History of Malayalam Cinema

Every year when the National Film Awards are announced, Malayalam cinema used to be in the limelight, for its clean sweeps of awards. This year too Malayalam cinema is in the news, but for a different reason, for its non-performance. At this juncture it would be interesting to look back to those ages when Malayalam cinema took its first steps as an armature industry to one of the most vibrant one in India.

The history of Indian Cinema began at the early part of the twentieth century. Malayalam cinema had to wait a few more decades to get its first film. The first feature film in Malayalam ‘Vigathakumaran’ was released in 1928. Produced and directed by the Chennai returned business man J.C.Daniel, who himself handled the role of the protagonist, the film stood apart with a social theme while mythological films ruled the film arena all over India.

Kerala had to wait another five years to get its next film, but only to be shelved after a few exhibitions due to a legal entanglement. ‘Marthandavarma’ based on the famous novel by C.V. Raman Pillai was produced by Sunderraj, a historical silent film, would have had a great impact on the cinema of South India if it had not met with legal confrontation.

The first Malayalam cinema with a sound track was released in 1938. The film ‘Balan’ produced by R.Sundaram and directed by Notani was a melodrama with more Tamil influence than Malayalam. Following the commercial success of ‘Balan’, more films like ‘Jnambika’(1940) and ‘Prahlada’(1941) came out to the theatres. P.J.Cheriyan’s ‘Nirmala’ (1948) was the first film to explore the possibility of music and songs in cinema. The lyrics of the film penned by the legendary Malayalam poet G.Shankara Kurup became so popular that song-dance sequences became essential ingredients of Malayalam cinema.

‘Jeevithanouka’ (1951) a melodramatic musical could be considered as the first ‘super-hit’ film with the first Malayalam ‘super-star’, Thikkurishi Sukumaran Nair. The success formula of ‘Jeevithanouka’ was repeated for many films to come out after that till the path breaking film ‘Neelakuyil’ saw the light.

‘Neelakuyil’ (1954) broke away from the Tamil – Hindi influence of Malayalam cinema and had an authentic story penned by renowned writer Uroob. Directed by the duo of P.Bhaskaran and Ramu Karyat, the film dealt with the story of untouchables prevailed in the society. This also was the first Malayalam film shot outdoors and also the first film to be recognised in the National level.

The next year saw yet another novel venture in Malayalam cinema. A group of students, influenced by the wave of neo-realism in the West, ventured out to produce the film ‘Newspaper Boy’, directed by P.Ramadas. The film which came out even before Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’, dealt with the issue of poverty.

The first full-length colour film of Malayalam came out in 1960, ‘Kandam Bacha Coat’, which otherwise was a film of no much relevance.

‘Chemmeen’ (1965) directed by Ramu Karyat was the first South Indian film to bag the President's Golden Lotus Award for the best film. Based on the famous novel by renowned Malayalam writer Takazhi Shivashanakara Pillai, ‘Chemmeen’ pioneered the growth of Malayalam cinema in technical and artistic aspects. It brought together some of the best technical talents then available in India, Salil Chowdhari (music), Markes Burtly (cinematography) and Hrishikesh Mukhargee (editing). It also had a huge star cast.

Some of the films like P.N.Menon’s ‘Oolavum Theeravum’ (1969) announced the arrival of a great movement, which changed the face of Malayalam cinema during the early 1970s.

The early 1970s witnessed a radical change in the perspective towards cinema by filmmakers as well as film viewers of Kerala. The beginning of film society movement resulted in the exposure to world classics, which helped a group of young filmmakers realise the uniqueness of the language of this medium, which till then was in the clutches of the forms used for stage dramas. Influenced by the French and Italian New Wave, as elsewhere in India, the Malayalam New Wave was born. The arrival of young filmmakers from the newly constituted Film Institute in Pune acted as a catalyst for this radical change.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ‘Swayamvaram’ (1972) unplugged a stream of extraordinary films, often termed as ‘Parallel Cinema’, by film institute trained and self-taught young directors, which surpassed the superficiality of mere story telling and made maximum use of the possibilities cinema as a medium. Through ‘Uttarayanam’ (1974) G.Aravindan joined this movement followed by directors like P.A.Backer with ‘Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol’ (1975), K.P.Kumaran with ‘Athithi’ (1975) and K.R.Mohanan with ‘Ashwathama’ (1978). Renowned writer M.T.Vasudevan Nair made his directorial debut with ‘Nirmalyam’ (1973), which won the Golden lotus award, during this period. Padmarajan and K.G.George who later became the proponents of the stream of cinema often termed ‘Middle Cinema’ too made their debuts in 1979 with their films ‘Swapnadanam’ and ‘Peruvazhiyambalam’ respectively.

Even though the Parallel Cinema movement had a slow down during 1980s, some of the best films of Malayalam cinema from directors like Adoor and Aravindan came out during this period. Shaji.N.Karun’s ‘Piravi’ (1988) created stir in the International Film Festival circuits and refreshed the Malayali film sensibility. The major development during this decade was the growth of another stream of Malayalam cinema, the ‘Middle Cinema’, which fused the artistic qualities of ‘Parallel Cinema’ and the popular form of the commercial Malayalam cinema. This resulted in the birth of a number of films with down to earth stories, but with most of them becoming commercial successes. K.G.George with his films ‘Kolangal’ (1980), ‘Yavanika’ (1982), ‘Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback’ (1983), ‘Adaminte Variyellu’ (1983) and ‘Irakal’ (1985), P.Padmarajan with his films like ‘Oridathoru Phayalwan’ (1981), Koodevide? (1983), ‘Namakku Parkan Munthiri Thoppukal’ (1986), ‘Moonnampakkam’ (1988) and ‘Aparan’ (1988), Bharathan with ‘Lorry’ (1980), ‘Marmaram’ (1982) and ‘Ormakkayi’ (1982), Mohan with ‘Vidaparayum Munpe’ (1981), Lenin Rajendran with ‘Chillu’ (1982) and ‘Meenamasathile Sooryan’ (1985), Pavithran with ‘Uppu’ (1986) and K.S.Sethumadhavan with ‘Oppol’ (1980) all were strong presence in Malayalam cinema during the 80s.

Barring films from Adoor, Aravindan and Shaji 1990s didn’t see much good films. Murali Nair’s film ‘Maranasimhasanam’ (1999) was an exception. T.V.Chandran who started with ‘Alicinte Anveshanam’ (1989) too continued with his films like ‘Ponthan Mada’ (1993) ‘Ormakalundayirikanam’ (1995) and ‘Mankamma’ (1997). The commercial cinema came out with films cut-off from the real Kerala society and larger than human chauvinist characters. Soft porno films too flooded the theatres, which won huge commercial gains.

The new millennium too didn’t had much to offer to Malayalam cinema, though some works like Sarath’s ‘Sayahnam’ (2000) and ‘Stithi’ (2002), Satish Menon’s ‘Bhavam’ (2002), Rajiv Vijayaraghavan’s ‘Margam’ (2003), T V Chandran’s ‘Susannah’ (2001), ‘Danny’ (2001), ‘Padam Onnu Oru Vilapam’ (2003) and ‘Kathavasheshan’ (2004), Adoor’s ‘Nizhalkkuthu’ (2004) and Pradip Nair’s ‘Oridam’ (2005) came out during this period.

The three giants of Malayalam Cinema: Adoor, Aravindan and John

Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Even before Adoor made his first film, his presence was felt in the cinema circuits by initiating the constitution of ‘Chalachitra’, Kerala’s first Film Society and also ‘Chitralekha’ a Film Cooperative Society.

‘Swayamvaram’ (1972), tells the story of a young couple migrated to the city and their struggle to survive there, with a tragic end. The narrative, unfamiliar to Malayalam cinema till then pioneered the ‘New wave’ in Malayalam cinema. ‘Kodiyettam’ (1977) depicts the slow transformation of Shankaran Kutty, an absurd man towards maturity with actor Gopi’s memorable performance. ‘Elippathayam’ (1981) is often considered as Adoor’s masterpiece. It tells the story of Unni, the tail end of a feudal past who behaves like a rat in a rattrap unable to cop up with the changing world. ‘Mukhamukham’ (1984) became highly controversial at that time for its criticism of the Leftist political parties of Kerala. ‘Anantharam’ (1987) with its complex narrative looks into the complex mindscape of a disturbed youth, while ‘Mathilukal’ (1989) looks into the mindscape of an intellectual mind, the renowned writer Vikom Muhammad Bashir. ‘Vidheyan’ (1994) based on a novel by Paul Zacharia, analysis the master slave equation by telling the story of Bhaskara Patteler the landlord and Thommy his obedient servant. ‘Kathapurushan’ (1995) looks into the history of Kerala since independence and became a matter of controversy for the protagonist’s resemblance to EMS, the Communist leader of Kerala. His latest film ‘Nizhalkkuthu’ (2003) depicts the mental agonies a hangman goes through after understanding that his latest victim was an innocent.

G Aravindan

Aravindan first came to limelight through his cartoon series ‘Cheriya Manushyarum Valya Lokavum’, which appeared during the 1960s.

His first film ‘Uttarayanam’ (1974) came out from the group of modernist individuals comprising of artist Devan, playwright Thikkodian and writer Pattathuvila Karunakaran. It dealt with the degradation the Indian society undergone after Independence. ‘Kanchana Seeta’ (1977) based on ‘Ramayana’ alludes the golden image of Seeta, which Rama sets by his side for the Aswamedha yaga. The character of Seeta, who never appears in the film, is represented by the spirits of the nature. ‘Thambu’ (1978) shows the lives of the simple village folks and their reaction towards a circus, which arrives to their village. ‘Thambu’ shows the power of images in cinema even without a storyline for it. ‘Kummatty’ and ‘Estheppan’ which came out during the same year 1979, is considered as Aravindan’s mastery works. ‘Kummatty’ based on a folk tale of Kerala is about a mythic character of Kummatty the magician. ‘Estheppan’ tells the story of a mystic character, which parallels Christ in the Biblical story. ‘Pokkuveyil’ (1981) is a journey through the complex labyrinths of a young artist's mindscapes, going through a phase of alienation. Based of C. V. Shriraman’s story ‘Chidambaram’ (1985), is a deeply symbolic exploration of the man-woman attraction leading to betrayal and eventually to the purgatory of guilt. ‘Oridathu’ (1986) takes a look at a remote village where modernity arrives in the form of electricity and the way the villagers react to it. ‘Marattam’ (1988) is narrated in the form of three folk music of Kerala, the Thampuran pattu, Pulluvan pattu and Ayyappan pattu. Aravindan’s last film ‘Vasthuhara’ (1990) tells the story of the dispossessed set in Bengal.

John Abraham

Trained at the FTII, Pune John Abraham created a deep impact in Malayalam cinema with only four films in his credit in his short life span. His first film ‘Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile’ (1971) was considered by John himself as a worthless film. ‘Agraharathil Kazhuthai’ (1977) was made in Tamil and is considered his masterpiece. Through the tale of donkey, which strays into a village of orthodox Brahmins, John strikes at the roots of religious orthodoxy and had to face a stiff opposition from them. ‘Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal’ (1979) uses Christian and feudal symbols in the backdrop of Kuttanadu, John’s home land. When he attacked the traditionalists in his earlier film ‘Agraharathil Kazhutai’, in ‘Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal’, he attacked the feudal system and police atrocities during the feudal period. John constituted the Odessa Collective, aiming at production and exhibition of good cinema with active participation of the general public, without the intervention of market forces. Odessa's first film and John's last ‘Amma Ariyan’(1979) re-wrote all the conventions of filmmaking. They raised money for the film by traveling from village to village, beating drums and asking for contributions for the 'people's cinema'. He also took active part in street play movement. ‘Amma Ariyan’, made in a documentary format is embedded in the highly turbulent political era of Kerala.

Malayalam Cinema Today

During the late 1960s and during the 1970s when Indian ‘New Wave’ cinema, especially the much acclaimed Hindi films, fell into the trap of a formula of class-struggle stories, ironically mostly funded by the very oppressor class, Malayalam cinema broke away from such formulas and explored the depths of social and individual relationships. These extraordinary films made during the period could even find its audience among the common man through theatres and film societies. But in the millennium Malayalam cinema seems to be going to the same trap, which ultimately proved to be destructive to the ‘New Wave’ elsewhere in India. The ‘Parallel’ films coming out today often dwells on the most obvious subject, which could be even got from newspapers. The strength of cinema to go much beyond the surface level of an issue is often neglected and dramatizing these obvious ‘issues’ in even more obvious ways have become the rule of the day. And when critics laud these films as greats, the downfall becomes complete.