casteist and state oppression, and so on.

If one could describe the 1950s and 60s as the ‘literary’ decades, when cinema was very much dependent on literary works and writers, the 1970s and 80s can be termed ‘cinematic’ decades with Malayalam cinema, making its mark on the national and international scene.

While auteurs such as Adoor , Aravindan, John Abraham, and Backer along with Mohanan, Chandran, Shaji N. Karun, and so on, made films that won acclaim at the national and international levels, the votaries of ‘middle cinema’ such as George, Padmarajan, Mohan, Bharathan, Fazil, Sathyan Anthikad, Balachandra Menon, Lenin Rajendran and the like, who defied the ‘art vs. commercial’ divide, spun narratives that dealt with the conflicts within the family, the man-woman relationship, and Malayali sexuality, in all its lyrical and romantic as well as violent and lustful dimensions. A crop of actors such as Sukumaran, Soman, Jayan, Shobha, Jalaja, Shuba, Sobhana, and so on also made their mark in their films. This period also witnessed the star duo of the earlier decades, Sathyan and Prem Nazir, giving way to Mammootty and Mohanlal, who went on to dominate the film scene for the next three decades.

Impact of television

The 1990s is marked by the invasion of television into Malayali homes, deeply impacting upon the film industry. Most of the thematic terrains of cinema were usurped by tele-serials, withdrawing of family audience from theatres and forcing the theatres to make a brief retreat into soft porn and full-length comedies. Meanwhile, the heroes in film narratives too were taking on macho attributes, something that paralleled the rise of communalism in the Indian polity at large.

The ‘actors’ became ‘super stars’, with women and minorities increasingly being marginalised. An exception to this trend was the films of Sreenivasan and Sathyan Anthikad, which sarcastically dealt with the ironies and dilemmas of Malayali life and polity.

The nineties also saw many films winning accolades abroad, like those of Shaji , Chandran, Sukumaran Nair, Shyamaprasad and Jayaraj. Murali Nair’s Maranasimhasanam (1999), an acerbic satire on the degeneration of politics in Kerala, won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes. One major intervention during the decade that was to have lasting impact was the institution of the International Film Festival of Kerala, which is attended every year by thousands of cineastes across the state.

In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of sorts in Malayalam cinema with a host of new talents – creative and technical – succeeding in putting an end to the superstar era and bringing the audience back to theatres. The films of Sameer Thahir, Anwar Rasheed, Aashiq Abu, Sherry, Salim Ahmed, Madhupal, Madhav Ramdas, Rajeev Ravi, Joy Mathew, Lijin Jose, Jayan Cherian, Vipin Vijay, Shalini Usha Nair, et. al. most of them debutants, along with a new array of actors such as Fahadh Faasil, Dulquer Salmaan, Murali Gopi, Nivin Pauly, Asif Ali, Rima Kallingal, Anne Augustine, Remya Nambeesan, Maithili, Honey Rose, and so on seem to have turned the tide for Malayalam cinema.

One hopes this tide will soon surge into a wave…

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