Goodbye to the superstar era

A slew of films made by youngsters, influenced by global trends but rooted in the local landscape, has rejuvenated Malayalam cinema, says C.S. Venkiteswaran.

Published - April 13, 2013 03:51 pm IST

Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic begins with a road accident that leads to a series of incidents crisscrossing the lives of people from different social strata and outlook.

Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic begins with a road accident that leads to a series of incidents crisscrossing the lives of people from different social strata and outlook.

In the last few years, Malayalam cinema has witnessed an efflorescence of sorts. There is a sudden spurt in film production, which jumped from an average of 50-60 films a year to more than 120 last year. Only during the 1980s, which was one of the most vibrant periods of Malayalam film industry, did the industry scale such figures. But in contrast to the 1980s, which also saw a rise in the number of theatres, the State today has only around 700 theatres compared to 2,100 two decades ago. Despite that, a lot of positive things mark this new resurgence. Most important is the entry of a new set of talent in direction, acting, cinematography, editing, scripting and music, ready to experiment with new forms and formats, and has definitively replaced the old faces in Malayalam cinema. This, in turn, has brought the “family audience” back to the theatres.

In the last decades, Malayalam cinema was in a sort of limbo, with the local market being increasingly dominated by Tamil and Hindi films; go to any town in the State, and you will find films from these languages outnumbering Malayalam in “Today’s Cinema” column. The rates commanded by Tamil films for their distribution rights in Kerala was more or on a par with films starring Mammootty and Mohanlal. Local viewing community and even industry representatives were all praise for the market savvyness, thematic innovation and technical brilliance of Tamil films. The enthusiastic reception of the local youth gave a further fillip to this thirst for thematic variety and technical glitz. Only a handful of Malayalam films could break even at the box office, and the industry became solely dependent upon television rights to survive. The various film industry organisations raised a hue and cry, asking for “protection” and “reservation” for local films in the form of subsidies and control over release of other language films. The stranglehold of superstars that was stifling any new experimentation, complemented by the autocratic control of industry organisations over all areas of the industry that led to the ban of talented actors like Thilakan and certain directors, was pushing the industry to the wall.

It was into such bleak settings that a slew of films made by youngsters burst in. While their formats and styles are deeply influenced by the global and national trends, their thematics were firmly rooted in Malayali life and mindscape. Films like Traffic (Rajesh Pillai), Chappa Kurishu (Sameer Thahir, Salt n Pepper , 22 Female Kottayam (Aashiq Abu), Cocktail , Ee Adutha Kalath (Arun Kumar Arvind), Ustad Hotel (Anwar Rasheed), Thattathin Marayathu (Vineeth Sreenivasan), Friday (Lijin Jose), Annayum Rasoolum (Rajeev Ravi), Beautiful , Trivandrum Lodge (V.K. Prakash) came as a breath of fresh air in Malayalam cinema. They bore a new look and feel that was different from the jaded patterns that the superstar narratives followed. This trend has its parallels in the “art” category also with films like Chitrasoothram (Vipin Vijay) Akam (Shalini Nair), Adaminte Makan Abu (Salim Ahmed), Aadimadhyantham (Sherry), T.D. Dasan Std. VI B (Mohan Raghavan), Melvilasam (Madhav Ramdas), Chayilyam (Manoj Kana) and Papillo Buddha (Jayan Cherian).

These films reinvented the local market, and gave a new sense of confidence to upcoming filmmakers and the industry as a whole. For one, they were able to break the shackles imposed by the superstars over the industry, by bringing in an array of young talents like Fahad Fazil, Dulqar Salman, Murali Gopi, Nivin Pauly, Asif Ali, Rima Kallingal, Anne Augustine, Remya Nambeesan, Maithili, Honey Rose etc who vibed well with the local audience and were ready to travel the extra mile. These directors creatively used new faces to do away with clichéd themes centred around aging superstars, and to uproot the upper caste/class-middle class Valluvanadan lingo that was threatening to become the mother tongue of Malayalam cinema, along with the stagnant and status quoist milieus associated with it. In the process, they did away with linear narratives their predecessors were imprisoned in. Cinematographers like Jomon T. John, Shyju Khalid, Pradeep Nair, Madhu Neelakantan, Shehnad Jalal and Amal Neerad, and editors like Don Max, Vivek Harshan, Ajitkumar and Mahesh Narayan gave their films a slick contemporariness.

This trend, variously described as a “new wave” “newgen” and “multiplex” films, do share and sometimes celebrate certain common features: they shun superstars, work with moderate budgets and new faces, and experiment with ensemble cast and non linear narratives. A recurrent trope in these narratives is accidents, coincidences, casual encounters and chance meetings that set in motion an unexpected chain of events affecting the lives of the characters drifting in the urban flotsam.

For instance, Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic begins with a road accident that leads to a series of incidents crisscrossing the lives of people from different social strata and outlook. In Samir Thahir’s Chappa Kurishu , a lost and found mobile phone results in a life and death conflict between an ambitious young urban real estate executive and a poor supermarket employee.

In Lijin Jose’s Friday, it is around a lost purse and a boat accident that the events of a fateful day unfold. Looked at from that perspective, these narratives reflect the unpredictability and chaos of global financial capitalism that our lives are mired in.

Unlike earlier, a conventional macho figure or superman does not occupy the centre of these narratives. Even a cursory survey of the male characters will substantiate this point. In Traffic , we have a corrupt policeman, a film star with an inflated ego, and a very hesitant police commissioner who needs to be prodded to take up a rescue mission; in Chappa Kurishu, one protagonist is rendered almost castrated and helpless by the loss of his mobile, and his opponent too is equally helpless.

In Ee Adutha Kalathu , the talented but poor artist is at the mercy of the woman whom he saves, whose husband is impotent.

In Salt n Pepper , the middle-aged archaeologist is not very confident in his encounters with women, and in Beautiful , the protagonist is totally immobile and bedridden; in 22 Female Kottayam , the hero is actually bobbitised at the end.

Obviously these are not male heroes in the conventional sense of the term who are in or will eventually take control of things; they are neither the tragic heroes ready to sacrifice their lives for some ideals nor romantic macho heroes. Another interesting aspect is their almost unanimous celebration of their “post-ness”. Interestingly, these films are replete with visual and verbal references to the aging super stars and past films, sometimes with respect and nostalgia, other times in fun or acerbic sarcasm.

This evacuation of the space of the male hero and his castration can be read in conjunction with the changing character of malayalee middleclass life and also the vacuum within Malayalam film industry. These obsessive textual and visual references to the superstars in a way indicate that even while these films celebrate and proclaim the end of the super star era, the latter haunt these narratives as absence or vital lack. This erosion of masculinity and obsession with castration goes in tandem with other erosions happening in the lives and political economy in the post-liberalisation era in Kerala, that is marked by an overwhelming sense of vacuity at the centre, lack of order, and never-ending anxieties triggered by the vagaries of a speculative economy revolving around global finance capital IT jobs, real estate and stock market. These factors also had their toll upon the position of the male within the family and society, with its resonances in the economic and political realms in the form of the loss of credibility/legitimacy of the state and political parties. Within the family, these narratives portray women getting “out of control”, breaking out of the male order, and the bounds of marriage in search of freedom and agency.

These “post-superstar” narratives made by the post-globalisation generation of filmmakers portray the conflicts and ruptures in contemporary Malayalee society. In these narratives, one can see a “regional” or “regionalised” culture struggling to negotiate its space within a highly globalised environment and briskly globalising media economy. Culturally, they relate to thematics and regional identity, and at the economic/industrial level, it is a struggle for market space and survival.

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