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regular-article-logo Sunday, 16 June 2024

A new spring

Within the first 4 months of 2024, six Malayalam films have already made a total gross revenue of nearly Rs 1,000 crore, much more than 2023’s cumulative collections from 220 films

M.G. Radhakrishnan Published 27.05.24, 06:38 AM
A scene from the film, All We Imagine as Light

A scene from the film, All We Imagine as Light Sourced by the Telegraph

Less than 3% of Indians speak Malayalam. But to many who attended the 77th Cannes International Film Festival in the French Riviera this year, Malayalam may have appeared to be India’s lingua franca. Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light, the first Indian film ever to win the Grand Prix at the festival, speaks mostly in Malayalam. Praised as lyrical and delicate, the film is about the life and dreams of two young nurses from Kerala in Mumbai. It is also the first film from India to have been selected to compete at the prestigious festival for the Palme d’Or after three decades. The last Indian film that competed for the top prize was Swaham in Malayalam which was made by Shaji N. Karun in 1994. The Malayali’s cup of happiness at Cannes overflowed this year when the ace cinematographer, Santosh Sivan, became the first Asian to receive the Pierre Angénieux Excellens in Cinematography award instituted after the French inventor of the modern zoom lenses. Receiving the honour at the Palais de Festival, Sivan thanked Kerala and Malayalam cinema for everything he achieved.

Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha, the heroines of All We Imagine as Light, and Sivan bring further cheer to the Malayalam film industry at a time when it is on a dream run. Smallest in the South Indian film industry until recently, Malayalam cinema has emerged as the highest-grosser in the country after Hindi and Telugu movies in this year’s first four months. For the first time in Indian cinema’s history, Malayalam films have topped the country in monthly gross revenue in February and March, says Ormax Media, a box office tracking site. Although Malayalam cinema has had a long and glittering tradition in India’s art film circuit, such recurring commercial success has been unprecedented.

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Unlike Tamil films, Malayalam movies had no market outside Kerala until recently, except among non-resident Malayali communities. But the current clutch of Malayalam hits is grossing from other states and abroad. As many as five Malayalam films released this year joined the Rs 100 crore club by May. Manjummel Boys (Rs 117 crore) and Aavesham (Rs 101 crore) topped monthly gross domestic box collections across languages in February and April, respectively. Premalu (Rs 67.5 crore) and Bramayugam (Rs 25 crore) were among February’s top five. March saw Aadujeevitham: The Goat Life (Rs 102 crore) coming third while January witnessed Abraham Ozler (Rs 23 crore) and Malaikottai Vaaliban (Rs 15 crore) figure in the top ten. Two films released in May are also on their way to the top.

According to the website, Malayalam cinema’s share rose from 5% in 2023 to 16% during January-March 2024 in Indian cinema’s gross collection, finishing third after Hindi (36%) and Telugu (23%). Sacnilk, another movie collections tracking site, reveals that these Malayalam movies have figured among the top five highest-grossing Indian films every month from January to April. This is despite April being a low-scoring month for Indian cinema in general as its total gross collection dipped to Rs 457 crore from Rs 996 crore in March. It was the first month in a year when Indian films’ gross collections went below Rs 500 crore.

Even more remarkable is that the current upswing marked a swift and stunning turnaround. The year, 2023, was particularly bad for Malayalam cinema as over 200 of the record 220 films released had bombed, causing a loss of over Rs 350 crore. According to the Kerala Film Producers Association, only 16 films had recovered costs last year. The story was no different in 2022, when 90% of the 176 films had flopped.

Within the first four months of 2024, however, six Malayalam films have already made a total gross revenue of nearly Rs 1,000 crore, much more than 2023’s cumulative collections from 220 films. Leading the hit parade is Manjummel Boys, a survival thriller made by the debutant, Chidambaram S. Poduval, with a largely new cast and a Rs 20 crore budget. Released in February, it was the first Malayalam movie to cross a gross worldwide collection of Rs 200 crore. Manjummel Boys is also the first in Malayalam cinema to collect more than Rs 100 crore from Tamil Nadu alone — even without dubbing — perhaps because of its homage to the 1991 Tamil film, Gunaa, starring Kamal Haasan.

So what explains this new spring in Malayalam cinema? Young directors, novel plots, non-stereotypical characters, formal experimentations, the emphasis on emotions, brilliant performances, and high production and technical quality hold the key. Although Malayalam’s new-gen cinema with such traits had emerged by the 2010s, they could only win notice outside Kerala through OTT platforms during the pandemic. Tamil, Telugu and Kannada audiences, used to mega-blockbusters like Bahubali, RRR, KGF, or Ponniyin Selvan, seem to relish the different experience offered by the relatively smaller but innovative Malayalam films. Significantly, the new film-makers deliberately shun conventional art and commercial cinema binaries and dare to walk the line between them. Many deploy cross-cultural and linguistic tropes, which help connect with audiences in multiple languages. Although these directors and writers are young or debutants, stars like Mammootty, Prithviraj Sukumaran, and Fahadh Faasil have ventured to back them in multiple ways in return for interesting roles.

Manjummel Boys, which essays an adventure by friends to rescue one among them who falls into a deep abyss, is, at its core, a celebration of self-sacrificing camaraderie. Aavesham, directed by the one-film-old Jithu Madhavan, is an action comedy elevated to histrionic heights by Faasil playing its maniacal Kannadiga-Malayali hero and is produced by his actor wife, Nazryia. Aadujeevitham, adapted from the eponymous bestselling novel by Benyamin, is a real-life saga of a Malayali immigrant labourer’s excruciating struggle and survival in the scorching Arabian desert. Prithviraj Sukumaran portrays the tormented hero, Najeeb, in the film, which boasts of global production standards. This is also the most expensive (Rs 80 crore) production among the hits and is directed by the veteran, Blessy, who took a decade to complete the shooting in the sand dunes of Wadi Rum in Jordan where they were stranded for days during the pandemic. Bramayugam, a dark noir film directed by Rahul Sadasivan (his third), was shot in black and white with the reigning superstar, Mammootty, as the ageing anti-hero. Premalu, the third film by Girish A.D., is a teenage romantic comedy produced by Faasil.

However, despite the good news, many questions remain. More such hits may be required to salvage the Malayalam film industry, which is reeling under heavy, accumulated losses. Many suspect that the huge success of middle-of-the-road flicks will hasten the demise of Malayalam’s art cinema tradition. Critics argue that the spring in new cinema also suffers from another chronic Kerala malady: male domination and the invisibilisation of women. None of the current superhits has a significant woman character. But a female actor dismissed this as unimportant: “We women are invisible only because we are busy on the way to Cannes!”

M.G. Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram, has worked with various print and electronic media organisations

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