The year 1988. Sapphire theatre, Mount Road, Madras. A Malayalam film celebrates 100 days.

The theatre is long gone now, though the lot is empty as nothing has come up in its place. Back in the day it was the place for the select Malayalam movies that released in Madras a week or so after opening in Kerala. Sapphire was where I saw my first Malayalam film Chithram, (“Picture”). Without subtitles, I had to tune in my 13-year-old brain to catch the Tamil-sounding words to get the story but the comedy, the music and the acting was so contemporary that it caught my pre-teen fancy. After being introduced to further Malayalam films starring Mammotty and Mohanal like  Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (“A CBI Diary Entry”), Varavelpu (“Welcome”), Mithunam, (a month in the Malayalam calendar), His Highness Abdullah and New Delhi on big screens, I used to go to the lone video parlour renting Malayalam films in our locality to watch the earlier films with the by-now familiar actors. And in a Malayalam film the director also stayed in my mind.

Two examples are Padmarajan’s Namakku Paarkkaan Munthirithoppugal (“Vineyards for us to dwell in”), Thoovaanathumbikal (“Dragonflies in the Drizzle”), etc. Each was like reading a new book. Characters spoke in realistic tones, the story had no over-the-top moment, the drama unfolded as it might do in real life, the actors “behaved” more and acted less and the added attraction was the music—Ilayaraja who had by then waltzed into Tamil and Telugu, also scored for most of the Malayalam films starring Mohanlal. A few years later, when I had developed a greater interest in cinema as a medium, I went back to check on the pre-’80s, black-and-white films in Malayalam, where a Tamil actor, Kamal Haasan, had ruled the roost for over 30 films.

The ’90s saw more commercial films, which fitted into a formula, but the narrative stream was still as strong and the directors who debuted in the ’80s held forth. It’s been a while since the ’80s began so there’s been a new wave of directors coming in over the last five to seven years. In the last year alone, the industry has churned out superstar fare and fresh narratives with one- or two-film-old directors who have taken the box-office by storm. The difference between then and now lies in the release pattern. Malayalam films now are released simultaneously across multiple screens in India, and this has turned around the revenue stream 360 degrees for its makers. The industry is seeing a golden run.

Top of the pile is still Mohanlal, who after close to 40 years of domination has broken new records with Pulimurugan (“Tiger Man”), Oppam (“Together”) and Munthirivalligal Thalirkkumbol (“When the grapevines sprout”) which crossed the Rs 100-crore and Rs 50-crore markers respectively, the first set of Malayalam films with the actor to enter the 100-crore and 50-crore clubs and be sure of a minimum guaranteed business number of Rs 40-crore plus on any film he signs. Add to this the small budget entries which made up more than 50 per cent of their cost within two weeks of release in addition to the critical acclaim that has been a Malayalam staple for over two decades. From national to state awards, cinema from Kerala has tremendous “award value”, like the cinema of Bengal, but unlike Bengal, Malayalam films today reach a bigger audience.


A poster of Angamaly Diaries

The number of releases in a month crosses a dozen. Yet almost more than half manage to do well, not just in Kerala, but in Tamil Nadu (as a direct Malayalam release across multiplexes and single screens in B-towns), Andhra Pradesh (dubbed version) and in the overseas markets, beginning with Dubai and the Middle East and moving on to the United States and Australia respectively. While technology, locales and new acting talent have improved the standard of filmmaking, one thing remains constant. The reason for the success of films from Kerala is the same then as it is now. It can be pinned down to one phrase, which has been the mantra of Malayalam cinema since the late ’70s: Good Cinema.

I had never seen a Malayalam film before the Priyadarshan–Mohanlal starrer ChithramChemmeen was the sole exception with its LP record which used to play Salil Choudhary’s lilting tunes in K. J. Yesudas’s voice in our drawing room. Prem Nazir was known more because he was in the Guiness Book of World Records for having acted in the maximum number of films. A personal connection with stories from Kerala stopped with watching the grim Thulabharam. I thought nobody laughed in Kerala, because the films that played on Sundays on Doordarshan had a sad violin or flute-based note and the men and women walked like they had all day to go from one end of the house to the other. And, of course, the women in most ’60s and ’70s Malayalam films wore a mundu, rather odd for a Tamil like me to identify with.

I had heard about Kerala’s literacy rate and its matriarchal society but I had never been to the state nor had any Malayali friends in school to comprehend what would later be termed the bliss of being in or experiencing the goodness of God’s Own Country. Chithram broke this perception in my impressionable mind. The ’80s was an era where art and commerce mingled happily for Malayalam cinema. Slow songs, lovelorn men and glum women no longer called the shots. A fresh energy took over the ’80s and ’90s, with movies from all genres making their mark.


 A poster of No. 20 Madras Mail

“They were pioneers then—if we had Adoor Gopalakrishnan, K.G. George, Padmarajan, Bharathan and Shaji Karun on one side, we also had I.V. Sasi, Joshy, Priyadarshan, Sibi Malayayil, Sathyan Anthikad, Kamal and Fazil on the other, and many more original writers and directors who made way for modern story-telling as we know it now,” according to the three young new wave filmmakers of 2017 with whom I spoke—Lijo Jose Pellissery, Mahesh Naryanan and Dileesh Pothen.

The three have seen a dream run with super-hit successes beyond Kerala’s borders. Lijo Jose’s Angamaly Diaries, Mahesh’s Take Off and Dileesh’s Thondimudhalum Driksakshiyum (“Stolen Goods and eyewitness”) have combined craft and narrative in a delectable mix. And they seem to have each other’s back like batch-mates would, in the race for the “best film of 2017”.

For the last five years, which includes the Drishyam (“Visual”) and Premam (“Love”) success stories, both from first and second-time directors Jeethu Joseph and Alphonse Puthran, respectively, the cinema from Kerala making waves now is like the cinema of the ’80s, when a group of noir writers and young directors came along with themes and stories that were a slice of life. The films straddled macho, romantic comedies with Mohanlal and serious detective work with Mammotty. These two stars became the benchmark for acting and the sheer variety of roles they attempted in one year was proof of the kind of films made in Malayalam then. It was proof of the range of directors and writers who were busy doing what they knew best.

These films were remade with Tamil heroes, too, and the remakes became successes as well—e.g: Mammotty’s Avanazhi was made as Kadamai Ganniyam Kattupaadu and Mohanlal’s Rajavinte Makan was remade as Makkal Enn Pakkam. Both remakes starred Satyaraj. Malayalam directors made movies directly in Tamil also–Fazil remade Poove Poochoodavaa from his own Malayalam original and gave Tamil cinema a new heroine for the ’80s in Nadhiya Moidu. The breezy romances, laugh-a-minute musical comedies combined with a solid story, where the common man was a hero who overcame his daily challenges with soulful wit and empathy became a trademark of Malayalam cinema in the ’80s.

Padmarajan and Bharathan paved the way for films that showed both sensitive, bold and volatile men and women. The box-office had no problem with such narratives, which provided a platform to showcase the talent and quality of superstars Mammotty and Mohanlal, who in the ’90s expanded their horizon and worked in Tamil films (Thalapathy and Iruvar both directed by Mani Ratnam) and thus created a market for their Malayalam films in centres beyond Madras.

We see a similar surge today when an actor like Fahadh Fazil stars in Take Off and Thondimudhalum... and is a strong contender for roles in Tamil as well. He is currently acting in three Tamil films, one of them said to be a Mani Ratnam venture.

Lijo Jose was a familiar name for me before I went in to see Angamaly Diaries in Chennai. His debut film Amen was an impressive musical with Fahadh in the lead, with equally impressive camera work and music-based editing. Amen was edited as a rhythmic flow of events set to a sound I had not heard before in Malayalam. Angamaly Diaries adds street gang wars to this heady mix and the result is an eclectic City of God meets Scarface meets Love Story. The story of the film is told in a stream of incidents from the time the lead characters were children to what happens when they grow up and become the “youth of Angamaly”, a township near Kochi famous for its pork business. Location as a character plays well in this film. There are no staccato wide angles that cut to close-ups. Instead, the camera follows each incident like it was already there waiting to catch the characters in action.

“The 11.2-minute climax was like a pinnacle—we had to shoot it that way because most of the film was shot in one long flow of events,” says Lijo, who took Chemban Vinod Jose’s script and turned it into a cinematic tapestry.

“I take somebody else’s script when I know what’s in there is better than what I have. Chemban had Angamaly worked out in so many details as he hails from there and we decided we will use local actors, the 80-odd newcomers happened after careful auditions,” adds Lijo.  The film earned more than Rs 15 crore within two months of release; the budget was Rs 2.5 crore.

Was the climax planned as a single-shot just for effect or was it part of the larger picture, where most of the important events or turning points like, say, the interval block or the Do Naina song all play out as single-shot scenes?

“We planned the important scenes as single-shots—only when something looks tough do I feel compelled to go ahead and do what we have not done before. I’m determined to get what I imagined for my shot. We work really hard on our creations and are willing to go to any lengths to get that shot exactly the way it was imagined.

“We rehearsed the camera movements for the single-shot climax with the actors first. We fixed their positions; the entries and exits were marked but day one of the shoot was total chaos as the crowd would keep looking at the lens each time the camera moved. It took a lot of instructions to get them to just do what they were supposed to do. We wanted to push the boundaries given the fact that we don’t have too much time or money to waste.”

Lengthy shots seem to be the fancy of Dileesh Pothen, too. In his narrative of an almost Aesop’s Fable-like film, Thondimudhalum... has a sequence where a constable and a convict are seen together, with the convict drawing water from the well and conversing with the cop without a break, right through the stretch that leads from the well to the police station, which has a road in between and the two of them pause to let a vehicle pass before they continue with their banter.

The conversation is one of the many lengthy single-shots in the film and it reveals many details about the police station, the nature of the cops, the convict’s easy solution to escape the women in his house, the background festival ambience, etc. All of that comes back to play a huge part in the narrative once the lead characters step into the station.

The story of a petty thief with a never-say-die attitude and a simpleton couple who have entered the small town of Kasargod in north Kerala to set up a new life is a superlative blend of film-making and storytelling. Like Lijo, Dileesh is not the writer. “The basic idea for this story came from Sajiv Pazhoor, who wrote it as a screenplay with Shyam Pushkar, who also wrote the dialogues, the script came tightly together after we started shoot”, says Dileesh. His first film Maheshinte Prathikaram (“Mahesh’s Revenge”) earned much critical acclaim and was a hit.

“I chose Fahadh for Thondimudhalum... as well because you can take him and put him in any place, within Kerala or outside it and he will be convincing. Casting ace comedian Suraj Venjamoodu in a serious role like this was another decision we took as we felt he would do justice to the desperate nature of the simpleton character.

“Suraj was supposed to play the thief initially, which Fahadh ended up playing, but in rehearsals we felt the two actors suited their current respective roles best. And the policemen in the film are all real cops,” says Dileesh.

“We would discuss the scenes well in advance, and Rajeev Ravi (whose directorial ventures like Annaiyum Rasoolum and Kammaattipadam are acclaimed hits) would set up the lights when the actors would go into change costumes. We shot the film as per the script, progressing from one scene to another, so the characters also got a grip on their graph... it was like waking up to each of the people from our script every day and following their activities, what they did, what they spoke, how they reacted to every turn of events, and we just captured that on camera.”

Slightly different from the above two films but equally strong in the character-led emotional scenes is Take Off, hailed as one of the strongest female-centric films to make its mark.

Take Off was planned with a female protagonist in mind as it depicts a true set of events which happened as recently as 2014 and we also had to hook the audience into identifying with her,” says Mahesh Narayanan whose saga of 40 nurses rescued and brought back to India from the Iraq border where they were held captive by ISIS, has made it as best film of the three contenders in my twitter poll conducted recently.

“A film where the heroine has a son and then gets a divorce as her in-laws don’t agree to her working after marriage as she lends a hand to her father and then finds love again and remarries her colleague was the initial premise.

“It was a chance newspaper report on the 2014 rescue of the nurses from Kerala that made me think of her as a nurse. The film has all the ingredients for a high-pitched rescue drama in the second half but not before we entrenched Sameera, played to perfection by Parvathy Menon, in the audience’s hearts. Our actors in Malayalam are always equipped for challenging roles–Parvathy transformed into a nurse on duty for every single day of the shoot.

Take Off is an expensive film for a non-superstar led cast and we shot the outdoor in Ras-al-Khaima as it is close in terrain to Baghdad. But we finished the shoot a day ahead of plan and since I was editing the film (Mahesh edited Vishwaroopam) I knew we were only shooting an ‘edited script’. Controlling the budget, I knew we had a winner on our hands but the extent of acceptance has been overwhelming.”

While Malayalam cinema churns out superhits for its existing heroes, these three films are like a lesson in getting the master ingredient right for a film to become successful, the script. For all three films they were developed by multiple minds over a period of time.

“I take suggestions from everyone who’s there on shoot but I also decide beforehand what I must have and what we can alternate with,” says Dileesh, whose film has an easy humour that can’t be pinned down to a joke here and a bit of slapstick there.

All three films have a screenplay order that is both non-linear and linear, but the story unfolds like petals of a flower in bloom and not in-your-face melodrama. “I work on the music pattern, the sounds to use in a particular scene or just where the scene should finish, ahead of the shooting with Prashanth Pillai, who has a hard drive in my name in his studio,” says Lijo, whose film boasts the best music album of the year.

“We had two music directors—one for songs and one for the background score, so we could get the soul of the film right,” says Mahesh, whose post-production experience speaks of a packaging finesse in Take Off, his debut as a director. Take Off has lots of real-life scenarios recreated to bring into light the plight of nurses who go to the Middle East to pay off nursing college loans. Even during war-time their prime concern is to be able to take back a sizeable amount for their families.

The real deal is what these three films give us when we sit down to watch. Stripped bare of frills yet retaining the cinematic gloss of camera, music and editing, the stories and screenplays make you forget there’s no superstar in action. Fahadh, Suraj, Parvathy, Antony Verghese and other upcoming actors shine in their roles, with Fahadh the sole “known” face across the Kerala border, as the breezy Bangalore Days was such a smash hit earlier.

Parvathy’s choice of films easily makes her one of the best actors in the south with Ennu Ninnte Moideen and Charlie getting both critical acclaim and setting box-office records for its lead actors Prithviraj and Dulquer Salman respectively in the last three years. She is what Manju Warrier was in the ’90s.

The trick is to keep an eye on the budget, so we know we don’t overspend on the film—the key thing is to convince good actors on the story you wish to tell.

“It is very hard to sell a film where the hero is a woman,” says Mahesh who’s determined to make movies with strong women from everyday life.

“The trick is to keep an eye on the budget, so we know we don’t overspend on the film—the key thing is to convince good actors on the story you wish to tell,” says Dileesh, who is acting in Lijo Jose’s upcoming film, which again does not boast of a superstar cast. The strength of the film lies in the writer-director and technicians team.

“It’s just a matter of getting the basics right—clarity is what we must have, we must know what we don’t want to show,” says Lijo.

The key element that makes Malayalam films of today connect with a multi-lingual audience is also its subtitles. Vivek Ranjit is the go-to subtitle expert, whose work in translating Malayalam adds to the understanding of the context of the scene, especially when films from Kerala are set in their native ambience. Angamaly, Kasargod and the Middle East are all Kerala forts, and one wonders if ever these remarkable films will find its way to a remake in another language.

“If you can find a town where the pork business is a hot trade, then yes,” says Lijo of Angamaly.

“The police station in Kasargod will translate into one such station in some small town say in Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu—and the scene where Suraj chases Fahadh over hillocks and ditches may have to be replaced with some local topography, but the characters and emotions will connect in any language,” says Dileesh.

Take Off is a universal story. It can be made in Hindi also, as the problem was handled by the Government of India. There are so many theories floating around as to why the crisis was solved, we have taken one such theory and made a fictional film out of it. But the characters are based on real people who went through the crisis, hence the story will connect in its remake too,” says Mahesh.

As a non-Malayali, it is strange to think that my favourite films of the last eight months are these three from Malayalam cinema. Championing the cause of good content above a glittering star-cast, labouring over the screenplay and maintaining the budget so the producers also benefit, seems to have worked wonders for this segment of the film industry. There is no disparity in release patterns and if the word-of-mouth is good, then the number of theatres gets added to—as was the case with all three films, which saw an increase in theatres with each weekend. It’s the season for celebrating directors who have new ideas and a new approach in Malayalam. A 100-crore box-office number no doubt needs a superstar, but an equally grand success is a director-led film that makes more than 50 per cent of its cost within the first week of release.

When the competition is between the very best, the audience gets a range that is hard to resist.

Correction: This article has been corrected to show that Sapphire theatre has been torn down, rather than being merely closed.