The good, bad and ugly of Malayalam cinema in 2019

Manoj Kumar R
best malayalam films 2019

The talent of Malayalam filmmakers was debated in detail and celebrated across the world in 2019.

The Malayalam film industry continued its upward spiral even in 2019. The new wave of energy ushered in by an incredibly talented bunch of artistes, who are all the more willing to take risks and open to experiments, has set an example, which other film industries in the country should follow.

The year began on a rather disappointing note with run-of-the-mill, migraine-inducing films like Mikhael and Irupathiyonnaam Noottaandu. However, Nivin Pauly would go on to redeem himself with one of the outstanding performances of the year. More on this later. But, soon the gloomy mood made way for a jubilant environment, where the talent of Malayalam filmmakers was debated in detail and celebrated across the world.

That said there were also a considerable number of films that we wish were never made. They stuck out like sore thumbs among superior works that were changing the face of the industry. Namely, Mammootty. He began the year on a very positive note with Peranbu. Written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ram, the movie provided the actor with huge scope to showcase his magnificent acting in the role of a timid middle-aged man with a spastic daughter.

Peranbu was a taboo-breaking film on many counts, and it showed there is nothing wrong about sexual urges in differently-abled people. It only makes them more human. And Mammootty continued to earn the goodwill from the audience and critics for bringing to screen the life story of iconic politician YS Rajashekar Reddy in Telugu film Yatra. And he returned to Malayalam with Madhura Raja, a mindless film that was surprisingly entertaining. And then came Unda, a black-comedy that questioned the popular narrative that defined the heroes and the villains in the darkest corners of our country. Mammootty was on fire. Finally, the 68-year-old superstar was doing movies that matched the needs of the industry that was in the middle of a renaissance. The old guard has learned new tricks. However, towards the end of the year, Gaana Gandharvan hurt the goodwill he managed to garner. As if that was not enough his most-awaited pan-India period drama Mamangam failed to live up to the big promises that it made before the release.

His counterpart Mohanlal, however, stuck to his usual bi-annual release schedule. He set new box office collection records with Lucifer. The film marked the directorial debut of Prithviraj. And call it a beginner’s luck, he somehow made the cliche-laden, hero-worshipping movie click with the audience. However, Mohanlal could not get lucky with Ittymaani: Made in China. It was called out for what it is: an unoriginal, backward, formulaic message film.

However, 2019 was not just about Mammootty and Mohanlal. In fact, the year belonged to the new wave of artistes, who are elevating the industry beyond the decade-old star-system. It belonged to those actors who were consumed by the passion for performing a wide range of emotions and characters as opposed to building a star image. It belonged to those directors who are rewriting the rules of mainstream movies with sheer boldness and imagination.

This year, directors like Aashiq Abu (Virus), Lijo Jose Pellissery (Jallikattu) and Geetu Mohandas (Moothon) made the world sit up and take notice of their work.

The Malayalam film industry is now identified by actors like Asif Ali, who don’t shy away from playing roles that don’t necessarily fall within the definition of a ‘hero’. While he sometimes plays the quintessential nice man, he also takes on roles like a spurned lover who throws acid on his girlfriend (Uyare) or a “good man” who rapes his wife (Kettiyolaanu Ente Malakha). The industry is now defined by the works of Fahadh Faasil, Shane Nigam and Soubin Shahir. And outside Kerala, the industry is also recognised for films like Kumbalangi Nights.

Nivin Pauly also turned over a new leaf. With Moothon, the actor showed that he was not afraid of taking risks and telling stories of people who are traditionally marginalized and disenfranchised.

This year, we saw a slew of films that dealt with existing patriarchal views of society and how they were making our streets and homes unsafe for women. Perhaps, it was the collective reaction of the industry to the #MeToo movement.

Madhu C. Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights, Manu Ashokan’s Uyare, Anuraj Manohar’s Ishq examined the various kinds of masculinity that are abusive and unheroic.

Also read: 2019 round-up: Hits and misses of Tamil cinema

The Malayalam film industry, however, is also not free of problems. The International Film Festival of Kerala faced the wrath of indie filmmakers, who accused organizers of prejudice and bias in the selection of movies. The Reform IFFK movement was also launched by a group of independent filmmakers against showcasing popular films that were available for the public in cinemas. The protesting indie filmmakers have a point. While the Malayalam film industry is redefining mainstream entertainment, it cannot turn its back on independent films. It should make sure that it allows the space for its vibrant indie filmmakers to evolve and grow.