It wouldn’t be a long shot to call Malayalam cinema THE best mainstream film industry in the country right now. If the 2000s were arguably the worst, the 2010s have, in their own way, brought back a Renaissance. Malayalis needn’t anymore quote just Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan to talk about their cinema. The Pellisherys and the Pothans have heralded a movement that has made Malayalam movies well-travelled. You can find an Amdavadi as excited about Jallikattu as someone from Angamaly. People who never watched Malayalam movies before this decade now have a fat folder on their hard disks. Better subtitling, faster Internet speeds and wider releases may have contributed, but they’ve not really helped the proliferation of most other regional cinema. The fans of Malayalam cinema are now international, Which is why, it is risky to pick 25 films from this decade. Some of these films are so loved that people take great offence if their favourite is left out. And for first-timers, this list is a great place to let you know what the fuss is all about.
Back when multi-narratives were hip and fashionable, a resurgent Rajesh Pillai made Traffic, a film about the entire State coming together to transport a beating heart from Kochi to Palakkad. The result was a rewarding, although stressful, race against time. Romantics would argue that this was as much about transplanting Malayalam cinema’s beating heart into a new decade.
This heartbreakingly poignant tale of atonement takes us through the days before an impoverished perfume seller (Salim Kumar in his National-Award winning performance) and his wife make their pilgrimage to Mecca. Assets have been sold, debts cleared, and forgiveness sought, but is that enough to be worthy of stepping foot in the holy land? Salim Ahamed’s debut feature is that rare film which achieves the purity it preaches.
Before the #MeToo movement and the Women in Cinema Collective, Ashiq Abu made Rima Kallingal-starrer 22 Female Kottayam, the story of a nurse seeking revenge after being sexually assaulted. In older Malayalam cinema, this would mean the hero coming forward to get her married to the same man who wronged her. Not in this film. She takes matters in her own hands, providing loads of vicarious empowerment.
If Salt N’ Pepper (2011) unified unlikely lovers with the power of food, the more ambitious Ustad Hotel put a plate of steaming hot Malabar biriyani (and a glass of sulemani) smack in the middle of two generations — a grandfather and his grandson. But, instead of discussing what goes into the making of this biriyani, the film goes spiritual in its exploration of what goes into the making of a chef. The resultant dish, is obviously, delicious.
There’s no ticking time bomb. No human life is at stake, but Joy’s first film achieves what most big budget thrillers struggle to do. What’s really at stake is a middle-aged man’s honour when he gets locked inside a small room with a sex worker, in a building a few yards from his home. The stakes get even bigger, because getting caught would also mean the end of his daughter’s engagement. Sajitha Madathil, who played the sex worker, was a revelation in this film.
The language Malayalam cinema speaks fluently today is, perhaps, the result of this film. Characters behave like islands in this romance set as much on water as on land. Not a word is spoken, but the couple still falls deeply in love. We do too with this modern-day Romeo and Juliet, knowing very well the doom that lies ahead for them.
The most-remade Malayalam film of the decade also happens to be one of the industry’s biggest grossers. Despite its cleverly deceptive first hour, the chilling film really comes into its own as the family drama transforms into a compelling case of THE perfect murder. The interrogation, switching of bodies, the “confession” scene…it’s difficult to pick a favourite from this film that makes you root for the murderer(s).
Manju Warrier’s comeback is a beautifully-ordinary story of a working woman, wife and mother reclaiming her rightful place and respect at home and at the workplace. Apart from making terrace gardens fashionable, the film also proved that a feminist narrative about a woman in her late 30s could reap richly at the box office too.
Venu’s return to direction after 16 years traces the life of an enigmatic person — a freed prisoner (played wonderfully by Mammootty) who claims to not have committed the double-homicide he was charged with. The elusive drama astutely plays mind games with the viewer, leaving us with a jolt so powerful one never really recovers from it.
Rarely does a box office disaster resurrect itself like Aadu has. This farcical tale of misplaced machismo gifted Malayalam cinema with a series of fresh OTT characters that parody the very idea of heroism in the films of the 80s and 90s.
Premam wasn’t merely a film, it became a cultural phenomenon. Alphonse’s coming-of-age blockbuster muted the reds and yellows of the usual love story to opt for desaturated browns and some brilliant use of magic hour lighting. It also brought to the fore the unconventionally-beautiful Sai Pallavi as Malar Miss, one of the most iconic characters of the decade.
If films such as Nadodikattu, Dubai and Casanovva sold the ‘Dubai Dream’ to the gulf-struck Malayali, Salim Ahmed’s third feature gave us the unglamorous reality of an NRI whose dream of returning to his own house in Kerala goes unrealised. Subtle and moving, this is arguably Mammootty’s most-affecting performance of the decade.
This micro-budget drama is what an extreme optimist would call a ‘buddy movie’; it is, after all, about a bunch of male friends getting together for a drinking session on a hartal day. But, Sanal tears apart the veil of fake decency to expose politics of caste, gender, oppression and an inherent rape culture that is a part of such gatherings.
Dileesh’s debut is an impeccably-crafted, beautifully-narrated anti-revenge drama that brings with it the fragrance of petrichor. A film that’s as wide as it is deep, it continues to offer freshness even when the number of viewings hit the double digit.
Rajeev’s third film is his second to employ Kochi as a character. This time, the city gets the role of a lifetime. From the green expanses the film begins with to the narrow, claustrophobic lanes it eventually shrinks into, Kammattipadam takes a searing look at the people who fell by the wayside in the city’s desperate march towards urbanisation. Vinayakan breaks our hearts in what is easily among the best performances of the decade.
Call it an after-effect of nostalgia or the resurrection of the family movie, Biju Menon’s brand of middle-class cinema, revolving around the middle-aged hero, has grown into its own tiny sub-genre. Of the dozens this “movement” has birthed, Anuraga Karikkin Vellam remains the best. Its sensitive portrayal of a mature romance and the subtle performances of Asha Sharath and Biju Menon make this everyday story extraordinary.
If Gangs Of Wasseypur is India’s answer to The Godfather, Angamaly Diaries, in its own tiny way, is Kerala’s answer to Goodfellas. The film set a coming-of-age gangster saga bang in the middle of Angamaly’s pork trade, and garnished it with an excellent score by Prashanth Pillai and some of the best food shots in any film, making it impossible to describe the film without using the term ‘visceral’.
All one has to do to understand what’s happening in Malayalam cinema is to compare Take Off with Salman Khan’s Tiger Zinda Hai. Both films are based on the same event, but they can’t be more different. There are no easy solutions or god-like superheroes who make this trip out of Iraq seem like a piece of cake. The struggles Sameera (Parvathy’s best) face are as internal as they are external, for this perfect marriage of politics, both personal and international.
By his second film, the audience had already coined the term ‘Pothan’s Brilliance’ to describe the director’s works. This brilliantly written and performed drama takes off from a stolen gold chain, but the film does more than just investigate. In fact, it’s the little things and the smaller characters that throw this film wide open. The turns are impossible to predict, and this is made even better thanks to Fahadh Faasil’s character, which in an enigma rolled into a mystery.
This dream-like romance borrows from Godard’s Breathless, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is an original. It threw open the idea of sex-before-marriage unlike anything we’d seen before in mainstream Malayalam cinema. The performances by Tovino Thomas and Aishwarya Lekshmi were stellar as was the film’s music by Rex Vijayan.
This heartbreakingly humane story of friendship set in North Kerala, amid its unique football-crazy culture, has the power to make its viewer a slightly better person. Zakariya’s first film is a landmark for its portrayal of Muslim characters, among other reasons. A film that’s as cathartic as it is comical.
Shot almost entirely in natural light, Lijo’s surreal dark comedy talks about the struggles of a son as he tries to organise his father’s “dream” funeral, but everything that can go wrong does. Without resorting to any kind of sentimentality or cynical hopelessness, the film always finds a way to make you laugh, especially when you’re not sure if you should be.
The opening stretch of this film, with the titular Joseph (a brilliant Joju Joseph), coolly looking through a crime scene, would fit into any great police procedural. But, the film aims higher to narrate the Greek tragedy-like life of a fallen man. Despite its uneasy take on organ trafficking and the Seven Pounds-like ending, this film remains one of the decade’s biggest surprises.
Aashiq’s third film on the list is a screenwriting marvel, one that would fall apart even if you remove a single scene from it. This medical thriller covers the outbreak of the Nipah Virus in North Kerala, and the people from several walks of life who come together to control it, but it’s the study of humanity that pervades its every aspect.
This richly-detailed, perfectly-enacted drama tells the story of a broken house becoming a home. It explores the many shades of masculinity like no other recent film. One can try to pick a moment or a performance, but that would be disrespectful to this film’s impeccable integrity, as is the case with all masterpieces.