Local narratives, national and global contexts


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‘I went to the talkies to see cinema.’ This is how a Malayalee, would describe his experience of going to movies in the 1950s and ’60s. Those days, theatres were known as ‘talkies’.1 But, as one of my English teaching friends pointed out, there is some confusion of terms here: you can only go to cinema to watch talkies, and not the other way round. But retrospectively, when you look at Kerala’s tryst with cinema, this popular usage seems to assume resonance. For, the Malayalee viewers of the 1950s were indeed going to the ‘talkies’ (entering the narrative space) to see and be part of ‘cinema’ (a secular space). In the 1950s, Malayalam cinema, like the theatre movement, was actually creating a new, secular Kerala where caste and class and other erstwhile identities were irrelevant.

This desire to see Kerala in film is also a desire to imagine and bring into being a Kerala through the new medium of cinema. For instance, this is how the makers of Neelakuyil (P. Bhaskaran and Ramu Kariat, 1954), a landmark film of the 1950s, described their attempt: ‘Our cinema should... speak the way we actually speak, the characters in it should eat the way we eat, and dress like we do.’ These words immediately bring to mind similar pronouncements by Dada Phalke, who too wanted to see Indian images on the screen.

So, the experience and the act of film viewing can be imagined as two worlds – spectral and real – facing each other: the one that is projected onto the screen, and the other one we occupy and live in. According to Bazin, ‘Cinema substitutes before our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires.’ This face-to-face between the narrative and the viewer is neither one of correspondence and reflection nor between two mutually exclusive worlds, but one that constantly grapples with both these worlds, and always a terrain of contestations, conflicts, negotiations and re-formations. The story of Malayalam cinema is no different.


Cinema came to Kerala a decade after the Lumiére Brothers screened their historic show at Grand Café, Paris. It arrived at the shores of Kozhikode in 1906, when, the itinerant showman, Paul Vincent screened some films with his Edison Bioscope. But film production came much later. Though the first Malayalam movie, Vigatakumaran (J.C. Daniel), was made in 1928, and was followed by another silent movie, Marthanda Varma (V.V. Rao, 1931), a historical romance based on the renowned literary work by C.V. Raman Pillai, it took another seven years for the first talkie in Malayalam, Balan (S. Nottani, 1938), to come out. It was only by the 1950s that Malayalam film production gathered momentum. From an average of 6.5 films per annum in the 1950s, and 27.2 in the 1960s, it jumped to 81.8 in the 1970s, and peaked with 113.7 films in the 1980s. But by the 1990s, due to various factors including the advent of television, it began to plummet to 78.6 films, a trend that continued through the next decades and to the present.

From the beginning Malayalam cinema followed a path of its own. For instance, mythologicals or sant films were not popular in Malayalam. Likewise, while other cinemas in India were fired by the optimism of the post-independence era, and the Nehruvian nation-building project, such ‘nationalist’ or patriotic films were conspicuous by their absence in Malayalam. On the contrary, the landmark films of the period like Jeevitanouka (K. Vembu, 1951), Neelakuyil, Newspaper Boy (P. Ramdas, 1955) and Rarichan Enna Pouran (Citizen Rarichan, P. Bhaskaran, 1956), look at contemporary society and the future with a lot of circumspection. Resonating with the leftist cultural interventions of the time, the imagination of these films was fired by a vision of a classless society and a future free from social inequalities, exploitation and casteism.

But even while being searingly critical of the feudal system and its casteist and class foundations, they were also very ambivalent about the project of modernity. For instance, Neelakuyil has a school teacher, a typical representative of modernity and nation-building of the times, as its protagonist. But he turns out to be an ambivalent figure who destroys the life of the dalit woman he loves, and is afraid to cross caste barriers. Eventually, she is thrown out on the street to die a miserable death. The narrative thus brings to surface the conflicts in different realms – that of caste, class, and in the process also of modernity and national imagination – and shows how problem-ridden the modernist project is for the subaltern. So, running through the narrative is a tension between a modernity that is yet to be socialized and a sociality that is yet to be modernized.


Most of the above mentioned films of the ’50s have an adolescent at the centre who, in a way, embodies the state and hopes of a nation-to-be. So, a film title like Citizen Rarichan is no coincidence, and the milieu that surrounds these adolescent figures (signifying adolescent Kerala) is one under great turmoil and transformation – from a joint to a nuclear family, a rural to an industrial economy, and a casteist-feudal one into a secular-modern one. Amidst this churn, these films raise the question: Where do citizens-to-be like Rarichan fit in? Obviously, these adolescents are people in search of a nation. It is also no coincidence that these films came into being when the national question was a much discussed topic in the public realm of Kerala. E.M.S. Namboodiripad had already written Onnekaal Kodi Malayalikal (One and a Quarter Crore Malayalees, 1946) and The National Question in Kerala (1952).


The spatial dynamics of these films also map such tensions and orientations. On the one hand, there is a crisis of survival that pushes the protagonists away from the village and its feudal shackles. This is complemented by a pull from the cities or towns that seem to offer livelihood and freedom, though ridden with conflict. But crossing such boundaries can prove fatal; while men can hope to make it to the outside and the city, women are often doomed within. In the narratives, as against the casteist spaces of the houses, secular spaces like the tea shop, school, line bus, streets, market, court, theatre, etc. abound. In a way, the division of spaces between inside and outside, private and public, tragic and comic, female and male, turns out to be that between past and present/future too. Because whatever happens ‘inside’ are issues or concerns arising out of the residual – those resulting from a redundant social and economic system, community obligations, customs, and so on, whereas the ‘outside’ is a site of social tension and political struggles.

There is an almost total rejection of the past and its outdated social, legal and economic orders. But the possible futures that these protagonists escape or migrate to – the urban spaces, wage labour, nuclear family – are also ridden with conflicts, which is the story that Malayalam cinema of the coming decades narrated.

Malayalam cinema of the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by literary influence, and these first generation of filmmakers introduced an array of local talents in all fields – screenplay writers, actors, lyricists, music directors and technicians – who went on to create and define the ‘Malayalam’ cinema in the coming decades. Notable filmmakers of this period include P. Bhaskaran, Ramu Kariat, A. Vincent and K.S. Sethumadhavan. Chemmeen (Ramu Kariat, 1965), based on the celebrated novel by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, which won national and international recognition, could be considered the high point of this period. Like movies, film songs in fact created a pan-Malayalee secular music, the foundations of which were laid by the lyricists and singers of the period, who freely drew from folk and classical, carnatic and Hindustani traditions.


A new awakening in cinema, propelled by a combination of factors, emerged by the time Kerala society entered the 1970s. One such factor, exogenous to the Kerala context, was the setting up of several national level institutions by the Government of India to support ‘new cinema’. The prominent ones were the Film Finance Corporation, the Film and Television Institute of India and the National Film Archives. Its reverberations in Kerala manifested in the emergence of a bunch of young filmmakers who were exposed to current trends in world cinema making films that revolted against the existing aesthetic and narrative styles. The literary scene in Kerala was already undergoing a modernist revolution of sorts, where old forms, styles, themes and narratives were giving way to new ones. The narratives of the earlier era, even when they dealt with individual struggles and dilemmas, were essentially bound up with social/class liberation, and their rebellions and aspirations were dialectically placed against upper caste/class interests within the narrative. But in the seventies, the dreams and despair of the individual – that too of middle class/caste young men – gradually came to the fore.

P.N. Menon’s Olavum Teeravum (1970) was the trendsetter, a film fired by the realist aesthetic and shot almost entirely on location, breaking the claustrophobic ambience of the studio and theatrical modes of rendition. Swayamvaram (1972) by Adoor Gopalakrishnan (a Film Institute graduate), brought about a more definitive rupture. Even while portraying a conventional theme of the trials and tribulations of a runaway couple, in its form and treatment, it broke new ground. K.P. Kumaran’s Atithi (1974), another important work of the period, dealt with the abstract yet down-to-earth theme of waiting, and the social psyche of Kerala society fast turning into a money order economy. Aravindan’s Uttarayanam (1974) was about the loss of ideals and the disillusionment of the post-independence youth in a corrupt and decadent society.


As against such modernist and existentialist narratives, the films of P.A. Backer (1940-1993) consistently portrayed the lives and struggles of the oppressed and the marginalized: they were about the orphans, sex workers, landless peasants, labourers and solitary rebels. Other notable films of the period were Nirmalyam (M.T. Vasudevan Nair, 1975), about a temple oracle caught in the inexorable currents of social change, Swapnadanam (K.G. George, 1975), a psychological thriller, Aswathamavu (K.R. Mohanan, 1978), about the existential disillusions and wanderings of a writer, and Yaro Oral (Pavithran, 1978), an experimental film with surrealistic dimensions.

Shaking free from the conventional ways of storytelling and inspired by new cinematic visions, these films were thematically daring and stylistically distinct. Earlier, films depended more on the spoken word, and formally on popular theatre and folk traditions. But, for these films, apart from the ‘what’, ‘how’ to narrate was also crucial. If commitment and social change were the passwords of the earlier generation, now it was ‘self-expression’. The protagonist of the early post-independence decades was angry and fought against the past and present system; the hero of the seventies was disillusioned with himself, the system and the future.


If one looks back at the Malayalee film discourses in the 1970s and 1980s, one notices the frequent use of categories like ‘art’ and ‘commercial’ to describe films. A set of films made by the likes of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, John Abraham, K.R. Mohanan and a few others were described as ‘art’ films, while positing ‘commercial’ blockbusters as its other. But these ‘art’ films were able to create a niche for themselves not only in film discourses but also in the mainstream theatres, where they found a new screening slot called ‘noon shows’. More significantly, they were able to turn out films at regular frequency, thanks to industrial entrepreneurs like Ravindran Nair, who funded several such attempts, the accolades they received at home and abroad, and a receptive audience base created by the film society movement.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films are notable for their deep humanity and mastery over form. They are firmly placed in the Malayalee milieu and have consistently explored various aspects of Kerala life and polity. His films dissected the conflicts of the individual caught up in a social system, from which he often has no escape, like a stagnant rural economy (Kotiyettam, 1977), feudal mindset (Elipathayam, 1981), communist ideals and expectations of the followers (Mukhamukham, 1984), a very physical prison (Matilukal, 1990), one’s own macho power or servility (Vidheyan, 1993), or one’s own occupational dharma, here that of a hangman (Nizhalkutthu, 2002).


The films of G. Aravindan (1935-1991) were noted for their oneiric quality and a constant yearning to break limits, and mix various forms of art. He freely adopted various styles and genres like cartoons, epics, legends, and folklore, and drew inspiration from various sources, epics, classical music, folk art, painting, and theatre. While his Kanchanasita (1977) was a celluloid interpretation of the Ramayana epic that dwelt upon the all too human conflicts of the mythic Rama in a tribal setting, Thampu (1978) was a lyrical film about the arrival and departure of a circus troupe and the ripples it creates in a sleepy village, and Estappan (1980) was about an enigmatic character in a fishing village. If Kummatti (1979) was one of the most imaginative of children’s films ever made in any Indian language, Pokkuveyil (1981) took the theme of the disillusioned youth to its logical extreme. Though he gradually moved towards linear narratives in his later films, they also dealt with some seminal themes.

Another major filmmaker of the period was John Abraham (1937-1987) whose works are imbued with a sense of deep humanity and dark humour. In a way they all dealt with the impossibility of being free and human. (Agraharatile Kazhuthai, i.e. A Donkey in the Brahmin Village, 1977 in Tamil and Cheriachante Kroorakrithyangal, i.e. The Criminalities of Mr. Cherian, 1979). His last film before his tragic death in 1987, Amma Ariyan or For Mother’s Attention (1986), was a poignant journey through the emotional and mental ruins of Kerala’s radical past. This disturbing road-movie in the historical and political sense was produced by Odessa Movies, a unique experiment in film production, as it was funded entirely through small donations from the public.

While the ‘new wave’ filmmakers were hogging all the attention and putting Malayalam cinema on the world map, the commercial, mainstream cinema was also undergoing significant changes. The formal and technical innovations that distinguished the new wave were being gradually absorbed by the mainstream, as were the actors and technicians it introduced. By the 1980s, a kind of osmosis was under way with the gradual dissolution of the boundaries that separated the commercial mainstream from the elitist ‘art’ cinema. A crop of filmmakers – the practitioners of the ‘middle cinema’ – burst into the scene. Among them were prolific film-makers like K.G. George, Bharathan, P. Padmarajan, Fazil, Satyan Anthikkad, Lenin Rajendran and Balachandra Menon.


While Fazil’s concerns were adolescent love and filial relationships, I.V. Sasi’s canvas was broader. After Avalude Ravukal (Her Nights, 1978), which was a trendsetter of sorts, Sasi, in association with his scenarist, T. Damodaran, made a series of political melodramas based on public/ political scandals of the eighties. The major themes of the period were entanglements in marital/love life and corruption in public life. Sex and violence formed an inevitable part of the narrative. The burgeoning film industry and the whopping increase in production acted as catalysts for trying new technologies and techniques. The fact that India’s first 3-D movie, My Dear Kuttichathan (Jijo, 1984), was made in Malayalam stands testimony to its vitality and vibrancy. A fantasy film for children, it was a great commercial success and was dubbed into several Indian languages.

By the end of the 1980s, the formal and thematic distinctness that separated the ‘art’ and the ‘commercial’ had thinned, and as a corollary, the rationale of the film society movement that supported such ‘offbeat’ attempts. If the 1960s and 1970s established two major stars, viz., Satyan and Prem Nazir, the 1980s and ’90s saw the emergence of another duo – Mammootty and Mohanlal. These duos, in a way, also personify the ambivalence in Malayalee male sexual imagination, which seems to switch between two contradictory tendencies: the lyrical-romantic and the macho-masculine.


The nineties saw a sea change in the state of the industry as well as the audience. The buzzwords of the decade were liberalization, privatization and globalization. At the national level, the radical shift in economic policies opened up the economy and the sky, which transformed the media sphere. The fall of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc was another event that had tremendous impact upon the Malayalee psyche and political imagination. Technologically, the spread of satellite television with its plethora of tele-serials ate into the traditional thematic terrains of cinema, which in turn, transformed the cinema’s audience base. With the sobs and soaps invading the drawing rooms, there was a withdrawal of the family audience from the cinemas, and such themes from films. Working within limited economies of scale, no substantial outside markets except the Gulf region, and unable to compete technically with other cinemas, Malayalam cinema of the early nineties retreated into the only areas where the indigenous seemed to have an assured market and could not be combated from the outside – the slapstick and the sleaze.


A crop of filmmakers who are comfortable with both the worlds dominated the scene, prominent among them being Sibi Malayil, Fazil, Priyadarsan, Srinivasan, Kamal, Jayaraj, Shyamaprasad, Balachandra Menon and Lohitadas. Their films were psycho-dramas, slapstick comedies and social satires which were treated with a tinge of élan. Echoing the rise of communal politics at the national level, the 1990s also saw a spate of films centred on the upper caste milieu and ethos; their rituals, costumes, concerns and mannerisms were established as the normative/narrative centre. The minorities, especially communities like Muslims and the lower castes, were gradually marginalized and forced into stereotypes, tending to appear more as exceptions or as the other to the ‘normal’ upper caste milieu/male. This decade also saw the increasing marginalization of women within the narratives, and along with it the rise of macho superhuman heroes, hitherto alien to Malayalam cinema.

In the parallel stream, T.V. Chandran and Shaji N. Karun were the two major filmmakers who made their mark in the nineties. T.V. Chandran’s films have consistently grappled with the lives and struggles, hopes and frustrations of the marginalized, in the process exploring troubling questions that haunt contemporary society like freedom, masculinity and communalism. Shaji Karun, who was a cinematographer to most of Aravindan’s films, debuted with Piravi (1988), which dealt with the agony of a father’s endless wait for his son who was tortured to death by the police.


For more than two decades, and especially since the advent of the television revolution, there has been no end to the hue and cry over the ‘crisis’ in Malayalam film industry. The very fact that this discourse of crisis appears again and again is itself an indicator of certain maladies that daunt Malayalee film culture and industry. The most visible sign of the malady is the alarming rate of closure of cinema theatres in the state, due to increasing pressure over prime land and locations and the increasing non-viability of the present theatres, as they did not undergo any radical redesign in screening technology or viewing comfort.

The visual culture industry witnessed two major shifts during the last decades – first, the coming of television and second, the advent of digital technology that radically transformed the film industry – production, distribution, exhibition and reception. Films began to be available in easily replicable and exchangeable formats which created new audiences for cinema, but affected the audience presence in the theatres and so, box office collections.

Cinema, elsewhere, addressed this issue by creating spectacular images, thus prompting audiences to watch it on big screens. Alongside was the spread of smaller theatres and multiplex screens all over the country, offering quality viewing experience to audiences. But they were mostly located in urban centres and catered to high net worth individuals and milieus, especially from the IT sector and the new urban rich. In the Malayalam film industry, both these trends are at a nascent stage. Due to its low economies of scale and limited market, it is almost impossible to create spectacular productions to cater to the changing and highly globalized tastes and expectations of the new audiences. On the exhibition front, even while theatres are closing down at an alarming rate, only a few multiplex or small theatres have come up, that too, in urban centres. And the changing sensibility of the local youth that is largely moulded by globalized media consumption has shifted their preference towards films from other languages, especially Tamil and Hindi, that produce films of higher technical quality and with huge capital investment. All this has led to a situation where Malayalam films are finding it difficult to compete with films from outside, even in the local market.


The present ‘crisis’ in Malayalam cinema industry can also be characterized as one where a ‘regional’ or’ regionalized’ culture is struggling to negotiate its space within a highly globalized environment and briskly globalizing media economy. While at the cultural level the crisis relates to its thematics and identity, at the economic/industrial level it is a struggle for survival. So, as an industry and as an art form, it has to negotiate its way through this complex maze that is crisscrossed with issues and concerns of social, economic, ideological, and political dimensions.

The most striking development in the first decade of the new millennium is the entry of a number of young filmmakers who, fighting against all odds, try to make their distinct voices heard amidst the din of Bollywood, TV channels and the commercial formulae. Most of their films are low budget, formally adventurous, thematically introspective, and engage the present in all its complexities. Recent years have seen some provocative and bold films like Maranasimhasanam, i.e. The Throne of Death (Murali Nair, 1999), an acerbic satire on the degeneration of communist politics which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes; M.P. Sukumaran Nair’s Sayanam, Pavithran’s Kuttappan Sakshi, Satish Menon’s Bhavam, Shyamaprasad’s Agnisakshi, Suma Josson’s Janmadinam, Liji Pullappilly’s Sancharam and Rajiv Vijayaraghavan’s Margam. At the mainstream front, the industry has also produced a crop of young filmmakers like Lal Jose, Blessey, and Roshan Andrews who, while remaining within the mainstream framework, have tried to explore fresh themes and narratives.

In the last two years Kerala has witnessed the rise of a slew of ‘small’ films (some call it the ‘multiplex’ wave) by youngsters, who are at ease with new technologies and its formats, and are making an earnest attempt to create sensible and sensitive works. While their formats and styles are deeply influenced by global and national trends, their thematics are firmly rooted in Malayalee life and mindscapes. Films like Chitrasoothram (Vipin Vijay) Akam (Shalini Nair), Manjadikuru (Anjali Menon) and Aadimadhyantham (Sherry) keep the ‘art’ tradition alive while Chappa Kurisu (Anwar Rasheed), Salt n Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam (Aashiq Abu), Traffic (Rajesh Pillai), Adaminte Makan Abu (Salim Ahmed), T D Dasan VI Standard (Mohan Raghavan), Melvilasam (Madhav Ramdas), Ee Adutha Kalthu (Arun Kumar Aravind) augur a new trend in the commercial mainstream. Though many of the latter films are asocial and apolitical in their approach, they have managed to make their presence felt within the industry.

The contemporary challenge of Malayalam cinema is to rediscover itself and to creatively engage with the inexorable but exciting possibilities opened up by new media technologies, and the globalized tastes and expectations of its viewers. For this, it has to reinvent its ‘locality’ in order to address the new ‘globality’, both as an economic model and an aesthetic form.



1. The term ‘Talkies’ most probably came into being because permanent movie houses began to be established during the same time when talking pictures were becoming the norm. Till then the scene was dominated by itinerant showmen.