MALAYALAM CINEMA Columns

There is little silver on the screen

In the face of the burgeoning success of mindless new generation movies on the one hand and the marginalisation of art cinema on the other, good cinema in Kerala is facing a crisis

On March 15, 1991, the iconic Malayalam film director, Govindan Aravindan, passed away at the age of 56, leaving behind a corpus of films that was celebrated both in India and abroad. These films were among the first sprouts of a new spring in Malayalam cinema, ushered in by the film society movement, critical film studies, and the new Malayali graduates from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.

Twenty five years later, in a commemorative event, Aravindan’s films, now restored, were screened in Thiruvananthapuram. They attracted a huge audience that included many people who were not even born when the director was alive. Since Aravindan’s demise, not much has changed for the Malayali viewer. But one thing has changed — and none for the better — and that is the appeal that Malayalam cinema had and the pre-eminence it once enjoyed.

For instance, back in those days, the national awards for the best feature films were shared by Malayalam and Bengali movies, with an odd Kannada or Hindi film thrown in. Malayalam movies were regularly featured at international film festivals, and directors like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan grew in stature overseas.

The year of Aravindan’s death was when the Soviet Union collapsed and it is a fitting time to begin looking at what happened to Malayalam cinema since. The leftist ideology was a dominating force in the Malayalis’ mind; hence the sudden emptiness of the Cold War rhetoric left many stranded. Aravindan’s last movie, Vasthuhara, was shot in Kolkata (then Calcutta), with the camera lingering long on the familiar graffiti of hammer and sickle, reassuring the Kerala leftists that there is another thriving red bastion in the east. But that was months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Adoor, the event posed a creative challenge because much of his oeuvre revolved around critiquing the Communist Party, like the movie Mukhamukham, and he took time to recover when he found that the menace from the red corner had suddenly crumbled into a heap.

Birth of art films

The ‘art’ film movement was started in Kerala by the coming together of a group of pioneers such as Adoor and K.P. Kumaran to launch the Chitralekha Film Society. Adoor’s movie Swayamvaram, produced by the Society, set the trend: it resulted in Malayalam movies grabbing attention nationally and, often, internationally. Apart from Adoor, K.P. Kumaran and G. Aravindan, John Abraham, Pavithran, K.R. Mohanan, T.V. Chandran, Shaji N. Karun and others made films that were different from the usual. However, barring a few, all of them bombed at the box office. In this case, how was the money going to be regained, or, more importantly, where was the money going to even come from for the making of these films? Some producers such as ‘General Pictures’ Ravindran Nair bankrolled some of these films. Some money came from loans from the National Film Development Corporation; in most cases, they turned bad.The maverick filmmaker, John Abraham, crowdfunded one of his movies, much before the word was even coined.

Slowly a viable finance model emerged for the art films: win a national award and, as per rules in those days, get a premiere on Doordarshan. That would recoup the cost. Even if the film did not win top honours, a non-premiere Doordarshan telecast substantially helped. Also in those days, Doordarshan directly made films — Aravindan’s Marattam, for instance.

This narrative was disrupted in 1991. The then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh’s budget that year unleashed a series of events that eventually saw the eclipse of Doordarshan and the arrival of TRP-driven private channels. Most filmmakers could not organise funds, so they either turned to commercial cinema, albeit unsuccessfully, or stopped making films altogether.

Before this, in the 1980s, commercial Malayalam cinema was also undergoing a crisis. Two stars, Mammootty and Mohanlal, who carried the industry mostly on their shoulders for the best part of the next decade and a half, nursed it back to health. The early 1990s also saw the Babri Masjid demolition. Slowly, the theme of Hindutva crept into films. Mohanlal got typecast in many movies as an upper-caste feudal hero, often sporting a vermillion mark on his forehead.

Back in 1991, Adoor and Aravindan often used old Arriflex cameras belonging to the state-owned Chitranjali studio and waited for raw stock to arrive from Chennai. The last 25 years have seen a giant leap in the technology of filmmaking, through digitisation. Filmmaking has become less expensive and should have, logically, let the dreams of many young filmmakers become reality. This did happen, but not with the best of results. With ageing and mindless reiteration of successful roles, the era of Mammooty and Mohanlal is coming to an end. And young filmmakers are jumping into the void that is being created as a result. Some of them have learned their craft by making cheap, short digital movies and uploading them on YouTube. With new technology and vocabulary, they have woven a tangled web, well-practised to deceive. The Malayali viewers welcomed these films, only to feel cheated later.

A double whammy

Earlier filmmakers like Aravindan or Adoor looked to great works in Malayalam literature for their movies; now filmmakers dig into Korean or Serbian films to come up with their fare. In fact, there is even a comedy film on this kind of filmmaking — Oru Korean Padam!

Where have the good Malayalam movies gone? Will we get to see a movie like Ship of Theseus or Court in Malayalam? Where has the fire that was there in the young men who got together on a hot July afternoon in 1965 to form Chitralekha Film Society gone? The answers to these questions are complex, but in a nutshell we can simply say that times have changed.

Malayalam films like Adaminte Makan Abu or Kutty Srank still win the national award, but they get little or no theatrical exposure. The cartel of Malayalam satellite TV channels has decided not to show any movie that is not a theatrical success. Thus it is a double whammy. Caught in this bind are some young directors who have made noteworthy films — Rajeev Ravi, Vipin Vijay, Sudevan, P.S. Manu, Shanavas Naranippuzha and Sanalkumar Sasidharan.

In the face of the burgeoning success of mindless new generation movies on the one hand and the marginalisation of art cinema on the other, good cinema in Kerala is, without doubt, facing a crisis. A way out could be better harvest of rapidly changing technology. What Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf said — ‘hold the camera like a pen…make personal cinema’ — could be the way out. She said this in the right place in 2008, in Thiruvanthapuram.

N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning Malayalam writer

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 7:57:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/there-is-little-silver-on-the-screen/article8423515.ece

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