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Kerala's new cocktail
From fish curry and phone romances to troubled traffic policemen and doomed liaisons - the new wave of Malayalam films is riding on fresh, edgy themes that are pulling audiences back into theatres. A young crop of scriptwriters, actors and directors are piloting this change.
Oru dosa undaakiya katha - a story born out of a dosa. That was a risky tagline for a movie in a state where almost every other star-studded movie has been sinking without a trace. But Salt N' Pepper turned out to be the biggest grosser last year.
It was a quirky storyline: a phone romance between an unattractive archeologist and a rotund dubbing artist. The lovers have only one thing in common - an obsession for ethnic food, be it a thattil kuti dosa or naadan fish curry. In some ways the movie's success was not surprising - Kerala has always celebrated its cuisine but never before had a filmmaker experimented with a gastronomical subtext.
Perhaps this was the tragedy of contemporary Malayalam film industry. Devoid of innovative themes and new scripts that reflected the complexities of contemporary Malayali society, filmmakers stuck to stereotypical themes. Malayalam films had touched the nadir of mediocrity and the crisis deepened when two reigning Malayalam superstars, brilliant actors till a decade ago, became unaffordable. The ageing superstars - Mammootty (61) and Mohanlal (52) - were also stubbornly refusing to look at roles that suited their age or reinvent themselves.
There are now signs of revival. A group of young filmmakers and actors are experimenting with bold, fresh themes rooted in Kerala's contemporary urban reality. Directors such as Ranjith and actor-turned script writers such as Anoop Menon are pulling in discerning theatre-goers many of whom had stopped watching movies - with their slickly scripted small-budget movies.
Ranjith could, in a way, be called the changemaker. His films Thirakkatha (film script) and Kerala Cafe heralded the trend, and allowed that experimental creative space for newcomers. "Thirakkatha was our own version of Dirty Picture. The actress had a turbulent personal life and died a lonely death. It is not the story of just one actress, but many who suffered in a male-dominated industry, " says Anoop Menon, who acted in the movie.
Menon says this national award-winning movie transformed his career which began with a stint as a television actor. "Kerala Cafe took the audience to the next level and was an anthology of stories directed by ten different directors, each with a separate cast of actors and technicians, " he says.
After the film's success, a group of talented young filmmakers began exploring bolder themes and in the last two years, small budget movies like Cocktail, Beautiful, Traffic and Ee Adutha Kalathu won critical acclaim and more importantly, clicked at the box office.
"Producers are now willing to put their money into innovative scripts that don't require big stars. We hope this will mark the revival of good Malayalam cinema, the kind we got to see 15 years ago, " says Aashiq Abu, director of Salt N' Pepper. The movie was produced on a shoestring budget of Rs 2. 5 crore and starred actors like Lal and Swetha Menon who till then had only played supporting roles in mainstream movies. The movie ran houseful for 100 days, a freak phenomenon, considering the sad state of the Kerala film industry.
Abu, who used to be active in a Malayalam theatre group, admits it was an accidental exposure to an international film festival held in Kochi 13 years ago that turned him into a film junkie. "I realised that Malayalam movies had a long way to go in terms of the craft of story-telling and character sketches, " explains this post-graduate in Islamic history.
Salt N' Pepper had the same peppy narrative and freshness of Dil Chahta Hai but Abu dismisses that as a coincidence. "I do love Farhan's movies but my next venture, 22 Female Kottayam, has more grey elements and a darker narrative. The story is about a group of nursing students based in Bangalore. "
He notes the representation of women in average Malayalam movie has been always stereotypical - she was a demure belle, a selfless, suffering housewife or a betrayed woman. "But Kerala's society-scape is changing fast and there are many women who live independently outside the boundaries of marriage, " he says.
Cocktail is a classic example of the new thinking in Malayalam movies - there are no black and white characters, only people driven by circumstances, aspirations and greed. "In Cocktail, I play this role of a successful consultant who has an extramarital affair with his colleague. My wife and my lover's husband stage a kidnapping drama and trap me into confessing the liaison, " says Anoop.
Connoisseurs of classic films wistfully point out that till 15 years ago, Malayalam cinema had been the toast of the nation, much ahead of other states in content and storytelling. When Hindi and Tamil filmmakers were still churning out mindless films, directors like KG Geroge, MT Vasudevan Nair, Bharathan, Padmarajan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan made movies that were rooted in Kerala's social milieu, its concerns and aspirations. At the other end of the spectrum were writers and directors like Satyan Anthikad and Sreenivasan who created great satires like Gandhinagar 2nd street and Sandhesam that explored themes such as unemployment and petty party politics.
"Mimicry cinema and weak scripts written for superstar slots killed the movie industry, " says cinematographer Rajiv Ravi, who has worked on Dev D and Chandni Bar. "It was ironical that in 2001 when Dil Chahta Hai was released, heralding a new genre of cinema in Bollywood, there was not a single Malayalam movie worth mentioning. "
The new script writers, Ravi notes, do instill some hope, but warns that the Malayalee audience is quite finicky and filmmakers need to back this revival with strong scripts. "No amount of slickness and digital technology can replace the fundamental principle that a good film needs a strong script, " he cautions.
But for directors like Rajesh Pillai, who is fresh from the huge success of his film, Traffic, the journey has just begun. The thriller traces the story of a traffic constable who has to cut through 150 km of peak-hour traffic on Kerala's narrow roads to escort a critical accident victim just in time for a heart transplant. "The movie was based on a real-life incident that occurred in Chennai. It is now being remade in Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Marathi, " says Pillai, whose next movie Gold is based on the struggles of four women athletes.
THE PLOT CHANGES
Thirakkatha | 2008 |
Co-produced, written, and directed by Ranjith. Based on the alleged relationship between popular yesteryear actress Sreevidya and actor Kamal Haasan. The story shifts between the present and flashback through the perspective of different characters. Won the national award for best feature film in Malayalam. Cast: Anoop Menon, Prithviraj
Kerala Cafe | 2008 |
An anthology of stories produced by Ranjith and directed by a team of prominent Malayalam directors. Cast: Mammootty, Jayasurya, Suresh Gopi and Prithviraj.
Cocktail | 2010 |
Directed by Arun Kumar. Co-written by Anoop Menon and is an uncredited remake of the Canadian film, Butterfly on the Wheels. Cast: Jayasurya, Anoop Menon and Samvrutha Sunil.
Beautiful | 2011 |
This is a musical drama written by Anoop Menon and directed by VK Prakash. The film is about the intense bond between two friends, one paraplegic and other a musician. Cast: Jayasurya, Anoop Menon and Meghana Raj.
Salt N' Pepper | 2011 |
This one is a romantic comedy with food as subtext. Cast: Lal, Asif Ali, Shweta Menon and Mythili.
Traffic | 2011 |
A movie directed by Rajesh Pillai, and written by brothers Bobby and Sanjay, it is a thriller about how a traffic constable manoeuvres through 150 kilometres of peak hour traffic on Kerala's narrow roads to escort an accident victim to hospital just in time for a heart transplant. Cast: Sreenivasan, Rahman, Asif Ali and Anoop Menon.
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