Why Malayalam cinema is an engaging alternative to Hindi cinema

Mollywood opens new perspectives on regional Indian cinema but is it a cut above Bollywood?

Published Jun 17, 2020 11:37am

Most of our exposure to Indian cinema has been a Bollywood film (or 20), mainly because of our familiarity with Hindi, but there still exists a distinct North Indian (read: Punjabi Hindu) bias to the characters we see on screen.

However, with an increase in nationalist films, tired clichés and not to mention, actors bending their very flexible spines to the political winds (and windbags) —shouldn’t there be greener pastures to turn to?

These lush pastures can perhaps be found in the wonderful variety of films from India’s southern state of Kerala.

Films shot and made in the Malayalam language, colloquially known as Mollywood, offer gems of films and innovative filmmaking that offer a more engaging alternative to Hindi cinema.

A new perspective on regional Indian cinema

Malayalam films have always been known for its realist cinema, more recently a new wave of filmmakers has been experimenting with contemporary themes and ideas of all stripes.

While acclaimed directors such as Adoor Gopalkrishnan in the 70s turned the tide with his realistic cinema focused on social issues, today, Malayalam films offer an extraordinary range — from mass entertainers to feel-good fluff, light entertainment and neo-realist films and literally everything in between.

Budgets are not as generous as Bollywood, but they do however do more with less by keeping the focus on innovative storytelling, technical expertise and superlative acting. And Malayalam films do a great job of telling their own local stories.

Even the storylines that focus on mundane events manage to create gripping cinema.

With increased access to the internet and streaming services that offer both good quality video and subtitles, Malayalam cinema opens new perspectives on regional Indian cinema and to different ideas and people of India.


The technical finesse of Malayalam movies is also something to be admired.

The evergreen landscape of verdant hills and the backwaters help, but these elements of cinematography, production and even sound design are head and shoulders above other Indian regional cinema.

Big-name actors associated with the projects are definitely a draw, but these films are more popular for their substance rather than the star power.

Mohanlal and Mammootty are megastars of Malayalam cinema
Mohanlal and Mammootty are megastars of Malayalam cinema

Another noteworthy aspect of Malayalam cinema is the representation of their Muslim and Catholic communities. These characters go about their normal lives and we get to experience all the highs and lows of their journey.

Characters are often shown in interfaith marriages mentioned so casually as to be taken as the very fabric of their lives. The story moves on, often without comment with the implicit understanding that this is none of your business, which frankly, it really isn’t.

Also, Kerala roast beef is practically a national dish and eaten without reserve by people of all faiths in so many movies that that itself feels like an act of rebellion!

Of course, Malayalam cinema is not bereft of its own set of prejudices and biases that still hold onto many patriarchal views, with violence against women being the starkest.

Still, many of these relatable characters stick with you for longer than their cardboard stereotypes from up North.

Another noteworthy aspect of Malayalam cinema is the representation of their Muslim and Catholic communities. These characters go about their normal lives and we get to experience all the highs and lows of their journey. Characters are often shown in interfaith marriages mentioned so casually as to be taken as the very fabric of their lives.


With increased access to the internet and streaming services that offer both good quality video and subtitles, Malayalam cinema opens new perspectives on regional Indian cinema and to different ideas and people of India.

With the caveat that this list is subjective to my tastes, and while I have good taste, I would nonetheless encourage you to be discerning and fall into your rabbit hole of choice with the stories and performances that resonate with you.

Classics

Works by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, one of Malayalam cinema’s most acclaimed directors is a good starting point.

Two films from his oeuvre that are particularly interesting are Elippathayam (Rat Trap) and Vidheyan (The Servile).

Rat Trap focusses on crumbling feudal structures, resistance to change and the ways in which women are still bound to tradition.

Vidheyan revolves around the slave-master relationship and turns the tables around on both master and servant. It also has a standout performance as a cruel feudal lord by Mammootty.


Megastars

Mammootty and Mohanlal are the two most well-known and beloved megastars of Malayalam cinema. With a wide range of roles everything from mass entertainers to playing the common man, these actors have both an incredible number of films as well as admirable versatility.

Mammooty is an actor who totally disappears into his character. Look up Pathemari (Dhow) which explores the history of Malayali migrant labourers in the Gulf, where he gives a heart-wrenching performance.

Watch Mohanlal in Manichithrathazhu (The Ornate Lock) a psychological thriller with roots in folklore; as well as Drishyam (Visuals), which though remade in multiple languages, proves that they are all pale imitations of the original.


Representation

The lovely Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, Son of Adam) explores the intentions of an elderly couple preparing to go for Hajj.

Giving us a unique window in the lives of the Christian community in Kerala; films such as Amen which combines a love story and a church music contest and Ea. Ma. Yau (RIP), where death reveals dark comedy, are remarkable in their visual virtuosity.


Thrillers

For a range of thriller movies, these unique and path-breaking films that were part of the new wave of Malayalam cinema: Munnaariyuppu explores a persistent journalist who tries to get an ex-jail inmate to write his life story to exonerate himself of his crimes.

22 Female Kottayam is a rape-revenge drama and Traffic, a multi-strand story of nine characters and a race to save one life.


Crime

These two hyperlocal films look at crime and the underbelly of the lives of small-town gangsters: Angamaly Diaries explores gang rivalry with humour and mayhem leading up to a spectacular finale.

Kammattipaadam takes a critical look at urbanisation and the people who move up and the ones that get squeezed out.


Realist cinema

Maheshinte Prathikaaram (Mahesh’s Revenge) is the anti-revenge drama with heart and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Exhibits and the Eye Witness) showcases a young couple’s struggle to regain their stolen gold chain. These sparse simple stories reveal universal truths with riveting performances.

Take Off, inspired by the real-life event of Malayali nurses stranded in Iraq, is another film to watch for great performances and stellar production values.


Feel good

Sudani from Nigeria is a story that combines football, friendship and big hearts that will warm your soul.

Ustaad Hotel takes an urban chef back to his grandfathers’ hotel where he discovers the true nature of serving. Bangalore Days with its charming cast and slice-of-life struggles is an easy-breezy watch.


Shades of love

From modern takes on love with the idea of being in love with Premam (Love) to a doomed romance in Mayaanadhi (Mystic River) to epic love stories taking on interreligious matches in Ennu Ninte Moideen (Yours Truly, Moideen) and Annayum Rasoolum (Anna and Rasool) all of these romances bloom with wonderful nuanced performances.

Enjoy!