The story of how it became possible for 'parallel' cinema to be commercially more viable than 'mainstream' masala in Kerala.
If the term “parallel” cinema makes any sense, then it does only in Kerala. The term “parallel” was an arbitrary expression given to low-budget art films which unsubscribed from some of the formulaic elements such as songs and stars which governed the so-called “commercial” cinema. But considering the fact that 85 per cent of “commercial” films were box office failures, the Malayalam parallel cinema was mostly successful, making it therefore more “commercially” viable than its own parallel! So what was “formulaic” in Malayalam cinema?
Looking back through the 100 years of Indian films, Malayalam cinema had its significant origins in the Madras film industry when the term “Madras” was not synonymous with Tamil language. The Madras film industry was spread over the erstwhile Madras Presidency, making films in all Indian languages. The exorbitant cost of film equipment, limited release outlets and meagre film export earnings got the Madras producers to consolidate their strengths and make their studios viable by making films in multiple languages for an all-India market.
In this collective strength, the four southern languages evolved a distinctly unique, melodramatic formula with two primary heroic archetypes as one of its ingredients. One hero took on the world outside while the other addressed domestic issues. The MGR/ Sivaji Ganesan model was replicated in Malayalam cinema with two doyens, namely Satyan and Prem Nazir. From the 1940s, these two icons virtually dominated the Kerala scenario, to be followed later by the duo of Mohanlal and Mamooty. The astounding 610 films that Prem Nazir worked in can set any film history book on fire, if taken seriously. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, Nazir remained the darling of Malayalis the world over.
Well known are also Kerala's close association with “Left” ruling parties; a larger presence of Christians and Muslims; high literacy rate and total urbanisation, making it the best soil for a multi-cultural cinematic fare. And that did happen in a very tangential way. The mid-1960s Kerala witnessed an explosion in the film society movement unparalleled anywhere else in India. “Progressive” literature being made freely available by the Left movement triggered a kind of “intellectualism” soon to be symbolised by bearded kurta-clad men smoking “beedis” and drinking “chai” over Lenin and Dostoevsky. The National Film Archives feeding film societies with film prints was headed by the legendary P.K. Nair. And nothing can warm the hearts of a Malayali more than to see a fellow kinsman at the helm. And Nairsaab as we affectionately call him, drove the film society movement with no holds barred. So without setting up a “proper” film school, Keralites got the advantage of seeing a big collection of international cinema with English subtitles. Prints and projectors travelled to remote corners, creating hundreds of cineastes, making it cinema's own country.
The success of Ramu Kariat's “Chemeen”, based on Thakazhi's celebrated novel in 1965 was evidence of a highly mature audience making a clear departure from the Madras formula. In 1972, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a product of the FTII, stormed the citadel again with his austere “Swayamvaram” and M.T. Vasudevan Nair shocked the nation with his angry “Nirmalyam” in 1973 while Aravindan wafted in with his poetic “Uttarayan” in 1974 along with K.P. Kumaran's “Adithi”.
I remember visiting Thiruvananthapuram as part of a small film delegation led by Mani Kaul in 1977. When our train entered the station, we saw hundreds of students holding red flags welcoming us to a chorus of “Lal Salaam, Inquilab Zindabad, Mani Kaul Zindabad”. We knew that this had to be the cradle of the new cinema movement when our discussions took on complex overtones, arguing a variety of issues surrounding our works. Apart from Adoor and Aravindan with their massive fan clubs, there were Sethumadhavan, A. Vincent, Padmarajan, John Abraham, K.G. George, Fazil, I.V. Sasi, Bharathan, Hariharan, Balachandra Menon, V.R. Gopinath, Shaji Karun, Sibi Malayil, P.G. Vishwambaran who dominated the film festivals, the national awards and all debates that centred on what was “good” Indian cinema.
What a galaxy that was! To list out their various films in this article would be an encyclopaedic task but one must admit that this golden period between the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s in Malayalam cinema can be the envy of any Indian film region. And yet, this cinema had its own failings. Probably because of their low budgets, most of the scripts were too dialogue oriented. Although actors like Mohanlal and Mamooty carried themselves effortlessly through all their films, it was bound to become monotonously “parallel”. These films couldn't really clear the international bar also because of their poor sound design and final mixing quality. The influence of European cinema engendered a miniscule soft-porn cinema culture which brought the rest into disrepute too. Last but not the least, the film society movement slowly waned and so did all the accompanying energetic discussions. The Left movement lost its sheen and cinema's own country metamorphosed into “God's own country”!
The 21st Century witnesses comparatively more radical experiments in Marathi and Tamil cinema, establishing closer rapport with their regional viewers. Although one cannot call the later Malayalam cinema as “elitist”, it had essentially lost its grip on that exclusive narrative flair. Priyadarshan, Siddique Lal, Kamal, Ranjit and Shaji Kailash are the modern Mollywood narrators competing fiercely with big budget Tamil and Hindi films with lavish songs and fight sequences. Time will tell whether Mollywood will create another parallel in the art of making mainstream cinema.
The writer is Director, LV Prasad Film and TV Academy.