In a welcome trend, Malayalam cinema harks back to the 80s

2024 is like the 80s redone for Malayalam cinema, where newer markets and newer trends are being added to the oeuvre.

BySujatha Narayanan

Published May 19, 2024 | 10:00 AMUpdatedMay 19, 2024 | 1:20 PM

Malayalam cinema harks back to the 1980s

The recent success spell from the Malayalam film industry has set new benchmarks across the globe for movies from the South as well.

The numbers running into several crores are huge for Malayalam, considering these films are made at moderate budgets (not all and not always so) and they are on par for the course that the cinema from the South is at today.

But Malayalam movies hitting it out of the park is neither a recent phenomenon nor is it some “emerging trend” that’s a year old.

2023 was certainly the year of Malayalam superstar Mammootty, who gave us Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (2022), Kaathal–The Core (2023), and Kannur Squad (2023).

This boom of Malayalam cinema running to packed halls in a state other than Kerala (say Tamil Nadu) was an early 1980s phenomenon (barring the old Chemmeen in the 60s).

Malayalam cinema & the magical 80s

Mammootty in New Delhi

Mammootty in ‘New Delhi’. (X)

The 80s was the OG era—where like in Tamil—Malayalam cinema saw a surge in new-age writers and directors, much like how it is now.

Malayalam cinema always had an audience in Tamil Nadu, post-80s. But it has taken them a quarter of the millennium to cross borders into Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi cities.

However, they’re yet to find a base on screens in tier-two towns of those states but you’d have to take my word for it when I say I saw a saree store in Vijayawada advertise its new collection to the tune of a song from the recent blockbuster—Aavesham (2024). So, they’re getting there surely and soon-ly!

Malayalam cinema broke new ground in the 80s because two emerging superstars did the kind of stories they did; they worked with path-breaking filmmakers and did roles that other superstars from other languages would not do then.

Mammootty and Mohanlal were the “brand ambassadors” of Malayalam cinema—then and now. It was an era when only one theatre in Chennai would screen Malayalam movies.

Other language films also had an appeal in Tamil Nadu because Ilaiyaraaja was the music director and the audio sold well before the film entered the market.

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Mollywood post-Chithram

Mohanlal in Pulimurugan

Mohanlal in ‘Pulimurugan’. (X)

Let’s focus on the specific year 1988.

Priyadarshan’s Chithram (that made us all look forward to a spell of successes of the hit combo of Mohanlal-Priyadarshan-Sreenivasan) broke all box office records with its release in Coimbatore. And then, the film came to the now-defunct Safire Theatre on Mount Road, Chennai.

It was one of those films that ran in all of Tamil Nadu to full shows and increased the number of screens for a Malayalam movie from one to many.

Since then all Mohanlal films have been released in key areas in Tamil Nadu, including the tier-two towns.

One year before Chithram, Mammootty’s serious political saga, New Delhi (1987), was also released to a great response in Tamil Nadu.

He followed his success run with his impeccable portrayals in Oru CBI Diary Kurippu in 1988 and Iyer The Great in 1990.

By the early 90s, all of us cinephiles, in Tamil Nadu had become fans of one or both of these two actors and would know the names of the most happening filmmakers and writers of Malayalam cinema (like it is now) via the star face on those films.

When Mani Ratnam cast Mammootty in Thalapathy (1991) and Mohanlal in Iruvar (1997), Malayalam cinema had touched a stardom that laid the foundation for its cinema to be seen and heard outside of Kerala for posterity.

The crossover

Mammootty and Rajinikanth in Thalapathy

Mammootty and Rajinikanth in ‘Thalapathy’. (X)

Wait! While we are talking about films in colour, we also have to intercut to the transition era of Black-and-White to colour in Malayalam, when Kamal Haasan forayed into Kerala waters and created a wave.

The crossover between Tamil and Malayalam industries has existed since the time of Prem Nazir, Sharada, and Sheela, who would act in character roles in Tamil films then.

But it was Kamal Haasan, who became a legit superstar in Malayalam, ahead of Mammootty and Mohanlal.

A new generation crossover began again with Prithviraj Sukumaran, Dulquer Salmaan, and Fahadh Faasil. They have had successful innings in their Malayalam films, which are doing well in Tamil Nadu. With them acting in Telugu and Hindi, their films now have a market in those states as well.

Add to this, the post-COVID OTT surge enabled us to watch a film with subtitles, without minding the language of the film. And, Malayalam cinema garnered for itself newer audiences for its unique stories.

In this domino effect, overseas markets also opened up, with Mohanlal’s Pulimurugan (2016) and Lucifer (2019) being the first films to conquer key regions internationally. This also paved the way for movies without a huge star or made within a moderate budget to rake in beyond ₹50 crore.

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The ‘Unique Five’

A still from the film Premalu

A still from the film ‘Premalu’. (X)

A look at this “rich in storytelling industry” via the lens of the recent hits in 2024—Bramayugam, Premalu, Manjummel BoysAadujeevitham (The Goat Life), and Aavesham—gives us a few insights.

All five films have a unique story (Bramayugam starring Mammootty is a social commentary as well) and a good director at its helm.

Four of these five films have another language other than Malayalam that’s spoken by key characters in the film and are set outside of Kerala.

Premalu (set in Hyderabad, the title itself is Telugu), Manjummel Boys (set in Kodaikanal; homage film to the 1991 Tamil film Guna), and The Goat Life went global in its English title and has an Arabic dialect. Aavesham is set in Bengaluru and Fahadh Faasil’s every second line in the movie is in Kannada.

What a joy it is to see these Malayalam movies engage in cultures other than their own and how well has this “experimentation” paid off?

When Kamal Haasan made Hey Ram (2000), where his characters speak in their mother tongue (Marathi, Punjabi, Telugu, Hindi, etc), it was seen as a huge misstep.

But today, this language diversity is an element that’s made these Malayalam films stand out from the clutter.

Prithviraj’s award-winning performance has also resulted in a box-office win. And that’s immense for a subject like Aadejeevitham.

Setting examples for other industries

A still from the film Manjummel Boys

A still from the film ‘Manjummel Boys’. (X)

The other factor that these films have in common is how the stories make their heroes self-examine their actions and have a distinct theme to them—like maniacal horror (Bramayugam), love (Premalu), friendship (Manjummel Boys), triumph against all odds (The Goat Life), and machismo (Aavesham).

This particular bunch of Malayalam movies also taught the mightier Telugu and Tamil industries (mightier in terms of the market) how to make a magnum opus with one character (for instance, Aadujeevitham).

They also taught how to make a star-led horror a philosophical one (Bramayugam), how to make an all-boys film with a soul (Manjummel Boys), how to make a modern-day romance without resorting to preaching audiences on gender and class differences (Premalu), and how to make a mass action film with a hero who didn’t have a six-pack or two heroines to flaunt (Aavesham).

Sushin Shyam has to be the “Find of the Year”, for he scored music for a majority of this year’s releases in Malayalam so far.

Barring Premalu and a small part of The Goat Life, none of the five films has a heroine but that’s still okay, as long as the story engages us till the very end, which these films did to much aplomb.

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Remembering 80s

Prithviraj Sukumaran in Guruvayoor Ambala Nadayil

Prithviraj Sukumaran in ‘Guruvayoor Ambala Nadayil’. (X)

2024 is like the 80s redone for Malayalam cinema, where newer markets and newer trends are being added to the oeuvre.

The latest super-hit, Guruvayoor Ambala Nadayil (2024) proves that harking back to the 80s is a good thing after all!

This Vipin Das film has Prithviraj (who has a purple patch on a pan-Indian level) and Basil Joseph (whose disarming smile jumps at you from the screen). Also, it has two wonderful women Nikhila Vimal and Anaswara Rajan (thankfully), as leads.

Guruvayoor Ambala Nadayil is a hat tip to the family comedies of Priyadarshan-Sathyan Anthikad-Sreenivasan and is setting the Kerala box office on fire even as you read the last word in this piece.