Reel Onams

Director Priyadarsan  

As Kerala moves into festival mode, the celebrations spill over into theatres. For years now, this has been the season when stars are made and destroyed in the many theatres all across the state. The marquee has been the arena where directors and superstars confront each other in the battle to reign over the box office.

Some of Malayalam cinema’s cult classics have been released during this season and Onam itself has inspired many a filmmaker to give it their best shot. A few of Malayalam cinema’s top directors talk to MetroPlus about Onam at the movies...


My parents were always reluctant to give me money to see films. That privilege was for Onam. I used to watch all the Prem Nazir movies that were earmarked for Onam. With that money, we would jostle and push to get a ticket to see the Onam release. I remember how precious that ticket was. In the melee, my sweat-soaked shirt would get torn and yet all that would be forgotten once I got into the theatre.

One such flick was Nellu, released in 1974. Many years later, I was at Shakti theatre in Thiruvananthapuram. My movie Aryan (1988), a Mohanlal-starrer was releasing that day. I stood in the theatre and watched the crowds rushing in for a first-day show. I saw the mad stampede to get a ticket. For a few moments, time blurred. I felt I was in that crowd, pushing and getting pushed around, for a ticket. It was a curious mix of emotions that I felt - pride, happiness, sadness... tears filled my eyes.

Since then many of my blockbuster movies were released during Onam. The charm of a festival release has never faded. And this year, my offering is Oppam, again starring Mohanlal in the lead.


I have had several Onam releases but one of the most memorable ones is Thalayanamantram. There are several reasons for that. I had planned a Mohanlal movie, written by Sreenivasan that year. The theatres were booked and we were all set when Mohanlal asked us if we could postpone the dates as he was acting in Indrajalam. Since we had promised the producers an Onam flick, we were in a fix. Only Mohanlal can do a film that was planned for him. There is no substitute for him. So the question of making the film with another actor did not arise at all.

In the meantime, Sreenivasan and I were discussing our predicament during a meeting in Guruvayur when he suggested a film on an envious woman’s frailties, her weakness for ostentatious things, petty one-upmanship and so on. Both of us knew the person he was talking about. We felt we had a workable story and that was how the script was written. There were no stars in the film. And we managed to complete the film for an Onam release.

It was a star-studded Onam. There were two Mammotty films, two Mohanlal films, including Indrajalam, Kamal’s Shuba Yatra and our Thalayanamantram. The initial response was quite lukewarm and theatres wanted me to do some editing. But I told them that I had complete faith in the film. All the films released that time did well but Thalayanamantram became the biggest grosser at the box office. That movie remains a landmark because it convinced me that the story is bigger than actors. It was after that film that I went on to do Sandesham, Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu and so on. None of these films had a star but only excellent actors. Moreover, this film showcased the range of a superb actor like Urvashi.


I can’t recall any specific Onam movie, for I used to watch all the releases. But I remember how I always used to stand in queue in local theatres in Ernakulam for hours on end, jostling with other film buffs for tickets.

This Onam is extra special because my second film, Oru Muthassi Gadha, will be releasing next week. It’s a purely family movie – the story of a father, mother, children and grandparents – and I was determined that it should be released at that time of the year when family and community come together in celebration. I’m not too worried about going up against the biggies because I have faith in my film and in the Malayali audience, who are always ready to carry a good film on their discerning shoulders. The only blight in the horizon is that because of all the big releases, my film has not got enough theatres but I’m sure things will pick up once the audience takes it to their hearts.


Summer in Bethlehem (1998) is the only film of mine released during Onam. It was released with Fazil’s Harikrishnans. If Fazil’s film had Mammootty and Mohanlal, my film had Suresh Gopi, Jayaram and Manju Warrier. Mohanlal’s guest appearance was kept in wraps before the release. Both the films did extremely well. Summer in Bethlehem was different from the films I had directed before that. There was a lot of fun and colour. It was shot in locations of beautiful Ooty.

The songs that were released before the film were a huge hit, all of them. In fact, this success helped the film a great deal. We had a big audio launch at the Regional Sports Centre, Kochi, where all the singers performed ‘live’ along with choreographed dances. The function was open to public and that event left a huge impact. The songs by Girish Puthencheri and Vidyasagar are still popular. Summer in Bethlehem is a film that the audience still holds close to their hearts. Even today people ask me about the mysterious girl who gifts kittens to Ravishankar (Jayaram).

My reply to them is that Ranjith, who has written the story, has not revealed this secret to me. The film, as you would remember, ends without revealing the identity of this character. As the train leaves the station a hand stretches out with a kitten and a message that teases Jayaram to follow and find out who she is. Ranjith and I did hold discussions about a second version of the film hinging on the mysterious girl and the kittens. But somehow it did not work out.


For the Malayali audience, these days, every day is Onam. Our viewing of cinemas is not celebration-oriented, rather, viewing is the celebration for us. As a director I am rather wary of releasing a film during Onam, mainly because my films are comparatively small and it’s futile to go up against the big guns that make up our Onam movies. You don’t even get a good number of theatres. That’s why I released Marubhumiyile Aana a month in advance. When I think of Onam at the movies, though, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Onam scene in Bharathan’s Pranamam. It unfolds through the song ‘Kadalilaki karayodu cholli,’ in which Mammootty, Ashokan, Vineeth and a few others go to Suhasini’s house to celebrate a traditional Onam, following which is the film’s climax. The song is by Ouseppachan, with lyrics by Girish Puthencheri. In fact, those Onam scenes were the inspiration for my first ever ad film – an Onam ad for Titan watches. I even got Ouseppachan and Girish to work on the ad.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 11:10:10 PM |

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