Friday, 4 December, 2009

Commercial Cinema's Year of Revival

A visit to Trivandrum last year had reawakened my hope that good cinema would flourish again in Kerala. At that time, between Onam and Ramzan the theatres had four good and different films running – Thirakkatha, Thalappavu, Gulmohar and Rathrimazha and not a single one of these was a masala flick. The period when I left Kerala, around 2002, was when the industry was recovering from near death. Since then, some new directors, scriptwriters and actors have been coming into their own. Seven years later, having seen some of the commercial films of the year, I can confidently say the industry has bounced right back and is headed for better times in the years ahead. Thought I’d jot down some belated thoughts on some of the un-ignorable movies of the year.

Rithu – Arguably Malayalam’s first multiplex film and one that has come closest in depicting a segment of urban upper-middle class youth and their lifestyle. While portraying nicely the modern and self-centred life of the IT crowd, I was impressed that the movie was able to sneak in the class tensions and perceptions that each strata and political thought in society, share about the other. However, the movie was dampened by bad scripting of the last few scenes. Rithu also showed the guts to deal with behaviour that makes even the Kerala elite squirm uncomfortably – homosexuality, open displays of affection and women drinking. For long, Malayalam cinema has failed to connect with evolving social dynamics – especially in relation to the urban middle class. Kudos to the effort by director Shyamaprasad and scenarist Joshua Newton to tell a story about Malayali software engineers after failed attempts by two other fancied names in dealing with the same theme.

I was apprehensive how the young lead cast with metrosexual looks would fare but they along with known faces in Kerala like journalist K.Govindankutty and director M.G. Sasi have been aptly cast for their respective roles. Funnily enough, unlike the hundreds of clones that have followed Dil Chahta He, Rithu’s success wont see a similar trend in Malayalam cinema – because unlike the metro multiplexes and the foreign markets which dictate the trends in Bollywood today, it continues to be the youth living in poorer localities of Kerala, whether rural or urban and lower middle class families who make up the lions share of the crucial opening week crowds. Yet another reason is that except for a few of today’s commercial filmmakers the rest continue to stick to the tried and tested formulas of action, comedy, family melodrama, song and dance routine.

Bhramaram – I was about to rate Thanmatra and Blessy as a one-film wonder, till the lavishing of accolades by his filmmaking peers after Bharamaram released, tempted me to go watch it. From his earthy croaking of the Annarakanna song right down to his ragged, overweight, weary appearance I rejoiced at seeing a Mohanlal getting so deep into the skin of a character but all credit to Blessy for a brilliant yet simple storyline with a deeply psychological theme. The movie was shot in never-before seen high-range locations and the camera work by Ajayan Vincent is probably one which I will rate the best ever in Malayalam.

I heard feeble criticism for the movie from several quarters – people were saying it was too dark and too disturbing. But the single line story of a man forced to revisit his ugly past (that he had forgiven and forgotten) in order to set right the turmoil in his psychedelic, hazy present is on par with the best that Malayalam cinema churned out in its heydays. With Bhramaram, Blessy can aspire to be compared with his mentor Padmarajan, but the sad fact is that today there are too few filmmakers around with the possible exception of T.V. Chadran who can shock and disturb viewers like Padmarajan, Bharathan, K.G. George and Pavithran managed to successfully do, in film after film in the eighties.

Puthiya Mukham – It is close to 15 years since Yodha released, and I continued to complain of getting headaches, turn-offs and revulsion seeing ageing Malayalam heroes bash up villains and goondas, with no improvements in cinematography or stunt choreography. Puthiya Mukham finally helped Malayalam draw level with Tamil cinema on the technical front and though the film was an all stunts no-brainer focussed solely around boosting Prithviraj’s star value, its unprecedented success will finally undo filmmakers’ belief that Tamil cinema’s big budgets are impossible to stand up to.

Pazhassi Raja – I had watched Kaminey with utter disbelief wondering at the ‘power of cool’ and the influence of reviewers in exalting an average film by an excellent-so-far filmmaker to the status of a cult classic. A sense of déjà vu crept in watching Pazhassi Raja the other day. Reviewers, hysteric fans had all dubbed it the greatest Malayalam film ever! Really? Editing gaffes, some poorly choreographed unwanted stunts and meandering scenes marred the movie. The graceful performances of the lead actors, some beautifully directed and photographed sequences and the lavish canvas the movie was mounted on were the saving graces – a good effort, but definitely nowhere near Malayalam’s best.

The trailer had said, ‘History is not always written by the winner’. I had gone to the theatre expecting an encore by MT and Hariharan, a repeat of that best ever shot tale of a loser, ‘Braveheart’, and possibly a repeat of their own masterpiece about a famed loser, ‘Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha’. But sadly Pazhassi Raja has scenes of Mammootty flying in the air, single-handedly killing with his sword dozens of British soldiers armed with rifles and many more absurdities. I console myself in the belief that MT and Hariharan surrendered the opportunity to make a world classic to recoup the huge budget of Rs.27 crore, their producer had trusted them with.

Swa Le – Few films about journalists and the newspaper industry have been made in Malayalam like New Delhi, Pathram, etc. But none of these ever dared to tell the true story. And Swa Le does it in style! Journalists are percieved to be courageous crusaders of society, yet very few know how appalling the working and salary conditions of most journalists in India working in small newspaper and TV establishments are. Swa Le tells an honest story with much black humour. Unfortunately, the travails of the lead character fails to strike an emotional chord; probably the unfocussed script would have done better in the hands of a more experienced director. The tepid scene were Dileep makes a call to a hospital at night to find out the condition of two persons hospitalized in a boat tragedy is exactly something I was forced to do too in this brief career and like the movie clearly shows it’s a moment when you wonder how we are vultures watching life ebb away, waiting to swoop down. Some of the humourous scenes depicted in the movie are from real life, with many of my colleagues narrating similar incidents. Food for another post! ;)

Kerala Café – None of the short films that made up this ensemble movie was world class. But the shorts were a break from the past, for most of the filmmakers who crafted these films and for us viewers used to a diet of character and superstar centric cinema. The feeling while coming out of the theatre was the same as having read a short story collection – the way back home I couldn’t help looking at people on the streets and thinking how our lives have made us receptacles of stories, which in the hands of some writer could become a short story, novel or film. Beyond the stated theme of travel or the superfluous café that the makers said linked these shorts, I thought most of these shorts had stories about a set of humans unable to understand the motivations and travails of the people they encounter.

While all the films except for Mrithyunjayam had interesting themes, only Revathy’s Makal, Anjali Menon’s Happy Journey and Anwar Rashid’s Bridge succeeded in flawlessly executing their intentions. Debutant Shankar Ramakrishnan’s Island Express was an excellent idea centred around the 20th anniversary of the Perumon tragedy but was lost in unnecessary abstraction that robbed it of its charm. Lal Jose’s Puram Kazhchakal, Shaji Kailas’s Lalitham Hiranmayam, M. Padmakumar’s Nostalgia, B. Unnikrishnan’s Aviraamam and Shyamaprasad’s Off-season were good efforts but lacked tightness in the scripts to tell a complete story inside ten minutes. All kudos to Renjith for bringing so many talents together and displaying the courage to produce and conceptualize this portmanteau film.

Neelathamara - A good film, but makes you wonder why Lal Jose chose this MT film to be remade. With a storyline similar to Nandanam, which released only a few years back, the young generation would find nothing unique in the film. But very nice visuals distract the viewer from the fact that there is nothing new in the storyline. The new actress, Archana impresses with her smile and looks set for a long innings while Kailash, the other new face did not have much to perform in a heroine-centric role. A welcome change was the total absence of melodrama in the film, something which sets it apart from Nandanam. I haven't watched the old Neelathamara, and so can't say if the decision to tell a restrained story was a conscious decision, in tune with the times. Both Paleri Manikyam and Neelathamara, stands out by introducing a number of fresh faces and following unconventional casting, a welcome move in an industry which had a stock set of actors to do each type of role.

Paleri Manikyam, Oru Paathira Kolapathakathinte Katha - The best film of the year. Period. Director Renjith comes up with a once in a life time work, for which I am using the same words I said directly to him, "Renjithetta, you will be remembered long after you are gone, for just this one work." We were talking endlessly and excitedly about the various aspects of the film in office that our cinema correspondent rang up Renjith and handed the phone to me, much to my surprise. Based on a novel by T.P. Rajeevan, who again I chanced to speak to a few weeks back, the film's theme is outwardly simple - that of a man led back to his native village to investigate two unsolved murders, committed 52 years ago, on the very night of his birth, the first case of sexual harassment recorded after the state was born.

That Renjith's narrative craft is at its very peak is obvious when you see the layers and layers of plots and sub-plots which he expertly unfolds and then neatly links to the main plot. His directorial ability reveals itself in beautifully getting the period and setting for the story right, besides getting dozens of fresh-faced actors from theatre to deliver their roles convincingly. It's not often you get to see so many side characters with depth and of relevance to the storyline. Manoj Pillai weaves magic with the camera, with beautiful shots and no unintrusive gimmicks sucking the viewer right into a world most of us were not born in and can no more relate too. Shot in the interior regions of Kozhikode, the movie also touches on the last stand of the feudal system and the change in character of the communist movement in Kerala. I have often felt that Mammootty the actor has a grandeur that puts to shade other actors and even the storyline, but here Ranjith lets Mammootty revel in multiple roles, but the decision only help in extending our willing suspension of disbelief further into subconscious terrains, that few scripts manage to succeed these days. If Renjith continues in this vein, the Padmarajan nostalgia of Malayalis can rightfully take a backseat and we can savor the joys of seeing in the present, a master filmmaker Kerala has long craved for.

P.S - I have ranted and raved for a long time on the need to undermine the star system. Let the star system stay. But let us audiences value the story, director and scriptwriter on par with the stars henceforth. Neelathamara released last week to favourable reviews - I am yet to see it. Oru Paathira Kolapathakathinte Katha, adapted from a novel, the novelist of which I had the chance to meet at a Calicut bar, releases today with pre-release reports promising a good fare. All of you who stayed off Malayalam films for a while can head right back home – we are back to making good movies!


scorpiogenius said...

I have seen only Pazhassi Raja and Bhramaram from that list, but taking your word for it, it does seem there is some sort of a breath instilled into Malayalam cinema. I mean in terms of innovation...

I hope we are moving into better times.. By saying that, comparing the type and class of movies we churned out in the last decade it would take some 'effort' to create worse ones. Well, you can never tell. If we can reach any where near the quality of the films of the 80s then it would be the biggest boon for our films :)

Erinjiyal Santha Kesavan said...

So Jiby watching lots of movies...

I watched Kaminey after reading the reviews and it was such a pain..i am sure these guys will be taking money to write such reviews about ordinary films

Good to see that you are back

The Layman said...

I loved what you said abut "power of cool". Power of fourth estate is more like it :)
Nice reviews.

Jiby said...

Scorpio, we can't discount the influence of the tamil and hindi film industries in the changes happening to malayalam cinema. a lot of new talents are about to make their entry into commercial cinema in the next one year - if these are courageous, intelligent and well-read persons the revival i write about will sustain.

Santha M'am, the trouble is its becoming easy to watch movies than slog over books. Reading book reviews now to get a feel for fiction again. So I am not the only one who felt this way about Kaminey! :)

Layman, thanks. The 'power of cool' is the power of the mob and of advertising, the power to suspend individual reason. Power of fourth estate is becoming bigoted, stolen by tv channel anchors and pink papers to drive govt and corp agendas, but something worth fighting for. :)

Rajesh Mohan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rajesh Mohan said...

I loved Kerala Cafe a lot. I loved Mrithyunjayam too for its anti climax. This is really a welcome change for Kerala Cinema. Ritu was good too. The music of Ritu is also very good. Refreshing and has a central theme music running throughout the film. Enjoyed it

Dhanush | ധനുഷ് said...

Ahh I can see that you are watching a lot of movies. Good thing about being in Kerala.

I watched Rithu, Pazhassi Raja and Kerala Cafe out of the list and I liked all of them for various reasons. Rithu - I have wrote it here.(I have moved my malayalam posts here, do read if you got time :-) )

Pazhassi Raja - yes its a disappointment from the script angle. Not an expected script from MT. But I thought it stood out of the rest because of the effort people have put in for that movie.

Kerala Cafe - I liked the whole concept. Its not a bad idea to get some short films. My ranking is Bridge, Island Express, Happy Journey, Puramkazhchakal

Jiby said...

Rajesh, yeah this year is probably the best year Malayalam cinema has seen in a decade. Some how I could not connect with Mrithyunjayam, but then no body in my bureau could accept Shyamaprasad's Off-Season exept for me.

Dhanush, true! I watched both Paleri Manikyam and Neelathamara yesterday. Don't miss Paleri Manikyam! I wanted to read your Malayalam blog for a long time but now I don't have net at home and at work, too many things happen that makes reading in peace impossible.

The book fair is beginning today. Let me know when you are coming. Also will tell you in person, my grouse with Puramkazhchakal.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen any of the movies you mentioned.Though love to watch bhramaram , Rithu and paleri manikam.

unfortunately many of our directors are trying to blindly copying tamil movies and also comes up with half baked stupid comedies.Another sad fact is after mammokoya,innocent , jagathy,janardhanan we don't have a seasoned comedian\character artist.I can't accept buffoonery of cochin haneefa , harisree ashokan are comic.

sanjaypalayat said...

Out of the list i have seen Pazhassiraja, rithu & kerla cafe

Well, the one impressed me the most was certainly "keralacafe", a good attempt i would say and out of the 10 stories many of them touched my hearts and those are the realities i would say, especially "Bridge" directed by anwar rasheed, starring salim kumar, kalpana & vetren actress shanta devi. Well guys this can happen in our real life, be prepared for it!!!

"Rithu" was awsome!!!

Technically speaking pazhassiraja was good with all buzz and sounds, but i am sad that the great actor Mamooty was not well used!! nobody cant compare it with the great movie "Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha"

Anand K said...

I disliked Pazhssi Raja too.... it was something like a Hanuman Chalisa or a Rajni flick rather than even 300/Braveheart it tried to emulate.

Guess I was hoping too much.... for Pazhassi's tenacious guerrilla/shadow war vs the meticulous, iron willed Counter-Insurgency (and terror) campaign of the EIC under Baber. The latter was a lot like Caesar did in the Gallic Wars, scouring all trees to 100 yards on either side of jungle roads, bribery, burning kaavus, blockading grain, scorched earth and all.

AFAIK Baber himself was quite remorseful of his actions, fought with the EIC mandarins and quit England and "went native".
Here's an interesting blog by a descendant of Baber

Anyway, except for Sarathkumar and Manoj K Jayan and even Suman the rest of the cast were not so impressive. 'specially the "British".... except for the grizzled old Colonel guy. The movie was impressive technically though.

Anand K said...

Paleri Manikyam was such a ride! For the 1st three quarters or so I felt I was in a David Lynch movie.... much like his brilliant Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks (the latter is among many many other dimensions, an investigation of the murder of a young girl). Heck, I hoped it would be at least a Film Noir movie.

The last quarter was however too much Deus Ex Machina... I would have preferred it to be a knot that tightens the further you try to unravel it. Too bad, there was so much scope, it even had Lynchian characters who manifest the "conscious" and "subconscious" of the locale and the personal equation the "investigator" has with the evil-of-the-past. But then, such films might not succeed here.... even Lynch had to turn this into a 2 season TV series + prequel movie and also water down the Twin Peaks mythos for public consumption.

Didn't see Kerala Cafe, but everyone's gaga on "Bridge" and "Happy Journey". Waiting for the VCD now....
Puthiya Mukham was paisa vasool action fare, Neelathamara too jaded a theme and I haven't seen Swa.Le and Rithu either. Bhramaram was a return of the old auteur that was Lalettan.... too bad he doesn't get much decent films nowadays. And BTW, did you forget "Kaazcha" by Blessy? I liked it more than "Thanmaatra".

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