A Tale of Three (Malayalam) Movies

A scene early in the movie, Maheshinte Prathikaram, shows the father of the protagonist playing cards with friends looking out into the village square (or kavala). He suddenly zones out much to the consternation of his friends who do not know how to respond. Suddenly, he proclaims, “this world is so beautiful.” His friends are bemused as they look around them to find the source of this inspired thought — the camera pans to a man blowing his nose behind a bus that is belching smoke. That scene in many ways captures the ethos of the movie — finding beauty and absurdity in the small spaces of communal life.

Recently, I was fortunate to watch three outstanding films made in Malayalam and that in many ways represent the return to form of Malayalam movies. The movies are Premam, Maheshinte Prathikaram and Kamaati Paadam. Three very different movies, three very different treatments of three different realities. But all brilliantly directed and acted. And all three movies are worthy inheritors of the Kerala’s proud cinematic traditions.

In the West, references to Indian cinema are usually a reference to Bollywood. And these references are more often than not tongue in cheek, a winking acknowledgment of the song and dance escapism that many believe Indian films to be. But the movies made in India no longer fit this easy characterization — I doubt it ever did. But over the last two decades, cinema in India has grown leaps and bounds with the accelerated globalization of ideas brought forward by the internet and social media. Now a filmmaker, even a mediocre one, is heavily influenced by the styles of film industries from Korea to Italy to Hollywood.

Bollywood and by that I mean the mainstream film industry based in Mumbai which produces movies in Hindi has grown into its own with great confidence in its storytelling abilities even though this confidence sometimes exceeds that talent that tells them. Thankfully, this means that it has grown out of the melodramas of the eighties and nineties. Production values have gone up. And for the current generation, its audience, that has grown up exposed to everything that is produced everywhere in the world, Bollywood has had to make its product easier to swallow and it increasingly produces polished fluff. But fluff it remains as Bollywood continues to be an industry that still sells dreams to the aspirational middle class that watches these movies.

To those more discerning about Indian cinema, Bollywood then is only an afterthought. There have been and still are excellent movies made in several regional industries — most prominently in Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam. Bollywood is not a descriptive that would do justice to the best of any of these industries even as the term Bollywood fails to do justice to the more recent productions from the mainstream Bombay film industry.

The Malayalam film industry has generally walked its own path. In its heydays in the 70s and 80s, it produced arguably India’s best cinema — popular cinema in Kerala in those days was still far more sophisticated than what was produced elsewhere in India. And it was fortunate to have a bevy of actors who would have made any film industry proud. But that proud tradition was forgotten in the nineties after the death of ace directors Bharathan and Padmarajan and despite the best efforts of Sathyan Anthikad and Sibi Malayil, the industry stagnated with melodramatic action movies or cheap comedies. The movies had become unwatchable.

But in recent years, that has changed. Malayalam movies have returned to telling stories well. There has been a bevy of movies like Bangalore Days, Oru Indian Pranayakatha, Drishyam, Munnariyippu among others reminded one of the best of the old days. And a set of young emerging actors, screenwriters and directors have emerged with a new aesthetic. This new aesthetic allows one to enjoy movies uncompromisingly — without having to make any excuses that this is a Malayalam movie and therefore to be a measured against a different (lower) standard. Instead, there is a self-confident story telling of a Malayali society and culture confronting modernity. There is inescapably an element of nostalgia here — and why not because most of the audience that experience mind spinning transformation of the culture and the landscape.

While Bollywood has changed, much of its current productions indulges in the same old tropes while pretending to make fun of it. Or there is an unashamed copying of Western stories and its style and lately of mindless Korean movies. The calculated tongue in cheekiness to indulge in fluff while pretending to better than fluff gets trying after some time. This is where many of the new Malayalam movies, and in particular, these three movies I mentioned differ. These movies tell stories of people, of societies in flux. But they tell them without attempting to manipulate the audience. And they tell them with the self-confidence of a society that does not feel like it should apologize for itself nor does it feel a need to mock other ways of being and cultures. Premam and Maheshinte Prathikaram do this with lightness and humor. Kamaati paadam does it with empathy for those left behind (and often exploited) by rapid change.

Premam is a love story — a coming of age love story of a young man in three stages of his life — a high schooler, as a rebellious college student and finally, as a mature business man. The film captures the three eras with a light touch but captures the ethos of the eighties, nineties and the early 2000s. Nivin Pauly underplays the evolution of the main character to perfection and the three leading ladies play their parts — matching Nivin Pauly in every scene. But Sai Pallavi’s Malar is the scene stealer and this role captured the Malayali heart like Nadia Moidu did in Nokkatha Doorathu Kannum Nattu in the mid-eighties. The movie also slyly turns tables on appropriate gender roles. The young George is a minor stalker of his crush but this stalking pays no dividends (unlike in countless Hindi movies of the eighties where heroes won the heroine’s heart despite behavior that would today be classified as sexual harassment) as the object of his affection sends him packing to be a mere go-between her and her boyfriend.

Kamaati Paadam is a wholly different genre — a serious brooding movie about urbanization and its victims. Kochi has transformed over the last 30 years from a charming backwater town to a bustling, commercial city with high rises, fusion restaurants, and edgy cafes. But this modernization has come with real costs to communities living on the outskirts as a real estate development displaced those living on the edges. This change brought economic opportunities and jobs but also undercut communities and their ways of being. Kamaati Paadam examines this dynamic through the eyes of the Pulaya community — ironically, a word the director claims the censor board did not allow in the movie. Dulquer Salmaan is reliably good in his role but it is the two newcomers who steal the show in the movie — Vinayakan and Manikandan R. Achari. The movie is brilliantly shot and directed as well — and it is another broadside against the ‘fair-skin’ obsessed aesthetics that dominates popular culture in other cinematic and television environments in India.

Of the three, it is Maheshinte Prathikaaram that is my favorite. Unlike both Premam and Kamaathi Paadam, Maheshinte Prathikaram is set in contemporary Kerala. By setting it is the charming hills of Idukki, the movie captures the interaction between modernity and the timeless Syrian Christian communities traditions in a small village. Every scene in the movie unearths authenticity. I recognized every single character — even the minor ones — from my own life. There is an ethereal beauty to every character and the interactions between them — even as the community moves from one minor crisis to another. And as Mahesh, an aimless but good-hearted young man, finds his passion, the audience begins to wonder about the cost of progress that robs these communities of its young as they migrate to the more sterile work environments in the Middle East, Australia or North America.

Excited as I am by these movies and others that are being made (honorable mention to Action Hero Biju, Annayum Rasoolum), I am eager to see these movies take on issues of moral complexity. I was recently watching two Padmarajan classics — Thuvanathumbikal and Nammuku Paarkan Munthiri Thoppukal. While both movies did not have the luxury of a large budget or the latest in production values — even for its time — it tells tales that examine an individual’s moral choices in an uncertain, often amoral world. Both movies question society’s instinctual cruelties with deftly written characters who gently probed the moral values of custom. Moral philosophy from the time of the Greeks has examined the essential tension between what is good and what is ours. Are things that are ours always good? What standards do we use to measure goodness? How do we challenge conventions when what is ours contradicts what is just, virtuous or good? Cinema, like novels, is perfect for examining these tensions and their consequences in society. Bharathan and Padmarajan did this regularly in their movies. This new generation of filmmakers has the aesthetic sense and the talent to tell great stories that hold a mirror to the society that they capture. But now they must ask questions of that society.

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