Taking the leap: The risk takers of 2020 in Malayalam cinema
In this roundup, we look at Malayalam actors and filmmakers who boldly went where no one ever went before
Malayalam cinema was off to a great start in 2020. We got successive releases that proved to be worth the audience's time and money until the pandemic played spoilsport. We also lost some beloved actors and filmmakers who left behind an irreparable void. 2020 was also notable for some bold risks taken by a few actors and filmmakers irrespective of the outcomes. In this piece, we look at those who boldly went where no one ever went before.
It's not every day that you see a mainstream producer going against the grain and doing something that most in the industry wouldn't dream of doing for fear of offending certain parties. When everyone else decided to sit it out, Vijay Babu released his production Sufiyum Sujatayam, directed by Naranipuzha Shanavas, on Amazon Prime Video. It was a first for mainstream Malayalam cinema, and most people welcomed the move. But, like any event that upsets the status quo, the move also drew sharp criticism. Nevertheless, the example set by Vijay Babu compelled other filmmakers not part of the "established order" to consider following his example in the future.
Fahadh Faasil and director Mahesh Narayanan also took, arguably, the bravest decision of 2020. They shot CU Soon in the middle of a pandemic and managed to release it on Amazon Prime Video all in a few months. The arduous efforts that went into the making of the film are there for all to see, and what's more admirable is the fact that it all paid off well. Like Vijay Babu, Mahesh and team also faced objections from certain corners. A first of its kind in Malayalam, CU Soon became one of the most discussed films of 2020.
Dulquer Salmaan took the plunge into film production this year. By picking a small film, Maniyarayile Ashokan, as his maiden production venture, the actor opened the doors for a team of newcomers. He followed it up with debutant Anoop Sathyan's Varane Avashyamund (starring Suresh Gopi and Shobana) - although the latter was released first. Dulquer also opted to release Maniyarayile Ashokan on Netflix, making it the first Malayalam film to premiere directly on the platform. There are also reports that Dulquer's first big-budget production, Kurup, may release on an OTT platform soon.
2020 saw Prithviraj taking multiple risks. First, there was Ayyappanum Koshiyum, a revisionist take on the macho mass films of the 90s. In the age of dwindling attention spans, doing a three-hour film propelled largely by character dynamics and riveting dialogues was a big gamble. But it worked, proving that even a three-hour film can be alluring if handled by a perceptive filmmaker like Sachy and an actor unafraid of being vulnerable on screen. The film was elevated further by gifted actors like Biju Menon, Anil Nedumangad and Gowri Nandha.
For Prithviraj, other risks came in the form of Aadujeevitham and Jana Gana Mana. After flying to Jordan to shoot for a portion of Aadujeevitham, the team experienced a temporary setback but managed to return home. Later, while shooting for Dijo Jose Antony's Jana Gana Mana, the actor tested positive for Covid-19, following which he underwent quarantine. He resumed shooting for the film later after he tested negative.
Trance is the best example of a filmmaker going in a completely different direction. Anwar Rasheed, who previously found comfort in conventional crowd-pleasing entertainers, took a huge plunge when he decided to make a trippy film about an evangelist who goes through a crisis of faith and conscience. The Trance experience didn't just begin with the film's opening minutes. It started the moment the hype machine went into overdrive, the effect of which sustained for over a year. Arguably the most polarising film of the year, Trance felt like two movies in one. Nothing of this sort was ever attempted in Malayalam cinema before. Naturally, people had questions. Was it all real? Was at least some part of it taking place in the protagonist's head? But it's a film that works better the second time, without the interval block to disrupt the narrative flow. Fahadh's manic energy coupled with the near-psychedelic visual style may not have worked for all, but one can't deny that a section of audiences, in both Kerala and outside, have warmed up to these storytelling choices.
Midhun Manuel Thomas
Like Trance, Anjaam Pathira turned out to be another surprise from a filmmaker known for light-hearted entertainers. Midhun Manuel Thomas was operating in a genre that he loves the most - thriller - but one he had not attempted before as a filmmaker. Not only did Anjaam Pathira turn out to be the most refined film of Midhun's career, but it also led to a renewed interest in the genre among Malayali thriller fans who were waiting for an 'international level' whodunit in their home state. Besides, the film also saw actors Sharaf U Dheen and Indrans stepping out of their comfort zone, yet again, to deliver memorable performances despite making small appearances. Anjaam Pathira has also caught the attention of thriller fans outside Kerala, and there seems to be an interest in remaking it in other languages, beginning with Hindi. A while back, Midhun announced that the same team would be coming back for a thriller that is not necessarily a sequel to Anjaam Pathira but one in which Dr Anwar Hussain (Kunchacko Boban) will appear.
After Anjaam Pathira, producer Ashiq Usman turned his attention to a small film called Love - a thriller filmed entirely inside an apartment. Like CU Soon it was also shot in the middle of a pandemic, with a small crew. Moreover, Usman also took the unprecedented step of releasing the film first in Gulf theatres. Whether the film will have a wide theatrical/OTT release here is not known at the moment. However, the film will be making its premiere at the 25th International Film Festival of Kerala in February.
Nobody expected the announcement of a sequel to the blockbuster Drishyam, that too in the middle of a pandemic. When their big-budget collaboration, Ram, got stalled due to pandemic-induced restrictions, director Jeethu Joseph and Mohanlal took up the challenge of doing a Drishyam sequel while waiting for an opportune moment to resume Ram. The team completed filming while adhering to stringent safety measures enforced on the set, and staying in a single location for the entire shoot.