'Android Kunjappan', 'Nine', 'Red Rain': How sci-fi and technology-based movies have fared in Malayalam cinema

A scene from ‘Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25’

A scene from ‘Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The history of science and technology in the industry is of mostly failed attempts, but filmmakers and scenarists continue to experiment with bold, fantasy themes

An old man, wearing a white mundu and a light-green shirt, walks back home through a typical Kerala rural neighbourhood with his caretaker – a short white android, also clad in a mundu with a thorthu around his shoulders. This would have sounded surreal and an improbable recipe for a hit in Mollywood a few years ago. But not today, after the success of Android Kunjappan 5.25, last year.

The film was a bold attempt since past works of science-fiction (sci-fi) or similar themes featuring science or technology haven’t had much success in Kerala. “I wasn’t worried about whether or not it would be a success since I was confident it would work if I turned it into a family drama. The tough part was getting a supportive producer as it was a double whammy – a technological fantasy with a septuagenarian protagonist,” says Ratheesh Balakrishna Pothuval, who wrote and directed Kunjappan.

A scene from Nine

A scene from Nine   | Photo Credit: Mahadevan Thampy

Jenuse Mohamed’s Prithviraj-starrer Nine was the other ‘scientific’ cinematic surprise of 2019. Prithviraj plays an astrophysicist, a rarity in itself for Malayalam cinema, investigating an astronomical phenomenon in the movie. Jenuse adds, “However, more than a pure sci-fi, the film was a psychological thriller. That made it a far more palatable watch for the viewers.”

Blast from the past

The history of science and technology in Malayalam cinema is a history of mostly failed attempts. Madhu Muttom’s Bharathan Effect, which explored the concept of anti-gravity, and Vinayan’s Athishayan (2007), a tale clearly inspired by Marvel’s Hulk, both failed to connect with the audience. Poor CGI might have been a reason why they didn’t work. “If the idea is extremely fanciful, then it’s important to make the audience feel that what is happening on-screen is plausible. Hollywood movies often have the budget for good CGI, but we don’t. That is why we decided to make an actual android which could move minimally and a stunt double for certain scenes in Kunjappan. CGI was kept to a minimum,” says Ratheesh.

Meanwhile Rahul Sadasivan’s Red Rain (2013), starring Narain, was a well-made science-fiction thriller. It explored, perhaps for the first time in Malayalam cinema, an extra-terrestrial theme inspired by the red rain phenomenon that had occurred in Kerala in 2001. Although it was appreciated for various aspects of its making, it failed to leave an impact on the audience. Commenting on the style and theme of the film, Rahul says, “The style employed is Western and was inspired by subjects that are explored there. It is, however, hard to sell such a theme in Kerala since there is a limited audience for it.”

A scene from Joseph

A scene from Joseph   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The first sci-fi in Malayalam was released in 1967. Directed by P Subramaniam, Karutha Rathrikal was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Madhu in the lead role. Apart from that, science and technology in Malayalam cinema have been restricted to communication devices, killer robots and tacky lairs of villains in CID Nazir films, clearly inspired by props from the James Bond series.

The one science that Malayalam cinema has explored well is medical science. “Medical ethos have been well portrayed in films such as Amrutham Gamaya (1987) and Ayalum Njanum Thammil (2012). Meanwhile, the dark side of the medical community comes up in Nirnayam (1995) and Joseph (2019). Mohanlal in Ulladakkam (1991) and Soman in Thalavattam (1986) showed how diametrically opposite two people practising the same profession can be,” explains Dr. Chris Abraham, a city-based psychiatrist and movie buff. The popularity of medical dramas and thrillers in Malayalam, Jenuse says, is because of the social aspect of medicine, and how familiar people are with hospital procedures and doctors. This might be a reason why Aashiq Abu’s Virus (2019) was well-received, apart from the fact that Nipah outbreak and its severity were still fresh in people’s memories.

Set in a familiar terrain

Both Ratheesh and Jenuse agree that in order for science-centric movies to work in Kerala, the stories must be set in a terrain familiar to the Malayalam audience. In fact, the best works, both in literature and cinema, with science or technology at the heart of it, were commentaries or critiques on human nature and society. Be it Aldous Huxely’s Brave New World or James Cameron’s Avatar, the story was about our society.

The recent attempts in Malayalam cinema to portray science- and technology- centered themes seem inspired by this. “Kunjappan was born out of my desire to explore the alienation mobile devices are creating in our society. It was inspired by the observation that nowadays people travelling in trains rarely speak to their co-passengers like we used to in the past. All of us are glued to our screens,” Ratheesh says. He says the android in his movie symbolises a totality of technologies that keep us busy today.

A scene from ‘Virus’

A scene from ‘Virus’   | Photo Credit: Jan Joseph George

Although not a sci-fi, Aashiq’s path-breaking Virus is a movie centred on a scientific quest to control a potential pandemic. Muhsin Parari, one of the writers of the movie, admits that they were worried how people would receive a world filled with medical jargon. He adds, “Most of the dramatic moments in the movie were around some kind of scientific concept or the other. So we were careful to ensure that the script was as engaging as possible. But then again, fear of death and hope are universal feelings.”

For any movie to be successful, Jenuse says, the focus should be on human elements that people can relate to. Nine, for instance, was more of a psychological journey than a scientific one. “For a large portion of the Malayalam audience, those themes are hard to comprehend. So you need to make it culturally relevant for them like Ratheesh did in Kunjappan,” quips Jenuse.

The social and cultural relevance regarding the issue of care for elderly people in Kerala, Ratheesh believes, was a factor in making his movie a success. This larger social aspect may have been the missing factor in the past attempts at sci-fi in Malayalam or maybe they were just unlucky to have come out before the current generation of movie-goers had arrived on the scene.

Nevertheless, Muhsin believes a new group of movie-goers made up of generation-Z provides an opportunity for Malayalam writers and filmmakers to try sci-fi and other bold, fantasy themes.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 9:12:49 PM |

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