Beyond the Malayalam new wave: Classics that set Mollywood apart

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Beyond the Malayalam new wave: Classics that set Mollywood apart

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Malayalam cinema is hot right now. The only way you could be any hotter in India at the moment is if you were behind the baspan ka pyaar hit or are an Olympic medal winner. When that’s the league you’re in, you know you’re doing something right. If you’re a new fan of Mollywood – as it’s called – then you were probably initiated into the fold after hearing a popular critic rave about the industry. Or maybe you decided to give Jallikattu a shot because it was India’s entry to the Oscars. Either way the new Malayalam wave is making headlines further than it has ever before.

It isn’t uncommon for people to wonder who or what deserves the credit for Malayalam cinema’s recent resurgence. The answer is twofold. The filmmakers and actors of the industry have put storytelling front and centre in a form that isn’t meant to always have ‘universal’ appeal. Part of the reason that’s the case is Malayali audience’s evident aversion to a ‘star-driven’ cinema culture. It’s not that that never happens, but very few actors ascend to a level where they can get by on the strength of their reputation.

Jallikattu revolves around a group of men chasing a buffalo. These aren’t glamorous themes but they manage to be both novel and relatable at the same time.

Add to that the focus on stores of everymen, a legacy of legendary directors like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan, who turned the aspirations and anxieties of average citizens into riveting stories. A quick look at some of the biggest hits of recent years shows that even the biggest stars give into the need for plot-driven storytelling. Drishyam, one of the biggest hits of the last decade, features Mohanlal playing a cable operator on a mission to protect his family from the consequences of a crime he was forced to commit. Jallikattu revolves around a group of men chasing a buffalo. These aren’t glamorous themes but they manage to be both novel and relatable at the same time.

Malayalam cinema has been producing gems for several decades. In fact, it is the decade between 1980 and 1990 that’s considered the golden era of the industry.  If you’re a new fan, that’s good news. You’re not limited to the recent OTT hits in Malayalam; there’s more where they came from. Here is a list of classic movies you absolutely have to watch:

Sandesham (Hotstar)

Raghavan Nair is a recently retired station master hoping to spend the rest of his days enjoying his idyllic hometown and family. His two sons, however, members of opposing political parties, ensure that he can’t have much peace thanks to their constant attempts to outmanoeuvre each other both, on political and personal levels.

Sandesham is political satire at its finest. It carries an important message about how unwitting individuals become pawns in games between political parties at the cost of their wellbeing and relationships.

Sathyan Anthikad has created many gems as a director but Sandesham might be his finest work. The movie is worth a watch just for the pugnacious chemistry between Jayaram and Sreenivasan.

Kireedam (Prime Video, Hotstar)

In the world of cinema, receiving critical acclaim along with commercial success is the holy grail. Few Malayalam movies have been able to combine the two with as much ease as Kireedam.

The movie focuses on the dynamic between Achuthan Nair, an upstanding police constable and his son, Sethumadhavan, who’s working towards becoming a police officer himself. But Sethumadhavan’s aspirations are forced to take a backseat after he intervenes in a tussle between his father and a local criminal.

Kireedam is a parable about how small decisions can land people in situations that change the trajectory of their life. Mohanlal and Thilakan play the lead characters to perfection.

But Amaram is so much more than just the tale of a tragic hero. At a deeper level, it’s a meditation on how selfish love can be at times and the journey and sacrifice it takes to transcend that idea of a self-interest.

Amaram (Hotstar)

One way to look at Amaram is that it is story of its tragic hero, Achutti, played by Mammooty. All Achutti wants is for his daughter to become well-educated, wealthy, and successful. Achutti, on the other hand, lives in a shanty by the sea and ekes out a living as a fisherman.

But Amaram is so much more than just the tale of a tragic hero. At a deeper level, it’s a meditation on how selfish love can be at times and the journey and sacrifice it takes to transcend that idea of a self-interest.

The movie makes as much of a visual impact as it does an emotional one. Almost every scene in the film is shot by the seaside or in the water. The cinematographer, Madhu Ambatt, elevates each scene with the way the characters are framed against the sea and sun and sand.

Naadodikatu 

The ‘80s were a time when unemployment was rife in India. Naadodikatu chooses two unemployed youths as its protagonists and turns their unfortunate circumstances into a swashbuckling comedy of errors saga about how they stumble into posts as CID operatives.

What will immediately stand out to anyone watching Naadodikatu is the chemistry between Sreenivasan and Mohanlal. Their characters, Dasan and Vijayan, share a contentious relationship full of jibes and hilarious one-upmanship. Sreenivasan himself wrote this movie and every line in it is imbued with his distinctive wit.

If you finish Naadodikatu and find yourself wanting more, you’re in luck. The movie is part of a trilogy that also includes Pattanapravesham and Akkare Akkare Akkare. Every one of the movies in the series is worth a watch, and maybe even a re-watch.

Thalayana Manthram (Prime Video)

Thalayana Manthram is driven by the heady aspirations of its protagonist, Kanchana, played by Urvashi. Kanchana is jealous of her educated, gainfully employed sister-in-law Shailaja, and dreams of a life that’s well beyond her and her husband’s means.

She eventually convinces her husband, Sukumaran, to pursue the life she dreams of. It leads to the family splitting up and experiencing the turmoil that comes when egos dictate important decisions.

Thalayana Manthram is another banger from the Sreenivasan-Sathyan Anthikad stable. It beautifully encapsulates the promises of superficial upward mobility sold to families of humble means and the strife that can come from pursuing them.

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