Content-driven films help Malayalam cinema make inroads in South India, then and now

Malayalam cinema enjoyed a golden period from the 1970s to the early 90s but lost its grain later while trying to imitate Tamil and Telugu films. It returned to its full form now and is delivering successive hits with a variety of content.

ByArjun Ramachandran

Published Jul 10, 2024 | 10:30 AM Updated Jul 10, 2024 | 12:24 PM

Content-driven films help Malayalam cinema make inroads in South

The 1970s, 80s, and early 90s are termed the golden period for Malayalam cinema. It was the time when Malayalam films were made with stories rooted in life, local milieu, and culture.

Several path-breaking films like Nirmalyam (1973), Swayamvaram (1972), Adaminte Variyellu (1983), and Irakal (1985) were released during this era.

But, in the late 90s and early 2000s, fewer quality films were made in Malayalam. Movies with mass masala content and formulaic commercial potboilers bombed miserably at the box office. These included the works of Mammootty, Mohanlal, and Suresh Gopi.

This “dark phase of Malayalam cinema” was even discussed by Tamil superstar Kamal Haasan during a roundtable discussion hosted by Film Companion in 2023. During the discussion, Kamal noted that he had been a great fan of Malayalam cinema and was indeed trained in the industry.

A poster of Adaminte Variyellu

A poster of ‘Adaminte Variyellu’. (X)

The veteran actor observed that Malayalam cinema lost its grain and the OG thing (originality) while trying to compete with the Tamil and Telugu film industries. He also blamed it all on the advent of OTT and censors.

However, Kamal Haasan expressed immense happiness that Malayalam cinema finally returned to its full form and was producing wonderful work in the recent past.

The Vikram (2022) actor recollected how impressed he was with the release of Nirmalyam, directed by MT Vasudevan Nair. “I saw it several times and went back to the theatre because it taught me cinema,” Kamal Haasan disclosed at the roundtable discussion.

Iconic directors like Padmarajan, KG George, Bharathan, IV Sasi, Fazil, Priyadarshan, and Sathyan Anthikad are well-known for making content-driven films.

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

Popularity outside Kerala

Malayalam films occasionally have had a good run in theatres outside Kerala. For instance, Mammootty’s New Delhi (1987) ran at Chennai’s Safire Theatre for a record 100 days, at a time when the maximum run for a Malayalam film was just two weeks.

Yodha poster

A still from ‘Yodha’. (X)

Similarly, Mohanlal’s Yodha (1992), and Mammootty’s Oru Abhibhashakante Case Diary (1995) also minted money outside Kerala.

This isn’t it; Suresh Gopi’s action films in the 1990s were all dubbed into Telugu and released in the then-united Andhra Pradesh.

Many years later, in 2012, Dulquer Salmaan’s Ustad Hotel did great business in Ahmedabad. Similarly, Vineeth Sreenivasan and Nivin Pauly’s Thattathin Marayathu (2012) set the cash registers ringing in Delhi.

Nevertheless, the tremendous success of Mohanlal’s Drishyam (2013) and Nivin Pauly’s Premam (2015) made moviegoers sit up and notice and also gain a fanbase in the neighbouring states.

“Had Drishyam been released with subtitles, it would have been more popular outside Kerala,” a film journalist told South First. According to him, the success of Drishyam helped Premam and Bangalore Days (2014) in gaining popularity outside the Malayalam-speaking state.

Nivin Pauly’s Premam became a runaway hit in Tamil Nadu. It ran for more than 100 days in Chennai and was re-released earlier this year.

Similarly, Bangalore Days, helmed by Anjali Menon, featured Nivin Pauly, Fahadh Faasil, Dulquer Salmaan, and Nazriya Nazim in key roles. It struck a chord with the youth and family audience, especially in the metros, since the film revolved around the lives and dreams of three cousins, who want to settle down in Bangalore (now Bengaluru).

Later, films like Mayanadhi (2018), Kumbalangi Nights (2019), Kurup (2021), Hridayam (2022), Premalu (2024), Manjummel Boys (2024), and Aavesham (2024) also became superhits in South India.

Also Read: 10 Years of Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days: A breath of fresh air

The advent of OTT

In 2023, exhibitors across Kerala used to cancel the shows if there was a lesser footfall (10 or less), apparently since they couldn’t afford the recurring expenditures like electricity bills.

Even this writer watched movies with an occupancy of 7-8 people. However, the Vismaya Theatre at Perinthalmanna in Malappuram district is an exception; it screens films even for one viewer.

Sadly, the year saw only five super hits—Romancham, 2018:Everyone is A Hero, RDX, Kannur Squad, and Neru. While content-driven films like Iratta (released the same year) failed to pull crowds to theatres, women-oriented films such as B 32 Muthal 44 Vare and Nila, helmed by women filmmakers, had a decent run due to the involvement of film societies and good publicity.

But then, post-COVID outbreak, the OTT platforms opened the doors to world cinema. Following this, audiences developed resistance to visiting theatres. Nevertheless, the OTT platforms gave more visibility to Malayalam cinema. Content-driver films like C U Soon (2020), The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), and Joji (2021) drew wide appreciation from the audience across India.

Minnal Murali (2021), released on Netflix, was the first superhero Malayalam movie. It featured Tovino Thomas in the titular role and was directed by Basil Joseph. Thanks to the extensive marketing involving former cricketer Yuvraj Singh and WWE superstar The Great Khali, the film trended at the top position for several months on the OTT giant.

The OTT space also helped grab the attention of non-Malayalam-speaking audiences across the world. But then, the fact that films were being premiered on OTTs just 28 days after their theatrical release discouraged the viewers from visiting cinema halls.

This prompted the makers and film bodies to propose the 42-day OTT window period owing to which exhibitors are back to their business. Also, a majority of theatres across Kerala were renovated and turned into multiplexes, even in rural areas, encouraging people to get a new film-watching experience.

Meanwhile, the success of non-Malayalam films like KGF: Chapter 2 (2022), Vikram (2022), Leo (2023), and Jailer (2023) in Kerala helped revive the theatres in the state. Malayalam films RDX, Kannur Squad, and Neru followed in their footsteps.

Though the makers of content-driven films prefer to release their ventures directly on OTT, movies like Kaathal-The Core (2023) and Aattam (2023) did good business in theatres.

Also Read: WCC hails SIC order to release Justice Hema Committee report

A successful year for Mollywood

Meanwhile, since the beginning of 2024, each month delivered at least one superhit film in Malayalam. Indeed, Malayalam cinema registered an overwhelming performance at the global box office in the first half of 2024. As many as four movies—Premalu, Manjummel BoysAadujeevitham (The Goat Life), and Aavesham—earned over ₹100 crore worldwide.

Aavesham, Aadujeevitham, and Premalu revived Malayalam cinema in 2024

‘Aavesham’, ‘Aadujeevitham’, and ‘Premalu’ revived Malayalam cinema in 2024. (X)

Malayalam cinema also became a hot topic of discussion in industry circles and social media due to the content-driven films it produced in the past six to eight months. Despite its relatively small market size, compared to Bollywood, Telugu, and Tamil—which of late have been producing more pan-Indian films— the Malayalam industry is flying high.

Premalu, Manjummel Boys, Bramayugam, and Aavesham were later dubbed into regional languages after they did good business in theatres outside Kerala. Interestingly, the dubbed versions also raked in the moolah for the filmmakers.

Before the release of Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)Prithviraj Sukumaran appreciated Premalu and Manjummel Boys and thanked the makers for setting the stage for his magnum opus.

The actor said Premalu and Manjummel Boys created momentum for his Aadujeevitham and also expressed confidence that their success would help his movie.

Meanwhile, addressing the media after the Grand Prix win at the recent Cannes Film Festival, All We Imagine as Light director Payal Kapadia hailed the Malayalam industry for producing a variety of content. She noted that even arthouse films receive good distribution in Kerala, something that’s not seen anywhere else in the country.

Let’s hope that the golden period continues for Malayalam cinema and it comes up with more content-driven films!

The lack of consistency in good films in other major industries and a surprising consistency in the Malayalam industry helped it gain accolades for delivering consecutive hits.

Also Read: Malayalam cinema enjoys a blockbuster Q1 in 2024 with six superhits

‘Malayalam cinema has evolved’

Scriptwriter-director PS Arjun

Scriptwriter-director PS Arjun. (Facebook)

Social media platforms are now abuzz with cinephiles, who are widely engaging in discussions on technical aspects of films like 2018, RDX, and Manjummel Boys which, in turn, is helping the industry get noticed, Malayalam scriptwriter-filmmaker PS Arjun tells South First.

“Perhaps, the lockdowns or the OTT boom could have led to the technical aspects in filmmaking becoming a focal point for audience discussions,” the director of Pattaapakal points out.

Arjun further observes, “With audiences getting exposed to high-quality content from across industries worldwide, their standards for visual and auditory expectations have also evolved.”

The scriptwriter-director also notes that recent blockbusters like Girish AD’s Premalu, Rahul Sadasivan’s Bramayugam, Chidambaram’s Manjummel Boys, Blessy’s Aadujeevitham, and Jithu Madhavan’s Aavesham garnered nationwide attention to Malayalam cinema from both critics and audiences alike.

According to Arjun, these movies, spanning different genres, share little in common except for one key aspect—exceptional technical quality.

“This is evident in their music, sound design, and cinematography, which have all contributed to their success. Every film exceeded the typical budget constraints of the Malayalam industry by investing significantly in enhancing the technical aspects,” he adds.

Also Read: Malayalam cinema in the first half of 2024

Massive global collections

Malayalam filmmaker Shruthi Sharanyam

Malayalam filmmaker Shruthi Sharanyam. (Instagram)

In the first half of 2024, Malayalam cinema did a roaring business of over ₹700 crore at the global box office, all thanks to content-driven films.

Manjummel Boys became the first Malayalam movie to collect over ₹200 crore from the box office. Premalu and Aavesham earned over ₹100 crore, while Aadujeevitham grossed around ₹150 crore worldwide.

Varshangalkku Shesham and Mammootty’s Turbo earned ₹70 crore each, while Guruvayoor Ambala Nadayil did a business of ₹90 crore. Bramayugam and Anweshippin Kandethum collected more than ₹50 crore each.

Filmmaker Shruthi Sharanyam, who helmed the Award-winning B 32 Muthal 44 Vare, believes Malayalam cinema became the talk of the town because of the success streak, especially post-COVID.

“The Malayalam industry is relatively small in terms of production cost and box-office collections (including diaspora), compared to other industries. However, for the past year, there’s been a sea change in the trend. Despite the low production cost, we are registering massive collections worldwide,” she tells South First.

“The other industries find it quite surprising that content-driven films have carved a niche in Malayalam cinema, if not collection-wise. Hence, we have become the talking point,” she points out.

A Kochi-based exhibitor reveals that most theatres in Kerala registered profits in the past six months due to content-driven films.

“Last year, the success of Jailer, Leo, RDX, Kannur Squad, 2018: Everyone is A Hero, and Romancham came as a respite for us. However, the overall performance of Malayalam films since the beginning of 2024 has been overwhelming,” he tells South First.

Meanwhile, the industry trackers expect that the success streak will continue in the second half of 2024, too. Notably, many highly-anticipated films in Malayalam, Tamil, and other languages are lined up for release in the second half; a few of them are, of course, content-driven films.

Well, let’s hope for the best!

(Edited by Y Krishna Jyothi)

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