The Real Kerala Story

With Malayalam cinema flourishing like never before, here are filmmakers and stakeholders on what’s caused this resurgence
The Real Kerala Story

At the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, award-winning Indian filmmaker Payal Kapadia expressed her admiration for Malayalam cinema—a rather budget-limited industry making waves from the southern tip of the country. "There's an immense range of films being made there," she said, while wondering how Malayalam arthouse films managed to get widely distributed and appreciated. While this has been the case for a while now, Malayalam cinema can be declared to have truly peaked in the first half of this year, with some of its finest films coming to great reception. From soul-stirring survival dramas like Manjummel Boys and Aadujeevitham to folk horror like Bramayugam and entertainers like Premalu and Aavesham, Malayalam cinema has offered cinema for everyone. Besides critical appreciation, these films have also minted big numbers at the box office, an aspect that Malayalam cinema has generally not been known for. As per trade experts, the industry's cumulative gross from the first six months alone amounts to a whopping ₹1000 crores, a staggering feat considering the audience demographics. This achievement also holds significance as it comes at a time when other major film industries in India are struggling to lure the audience to theatres.

K Vijayakumar, President of The Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK), credits the revised OTT policy as one of the causes of Malayalam cinema's exceptional run this year. "Unlike before, streaming platforms are now reluctant to acquire rights before theatrical release. Since filmmakers cannot slide mediocre films to OTT platforms anymore, they are compelled to make quality films," says Vijayakumar. After a rather dull January, it was in February—generally considered an off-season for theatre business in India—that the ball was set rolling for Malayalam cinema's dream run. Premalu, Bramayugam and Manjummel Boys got released in successive weeks, much to the delight of both cinephiles and exhibitors. Theatre owners across the country recall the sudden surge in demand for Malayalam films during this period. "Initially, I opened only 4-5 shows for Manjummel Boys, but after watching the film, I immediately increased the show count to 50, by night. It was the first time that a Malayalam film, without any major backing and promotions, was doing so well in TN. Remember, it was not even dubbed in Tamil. The word-of-mouth spread like wildfire, helping the film gross over ₹1 crore even from interior regions like Tiruppur," says Meenakshi Sundaram, the Vice President of Mayajaal Multiplex in Chennai. Manjummel Boys had a terrific run in the Telugu states as well, adds Venkat, senior manager at Hyderabad's Prasad Multiplex. "The Malayalam original played for nearly 7-8 weeks, while The Telugu version ran for 4-5 weeks." A producer from Karnataka also shares that the film raked in ₹15 crore from the state.

Much like Manjummel BoysPremalu also took cinemas by storm, particularly in the South. A charming romcom without the presence of any A-lister, the film caught the attention of the youth, courtesy of vibrant treatment and effective usage of meme language. Though director Girish AD's previous films were also crowd-pleasers, it was Premalu that made heads turn. "I think it's majorly because of the urban nature of this film. Unlike my other work, Premalu stuck to genre tropes. The Hyderabad setting was also key for its success," says the director. After a terrific opening in Kerala, Premalu took a surprising turn when SS Rajamouli's son SS Kartikeya acquired its Telugu distribution rights. "Kartikeya's involvement really helped as they know how to market a film. But interestingly, the Malayalam version held strong even then. The original ran for over 4-5 weeks and the Telugu version had a good 3-4 weeks run,” says Venkat. Similarly, in TN, the Malayalam version had a steady run for well over a month, but the Tamil dubbed versions hardly sustained for two weeks. Crediting the OTT culture for this new shift in sensibilities, Girish AD adds, "People are now increasingly embracing subtitles to enjoy films in their original form, even in theatres. This will further improve the performance of Malayalam films outside Kerala."

In the last decade or so, Malayalam cinema has witnessed a dedicated fanbase flourishing among non-Malayalis, but it was mostly restricted to post-OTT release viewing, with discussions usually taking place among discerning cinephiles. But this year, there has been a remarkable turnaround with people watching and appreciating these films in theatres. Tamil filmmaker Halitha Shameem calls it a "deserving breakthrough for the industry that has been consistently producing quality output." A huge fan of Malayalam cinema, Halitha says, "I'm in awe of the stories they handpick from everyday lives, their aesthetics, humour... There's so much to learn. In Tamil, we keep revolving around one or two themes."

But how did Malayalam films with lesser-known names enjoy such a free run outside their home state? The factors are aplenty, according to stakeholders and trade analysts. "There were no major releases in many languages because of the elections and IPL, which offered Malayalam cinema the space for an extended run. But beyond all these external factors, it is the quality of the content that has primarily caught the audience's attention," says Girish Johar, a Mumbai-based producer and film business expert, who also adds that the widespread acceptance for Malayalam films isn't an overnight achievement. He feels the pandemic and the subsequent OTT boom were significant in introducing many to Malayalam cinema, blurring the regional divide and language barrier. "You can't point fingers at one particular film for suddenly opening the gates. It's a reward for all the extraordinary content they have been producing over the years, which perhaps started almost a decade back with Drishyam (2013)." Agreeing with Girish Johar's observation, Venkat adds, "In the last 20 years, we have been screening Malayalam films every weekend. Films like DrishyamBangalore Days (2014), Premam (2015) and Charlie (2015) were hugely successful in Hyderabad, and it helps that the city has a sizeable Malayali population."

During its exceptional run in Tamil Nadu, Manjummel Boys became the first Malayalam film ever to gross over ₹50 crores from the state. While many believe the film's 'Guna-connect' as the major reason for its astounding success, Halitha disagrees. "People might easily attribute Manjummel Boys' success to the impact created by the Kanmani Anbodu song, but no, the film succeeded on its own merit. There are several films, including Lokesh Kanagaraj's works, where similar retro tracks are used, but how many have actually been this effective?" asks Halitha. Elaborating more, Meenakshi Sundaram adds, "Manjummel Boys highlights the unconditional nature of love in friendship, whereas Guna was about a lover's sacrifice, which is a common theme. By celebrating Manjummel Boys, the audience were, in fact, celebrating friendship."

Such novelty in themes and storytelling has always been instrumental in Malayalam cinema's success. For instance, take Bramayugam—a black-and-white period horror film. Despite its experimental nature, the film was lapped up by the masses and ended up earning around ₹85 crores. "Bramayugam isn't necessarily ‘commercial cinema’, and yet, it did tremendous business, primarily because the film and Mammootty's negative role piqued the audience's curiosity. It is not often that we see a superstar headlining such an unconventional film," reflects Girish Johar.

Interestingly, despite Indian cinema's obsession with stars, it’s not necessarily star appeal that has found these Malayalam films so many takers across the country. For example, though Bramayugam was a hit outside Kerala, Mammootty's latest release Turbo—a mass entertainer—did not find many takers. Similar is the case with Prithviraj's Guruvayoorambala Nadayil, which came right after he delivered a massive blockbuster, Aadujeevitham. Venkat says, "When it comes to Malayalam cinema, Telugu audiences prefer content-driven cinema over star vehicles. People thronged theatres for Manjummel Boys and Premalu, but not for Turbo. It suggests that only strong content will work.”

"Content is the hero," echoes Meenakshi Sundaram, adding, "If the content is good, Tamil audiences don’t care about the the language; they are happy to watch with subtitles. Aavesham was not dubbed in Tamil, but still had a good run here." Meenakshi Sundaram, though, is quick to add that this may not necessarily be a sign of things to come. "These Malayalam films came at a time when Tamil cinema was struggling to offer attractive content. The Tamil film industry has got all its big films stacked from June to December. Had the release of Aavesham coincided with a huge Tamil film, it wouldn't have worked as well."

Halitha sees the lacklustre performance of Tamil cinema this year as a "blessing in disguise." "A void was created by the absence of star films, but it enabled us to experience Malayalam films in the big screens. I prefer them to mediocre star-driven cinema." Halitha is so much in awe of Malayalam cinema that she is releasing her new film Minimini as a Tamil-Malayalam bilingual. "I don't want to be a spectator anymore. I want to make Malayalam films and Minimini is a first step in that direction. We have shot both versions and I believe the Malayalam one will be better than Tamil."

Like Payal Kapadia noticed, Malayalam cinema is known for accepting story-driven experimental films, and the tendency is often attributed to the Malayalam audience's palate for a diverse range of films cutting across language and culture. Curiously though, it’s also a land where the likes of Vijay, Allu Arjun and Shah Rukh Khan have been celebrated for their stardom. Perhaps then, all this newfound fame and acceptance of Malayalam cinema outside Kerala can be regarded as a case of poetic justice.

(With inputs from Jayabhuvaneshwari B, A Sharadhaa, BH Harsh)

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