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?
17 Jun, 2020

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



SATT Jun 17, 2020 12:02pm
Pakistan watches Turkish Cinema.
Drone Jun 17, 2020 12:10pm
What happened to Pakistan movie industry?
Soumya Jun 17, 2020 12:47pm
I am really surprised and glad to read this article. I am from Kerala and have been reading Dawn daily for more than two years. I am quite familiar with what is happening in the Pakistani TV and film world thanks to your articles. Whenever you write about Bollywood, I think of this. You have given a comprehensive introduction to Malayalam cinema. I wish you had given more space to women and youth centric movies and that are a trend these days over here. Anyway, Thanks for this article. Just like the articles in Images open the world of Pakistani dramas and movies to us I hope there will be followers of Mollywood there as well. Cheers to friendship and harmony !
Raju Jun 17, 2020 12:56pm
I hail from kerela also nice to ready about quality cinema from Dawn the best. Thanks you
PRADEEP S Jun 17, 2020 01:10pm
Feel great to read this being a malayali from India , could catch up on many of these films in prime ,Netflix and hotstar during the lockdown period
SKS Jun 17, 2020 01:11pm
You have only skimmed the surface of S. Indian cinema. Bollywood to be fair has also so many off beat good ones. There is still Bengali, Marathi who are also doing fantastic
skandan s. Jun 17, 2020 01:33pm
Kudos to dawn for discovering Indian cinema is much more than Hindi cinema at last! Films made in the South are much better than the muck being produced in Bollywood! Next - please do a review of tamil cinema too
abdlklm Jun 17, 2020 01:53pm
interfaith marriages as if there was no need to comment. Yes, because Kerela happens to be in India
abdlklm Jun 17, 2020 02:31pm
What about Bengali cinema? That is great! and at one point of time half of Pakistan spoke Bengali
Joby Johnsone Jun 17, 2020 02:34pm
Good article!!! from a proud Malyalee :)
Prakash J Jun 17, 2020 02:43pm
Malayalam industry is certainly good for their off-track movies. So are Kannada/Bangla. Budget of Telugu and Tamil movies often exceeds Bollywood. Pretty much all languages have their own regional little industry that's alternative to Bollywood
SIAK Jun 17, 2020 03:04pm
Hindi cinema is overrated. South Indian cinema is way better.
Harry Jun 17, 2020 03:04pm
Tamil cinema is like the goldilocks between the Bollywood and Mollywood. It regularly churnes out action masala and also gives realistic movies.
MOHANLAL KR Jun 17, 2020 03:09pm
Please watch the noted movies and confirm yourselves how gifted talents are they
Santosh Kumar Jun 17, 2020 03:29pm
Good article. Kerala has not forgotten its culture. A well developed state ( by culture, literature, education, and development) in India. Malayalam movies represents the society in as it is manner. Every religion grow equally in Kerala. Beef is a common dish of all the Kerala hotels. A state, well known for its Lenin and Marx ideology.
Bilal Abbasi Jun 17, 2020 03:31pm
I have been watching Malayalam films for four yeats now and I can vouch that they are very realistic with beautiful music. No item numbers and pretentious songs, just beautiful storylines and dealing with the issues of common people. Watch these above mentioned movies with English subtitles and still you will enjoy them as if they are in your own language.
Sac Jun 17, 2020 03:35pm
If you are not watching malayala movies you are seriously missing something.
AJ Jun 17, 2020 03:50pm
The biggest advantage of Hindi Cinema for Pakistani audience is that there is no language barrier. Spoken Hindi and spoken Urdu are so similar. Any other language movies can be dubbed at best, but a dubbed movie is never as good as an original cut.
My Name is Khan Jun 17, 2020 04:25pm
Malayalam films are a delight,best stories, but should be watched for reasons other than those mention in para 2.
G Ravi Jun 17, 2020 04:37pm
Truly captured. Malayalam cinema is very realistic and there is no frill and pomp. All the characters are from real life and we can see our struggles and achievements captured in film in a scenic background. Nature at its best.
Arti abhishek Jun 17, 2020 05:00pm
The article misses many modern-day classics: Kumbalani nights. Premam, Bangalore days, Ayyappanum Koshiyum, Unda, Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 (all available in Prime), Uyare (Netflix)
Valiya Jun 17, 2020 05:17pm
Better films are making in regional languages. Bollywood shows illusions no realistic stories, but spending lavishly as more viewership and more income. regional films are running respective states only. Some Malayalam films are showing overseas especially in gulf countries.
Fastrack Jun 17, 2020 05:57pm
What about Erdugal or erdugan or whatever its name is? Our noble leader binge watched it to recommend. Luxury of time due to ‘same page’ running the country.
Rahul Jun 17, 2020 06:06pm
Malayalam cinema is real Indian cinema now. Many Indians are tired of same old stuff from Bollywood. i am happy Malayalam cinema is going global.
Multani Jun 17, 2020 06:14pm
Mollywood make very good films and many Bollywood stars are seen there. Since Malayali is just regional language of Kerala these movies viewers are limited unlike Bollywood.
Sarosh Jun 17, 2020 06:28pm
Brilliant perspective. Never thought of trying mollywood ...but guess I’m convinced. You are right at your argument on how Bollywood has literally multiplied itself by zero over past couple years and quality has taken a back chair. Thanks for the navigation towards alternate ... keep writing:)
Kris Jun 17, 2020 07:07pm
"Watch Mohanlal in Manichithrathazhu (The Ornate Lock) a psychological thriller with roots in folklore; as well as Drishyam (Visuals)" These are two of the best thrillers I have seen in any language. Would highly recommend them.
J Rayburn Jun 17, 2020 07:14pm
Nice recommendations. Can you also recommend Pakistanis on good Marathi films. There is no language barrier when it comes to films. It is an art of expression and when a film offers good content it appeals the audience. The Marathi film industry is going through a break through phase and achieving huge success around the country, and the world. Most Marathi films are available on Netflix and Amazon and are subtitled in English
Vercingetorix Jun 17, 2020 07:19pm
Malayalam cinema is really the best . Let me add a latest hit ' Ayyapanum Koshiyum', a very well made movie ,Joseph ( about a retired cop who investigates his ex wife's death ). Many good malayalam movies are available on streaming services now.
Hassan Jun 17, 2020 08:17pm
Malayalam movies should be dubbed in Urdu, so we can also enjoy them.
Swag Jun 17, 2020 08:37pm
Great! Should watch Malayam movies...This is the beauty of India so much diversity.... Salute to our democracy... Jai Hind.
Mallu Jun 17, 2020 08:38pm
A well written take on Malayalam movies from an unexpected quarter. All, a good majority, of Malayalam movies are closer to real life and its a good comprehension / critic of the societal aspects. Indian movies are not just about Bollywood. Malayalam movies are a good watch. You will enjoy!
Kumar Jun 17, 2020 10:18pm
Thank you Sadaf for the beautiful coverage on Malayalam Cinema.
Zulfiqar Jun 17, 2020 10:29pm
Brilliant article! Keep writing.
Vinod Jun 17, 2020 11:33pm
Good one. Well written. Mostly correct analysis.
KeraliTe Jun 18, 2020 02:05am
Its quite heartwarming to see Malayalam movies getting attention across the border. This is one of the poorest industries compared to others but generates quality content. There is a huge fanbase in Bangladesh and Nepal. Thanks Dawn for the article.
Vi men Jun 18, 2020 02:20am
Wow. This article was the last thing I ever expected to be written in a premier Pakistani daily newspaper. Consider me impressed! And I belong to Kerala. You have made some very good choices there. Although, there's still such a huge treasure trove of unrivalled gems, you'll be hard-pressed to see it all. But if you were to, you can also include kumbalangi nights and jalikattu. Won't go into details or it'll spoil the fun. Just watch and get bewitched! Malayalam industry is churning out some of the best movies in the entire subcontinent and quietly making its presence known!
Fav24 Jun 18, 2020 06:39am
Title image featuring in the article is from Kollywood (Tamil language movie) dubbed into Malayalam movie. Malayalam and Bengali movies are really worth to explore if you are into Indian movies.
Gulshan Omar Jun 18, 2020 06:43am
It’s a very good competition. It will be very beneficial to Indian economy. Think of the audiences Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and Malalayi etc. films will cover and the money they will generate. Indian Film revenue is already beating Hollywood revenue, with this the Indian Film Revenue will be much ahead than Hollywood.
saravanan Jun 18, 2020 07:28am
Unfortunately the poster shows not a original Malayam movie poster. It is a Tamil ( a near by state) movie which I believe dubbed in malayalam. I think Author spend some time in Gulf countries where lot of Malayali's working and they influenced him to see Malayalam movie. Malayalam movies will have very good story base, which is coming from in-depth malayalam literature tradition.
Ahmad Jun 18, 2020 10:15am
I love Sibi Mayalil films. 90s was glorious times for malayalam cinema. Movies like His Highness Abdullah, Bharatham, kamaladalam, spadikam were made. Great music scores by Ravindran, Johnson.
Rahul Jun 18, 2020 12:29pm
Please watch turkey movie
M. Emad Jun 18, 2020 03:15pm
Bangla cinema is an alternative to Hindi cinema.
AbdulHaque Shaikh Jun 18, 2020 06:52pm
I was in Kerala and traveled through length of it. It is real Hindustan
AbdulHaque Shaikh Jun 19, 2020 08:09am
Thank you for wonderful information
Vinod Pillai Jun 19, 2020 01:14pm
Well researched and written. Thanks. Unfortunately, the director of "Ayyappanum Koshiyum" passed away due to a cardiac arrest post a surgery at a young age this week. A loss to contemporary Malayalam cinema.
Pikrut Jun 19, 2020 03:53pm
I will add film "picket 43" that telling story between an Indian and Pakistani soldier.