What has helped Malayalam cinema scale new heights of commercial success and creativity in the first half of 2024?

Malayalam cinema’s resurgence in terms of thematic diversity and box office success is fuelled by several factors. Will the romance continue?

Updated - June 14, 2024 10:09 am IST

Published - June 13, 2024 03:22 pm IST

Still of Malayalam film Manjummel Boys

Still of Malayalam film Manjummel Boys | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Going by the first six months of 2024, it could be the year of Malayalam cinema, which is on a never-before-high, in terms of commercial success and content. All eyes are on the Malayalam film industry, which was once noted for its thriving New Wave movies, mostly made on shoestring budgets.

Cut to the present: The same small-budget industry has begun to speak of 100 crore and 150 crore box office pickings. The same film industry is breaking new ground with varied themes that defy run-of-the-mill narratives.

Led by directors from all over Kerala, the industry has reinvented itself by moving away from mundane, predictable characters and melodramatic family dramas, and by embracing Malayali society at all levels. From emotionally rich, stylishly mounted, layered movies to unhinged capers and rom-coms, the sheer diversity in theatres is reason to celebrate.

Wider acceptance

Rakesh Bahuleyan, secretary of the Kerala Film Producers Association (KFPA), agrees that the six months have been a golden period generating ₹1,000 crore revenue. “What has been the gamechanger is that audiences in Tamil Nadu, the Telugu-speaking states and other States have accepted Malayalam cinema. Earlier, it was confined to Malayalis living there. The change has created new markets for movies made in Malayalam,” says Rakesh.

Overseas release of films almost around the same time as the release of the movie in Kerala has been welcomed by viewers in the Gulf and the US.

Naslen K Gafoor and Mamitha Baiju in Premalu

Naslen K Gafoor and Mamitha Baiju in Premalu | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Film critic Sowmya Rajendran says the niche non-Malayali audience that used to watch Malayalam films enlarged to include viewers from all walks of life. “Films like Premalu, Manjummel Boys and Aavesham included multi-cultural references in an organic way that was welcomed by the youth. For instance, many Telugu viewers were discussing on social media how Premaluzoomed into a Hyderabad that was seldom seen in Telugu films.”

 However, instead of aping the pan-Indian films with mass action movies on a large scale, the directors “stuck to their Malayali sensibilities” and that has worked, she adds.

The rewards are visible — awards have been pouring in and the cash registers have not stopped ringing.

The jewel in the crown this year is Chidambaram’s Manjummel Boys, a heartwarming survival thriller based on a real-life story, that smashed all previous box office records and went on to make a mark all over India, especially in South India and collected ₹200 crore. 

Fahadh Faasil in Aavesham.

Fahadh Faasil in Aavesham. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Premalu, a problematic rom-com, went to town with its young cast and simple story line. Similarly, Aavesham, led by an unstoppable Fahad Faasil, created waves of excitement in spite of its wafer-thin storyline.

Posters of Mammootty in Bramayugam.

Posters of Mammootty in Bramayugam. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Rahul Sadasuvan’s period horror thriller Bramayugam with Mammootty in the lead, and Blessy’s magnum opus Aadujeevitham, based on Benyamin’s eponymous bestseller, were some of the other works that caught the attention of cinephiles across India. The comedy Guruvayur Ambalanadayil is also doing well.

Kani Kusruti, Chhaya Kadam, Payal Kapadia and Divya Prabha pose with the Grand Prix Award for All We Imagine As Light at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France.

Kani Kusruti, Chhaya Kadam, Payal Kapadia and Divya Prabha pose with the Grand Prix Award for All We Imagine As Light at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Malayalam-Hindi film, All We Imagine As Light, headlined by Kani Kusruthi and Divya Prabha, made history by winning the Grand Prix award at Cannes. It was the first Indian film to compete in the main competition 30 years after Shaji N Karun’s Swaham.

Thematic diversity

The year did not begin with a bang. It began quietly with Anand Ekarshi’s tightly- scripted Aattam, which went on to become one of the most discussed movies on account of its theme, cast and relatability. On the other hand, Lijo’s Mohanlal-starrer Malaikottai Vaaliban did not create the excitement it was expected at the box office.

From February onwards, however, every month, there were films that inspired cine-goers to go to theatres to watch cinematic magic unfold on the large screen.

The last six months saw films that spanned genres including social issues, horror, thrillers, comedies, rom-coms, and survival stories.

B Unnikrishnan, director and secretary of FEFKA, says, “One of the most important reasons for this resurgence is that that people are once again flocking to theatres to watch films. Post the pandemic, there were doubts if people would  come  to theatres to get lost in the magic of cinema. In spite of OTT releases and premieres on streaming channels, the occupancy of theatres has seen an upsurge,” he explains.

A still from Aattam.

A still from Aattam. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

National award-winning film critic GP Ramachandran believes that thematic diversity and multiple genres targeted at young viewers clicked as the movies narrated stories plucked from real life. “Young viewers are able to identify with the characters and the situations and that is one of the reasons why the films are doing so well. Another reason is the willingness to experiment,” he says.

He adds that Malayalam cinema, even today, is essentially a cottage industry and movies are made on lean budgets and with tight schedules, when compared to Tamil and Telugu cinema. “That helps makers break even more quickly compared to huge, big-budget movies,” he adds.

The spurt in creativity was not only in the storytelling or selection of themes. It was evident in all departments of cinema — music, cinematography and art designs have touched new peaks of creativity.

Nevertheless, Ramachandran says there are several problems that have now been conveniently brushed under the glamour of success. “Corporatisation is a challenge that the Malayalam film industry will have to tackle in the coming days. The tussle between the KFPA and PVR Inox Multiplex has been resolved. There is no guarantee, however should it recur,” he says, referring to the situation when the company had decided to stop screening Malayalam films at its theatres.

The absence or marginalisation of women in many of the hits in 2024 is another issue that he highlights.

Unnikrishnan do not foresee corporatisation as a problem as large producers like Antony Perambavoor have invested in cinema and now own theatres. Unnikrishnan emphasises that cycles of ups and downs are part of the film industry. He says there is no guarantee that the boom will continue over the next six months. “This kind of a boom was seen in the eighties and nineties. It is true that we have not had such a surge during the last two decades. But a sudden dip in fortune is not going to spell the end of Malayalam cinema.”

Prithviraj in Aadujeevitham. 

Prithviraj in Aadujeevitham.  | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

An industry insider says the success rate is only 11%, which means that in a year, if 100 movies are released only 11 will hit it big at the box office. Be that as it may, cinephiles emphasise that the next six months ought to be as exciting as the previous months. Several big projects are in the pipeline  such as Jeethu Joseph’s Ram with Mohanlal in the lead, Vilayat Buddha, headlined by Prithviraj, Mohanlal’s directorial venture, Barroz, Christo Tomy’s new movie Ullozhukku is releasing on June 21 and so on.

Moreover, Onam and Christmas are two festivals that have traditionally been the season for major releases that have gone on to sweep the box office. Cinephiles are hopeful that the good times will keep rolling.

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