CE Year in Review 2022: The dominant genres in Malayalam cinema
In this yearly roundup piece, we look back on the genres -- and genre-blending choices -- that stood out the most in Malayalam cinema
When taking an inventory of all the best films released in 2022, one observes that the genres that stood out the most are dysfunctional family drama, satire, dark comedy, and horror, a stark contrast to the massive thriller wave from the last couple of years. What's more, some of these films weaved in two or more genres to striking effect and, in retrospect, makes one realise that they wouldn't have found as much success had this genre-blending not occurred. It was a year where Malayalam filmmakers dared to think and experiment out of the box with a few genres in a way we haven't seen before.
At least ten of the most discussed films were dysfunctional family dramas to varying extents -- even Mammootty-starrer Bheeshma Parvam, though categorised as a 'mass' entertainer, featured a few characters feeling stifled in a dysfunctional household populated by toxic relatives.
It gets more interesting when one remembers that Mammootty appeared in two more most-discussed films this year, both happened to be dysfunctional family dramas in one way or the other: Puzhu (on SonyLiv) and Rorschach (Disney+ Hotstar); in the first, Mammootty played an upper-caste man who detests the sight of his own sister due to her eloping with a lower-caste man. Besides, conflict arose from the father's tyrannical, obsessive hold on his son.
Rorschach is interesting in that the main character exploits the chinks in the armour of multiple dysfunctional families. One is amused when remembering that Grace Antony, who in Rorschach played a woman thrown into the midst of much chaos, played another stifled housewife yearning for independence in a relatively less well-received but competently made Chattambi. And then came Appan, which saw Grace essay, again, a woman from a dysfunctional household.
If someone asks me to rank the ten best Malayalam films of the year, Appan, with phenomenal performances across the board, would definitely find a place in the top five -- a list that would also include other films that efficiently tackled this genre, such as Veyil and Saudi Vellakka. Let's not forget the surprise hit in the form of Jo and Jo, a small film which was relatively more lighthearted when compared to the above titles.
The biggest one of this lot is arguably Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, which is like a psychology textbook -- one can create profiles of every character in it and initiate debates around them because it's a microcosm of Indian society in general.
2022 was a great year for horror in Malayalam cinema. In an industry that can boast of only a few notable examples in the genre, there were no expectations of anyone coming up with a product that could really shake up conventions. When one thinks about genre-blending, the names that immediately come to mind are Bhoothakalam, Rorschach and Vichithram, which deftly blended horror with dysfunctional family drama.
Rahul Sadasivan's Bhoothakaalam employs ambient sounds, silence, light, and shadows -- all the simple stuff -- to conjure up a one-of-a-kind horror experience that's been missing from Malayalam cinema lately -- the kind where atmosphere takes precedence over everything else. Its ambitions were modest but remarkable. It steered clear of cheap gimmicks, gore, VFX, jump scares, and untimely revelations. Doesn't it feel good when a filmmaker returns to the basics of what makes horror really work?
On the other side, we had Rorschach, a part revenge thriller, part gothic ghost story, part dysfunctional family drama, part dark comedy, and part crime noir.
Like the fantastic Bhoothakalam, Vichithram was another film where the usual ghost movie cliches were absent. Moreover, it shares with that film the belief in achieving a lot with very little -- for instance, employing shadows to induce scares. Some splendidly staged scenes gave me the chills, but eventually, the realisation hits that the 'ghosts' in Vichitram are not ones to be scared of but with whom we are supposed to empathise.
It's incredible how all of these genre elements come well together in the above films, but look beneath the veneer of the concoction, and we see distinct families with ideological and temperamental differences and an astonishing capacity for evil. By the time we get to the end, most characters evolve into people they were not at the story's beginning.
Perhaps, we should include JJJJH here, too, since it reminds one of the 'horror' of living with narrow-minded or regressive relatives.
Dark comedy, satire done right
This year saw the release of some truly exceptional films in the dark comedy and satire categories, aside from, of course, the addition of elements from other genres.
First on the list is Nna Thaan Case Kodu, a film unafraid of calling out some political and religious hypocrisies and malpractice -- a rare, one-of-a-kind experience that only comes along once in a blue moon, with enough merits that lend themselves well to the big screen. Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval, who has already established himself as a unique voice with regard to humour in Malayalam cinema, once again proves that nobody writes comical situations -- audible and silent, verbal and physical -- as he does. NTCK achieves a perfect balance between its serious and lighthearted moments.
Abhinav Sunder Nayak's Mukundan Unni Associates is a film that reminds you that the world is not always Shangri-La; there exist evil people who sometimes win. The film reflects the narcissism and indifference of its titular character, along with his meticulousness and the immaculate manner in which he carries himself.
Appan also fits comfortably into the dark comedy space, given how it revolves around a regressive, utterly despicable patriarch whose family members wait for him to pass away so they can finally lead a peaceful life. It has some of the most brilliant writing choices I've seen this year, largely due to its ability to find humour in some of its darkest corners.
The biggest game-changer of 2022, filmmaker Krishand's Aavasavyuham is that rare 'festival film' which balanced both commercial and arthouse sensibilities to stunning effect. A hot talking point after its release on SonyLIV, the film is the brainchild of a visionary whose interests run the gamut from anthropology to ecology to graphic novels to superhero movies.