Is the Malayalam film industry making the best mainstream cinema today?

Once upon a time, I used to watch cinema from all over India – every Sunday afternoon, on Doordarshan. I remember, especially, the Malayalam films like Koodevide and Alicinte Anveshanam, which were neither all-out arty nor fully commercial – it was the middle-of-the-road-style that I saw in Tamil filmmakers like Balu Mahendra and Mahendran. But then Doordarshan stopped showing these films, and without subtitles it was impossible to follow anything. Malayalam films returned to my life in 2013, when I was on a jury panel – I saw something like 60 films over three weeks. And I was astounded by the variety. There were downright arty films. There were middle-of-the-road films. There were indifferently made commercial films, the kind we see in Tamil. And there were the “new generation” films – Thattathin Marayathu, Ustad Hotel, Annayum Rasoolum – that I simply could not believe were being made.

Let me explain that last statement, which is purely about economics. You expect Bollywood to make these multiplexy films because Hindi movies are seen all over the country and recover their costs from high-priced multiplexes. Whenever you ask Tamil filmmakers why they continue to make movies for the “family audience of all ages,” they say that the recovery of your investment becomes difficult if you target niche audiences. (There are niche films being made in Tamil – like Soodhu Kavvum – but not enough to constitute a movement.) How, then, were these Malayalam films being made, and in such numbers?

One of the films I saw was Da Thadiya, which was the love story of an obese young man. Another one ended with a villain’s penis being lopped off. Many of these films had young actors playing parts without a care about “image” or the other things young Tamil heroes are typically concerned about. Are the Tamil/Telugu and Malayalam markets (and audiences) completely different? Has this “movement” in Malayalam cinema become possible simply due to the low costs of filmmaking or is there something else? Or is this just a passing phase? When Paruthi Veeran and Subramaniyapuram and Kaadhal came out, they seemed to herald a movement in Tamil cinema, but it didn’t quite catch on.

That’s a different article, but the idea for this piece came by after seeing two Malayalam films this year, two films that couldn’t be more different: Drishyam and Bangalore Days. The only commonality between these films is that they’re both blockbusters. Drishyam became the highest-grossing Malayalam movie ever, and then, within a few months, Bangalore Days coolly grabbed that crown. In all other respects, the films are totally different – and that’s one of the signs of a healthy cinema culture, when it’s possible to draw large audiences to a film as “Indian” and plot-driven and headlined by a top star (Mohanlal) as Drishyam , and one as “Western” and vignette-driven and filled with young actors as Bangalore Days.

Drishyam begins with cunningly casual scenes woven around a middle-class family – and just as we begin to tire of the apparent inconsequentiality of the goings-on, the film turns into a stomach-churning thriller. My favourite scene is one of those inconsequential ones. Mohanlal is a frugal man, and his wife Meena likes to buy things. When they visit her parents’ house, she gives her mother an idiyappam maker she’s just bought, and the mother says she rarely makes idiyappam.

Mohanlal says that Meena too doesn’t really make idiyappam. Meena denies this. She said she made it once, last year. He asks her why she needs to keep buying idiyappam makers for what is an annual ritual. Meena’s father then says that the trait runs in the family. Meena’s mother too is a compulsive buyer of kitchen utensils – she has one vessel to boil milk for two people, a different vessel to boil milk for three people, one with a whistle, one without a whistle...

We laugh because we know these women from the older generations in our homes – our mothers, our grandmothers. The women in Bangalore Days, on the other hand, are much younger. One’s a radio jockey. One’s a new bride who rebels when her husband doesn’t seem invested in their marriage. One’s a Meena type of housewife who decides to go mod with a vengeance. The director, Anjali Menon, is a born filmmaker. She takes her cues from the West – she was responsible for the Hollywoody script of Ustad Hotel as well – but she’s brilliant at rooting them in an urban-Indian milieu. The film feels fresh, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Will a movie like Bangalore Days work in Tamil or Telugu? I don’t know, but the fact that it’s become a blockbuster is a heartening sign for mainstream Malayalam cinema. Another heartening thing is that Bangalore Days came to Chennai with subtitles. As did Manam, the Telugu blockbuster. It’d be great if we get to see more mainstream cinema from other languages as well, especially Marathi cinema, which I keep hearing so much about. From what I hear, the mainstream films there are even better than those in Malayalam. Now that I’ll have to see to believe.