Classmates to Kumbalangi Nights: Nine Malayalam Ensemble Films to Watch Before Manjummel Boys
Classmates to Kumbalangi Nights: Nine Malayalam Ensemble Films to Watch Before Manjummel Boys

Classmates to Kumbalangi Nights: Nine Malayalam Ensemble Films to Watch Before Manjummel Boys

This is a compilation of a few of the best Malayalam films to make use of the ensemble cast as a storytelling device of great importance

Ensemble films are tricky to pull off, considering the efforts involved in marshaling the time and resources that exceed the scope of a single feature. The effort required to bring multiple stars under the same roof is well worth the risk, as more often than not, these actor groupings have worked in favour of the film’s general appeal and marketability. You may think of umpteen examples from the recent past, where the possibility of seeing your favorite actors paired onscreen got you excited for a film, over other buzz-generating factors. There has been a decline in films featuring ensemble cast of late, as star salaries continue to burgeon and production schedulings took a hit due to logistical challenges.

However, we have a new entry to the list of Malayalam ensemble dramas. Manjummel Boys (2024) is Chidambaram's sophomore outing after the 2021 blockbuster comedy JanEMan. The new film, produced by Soubin Shahir features a handful of Malayalam cinema’s most sought-after actors including Sreenath Bhasi, Ganapathi, Lal Jr, Khalid Rahman, and Deepak Parambol, among others. The film has already garnered much hype before its release with the sheer depth of talent onboard this survival drama based on real events.

A still from the Manjummel
A still from the Manjummel

Let’s see a few other instances, where Malayalam cinema peaked with the right kind of casting coups!

Twenty Twenty (2008)

Starring: Mohanlal, Mammootty, Suresh Gopi, Jayaram, Dileep.

Director: Joshiy

Streaming on:

The Mount Rushmore of this ensemble film, Joshiy’s star-studded action film Twenty Twenty marked the first time all major stars of Malayalam cinema shared screen space. The film still holds up for its humongous casting achievement, where the filmmaker has managed to assemble all the top-tier stars, without making it look like a showy gimmick. All the actors are placed within the racy screenplay with ample scope for each to grab the spotlight as well as engage in a good ol' game of one-upmanship and dialoguebaazi in the screenplay. It is the rare kind of film where we see Mammootty, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi, Jayaram and Dileep in the same frame, having great fun with material that befits their stardom, and with such splendid abandon.

A poster of Twenty Twenty
A poster of Twenty Twenty

2018 (2023)

Stars: Kunchako Boban, Tovino Thomas, Asif Ali, Aparna Balamurali

Director: Jude Anthony Joseph

Streaming on: SonyLIV

Blame it on recency bias, but no Malayalam cinema list populated by an ensemble cast is complete without Jude Anthony Joseph’s oscar shortlisted ‘Disaster Drama’ 2018, featuring Kunchako Boban, Tovino Thomas, Asif Ali, Vineeth Sreenivasan, Narain and Aparna Balamurali leading the stacked cast list. Also featuring umpteen character actors on screen, 2018 pulled this major casting trick off by the clever conceit of the film’s text where multiple stars played the overlooked, anonymous heroes, who took things into their own hands in time of a statewide crisis. The film balanced the unique casting choice with well-written, rounded characters that fit the star persona of its leading figures, without overtly casting for mere cash-grab reasons.

Classmates (2006)

Stars: Prithviraj Sukumaran, Jayasurya, Indrajith Sukumaran, Narein and Kavya Madhavan.

Director: Lal Jose

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

Most probably the film that made it trendy and groovy to assemble up-and-coming stars as part of an ensemble drama, this classic campus film continues to be relevant for its novel casting. The film featured superstar actors like Prithviraj Sukumaran, Indrajith Sukumaran, Jayasurya, Narain, and Kavya Madhavan, who were all upstarts at that point in time. Veteran filmmaker Lal Jose assembled a dream team for his pulpy tale of campus love, student politics, and personal vendettas. The relatively new cast and their real-life friendship found their way onto the screen and worked in the film’s enormous appeal to masses of all generations, to this day.

Bangalore Days (2014)

Stars: Dulquer Salman, Fahad Faasil, Nivin Pauly and Nazriya

Director: Anjali Menon

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

Largely celebrated for its immense recall value and the magnetic screen pairing of Dulquer Salman, Fahad Faasil, Nivin Pauly, and Nazriya Fahadh in the lead roles, this coming-of-age drama swept the audiences off its feet at the time of its release. The major cast navigated the contours of the little joys, pain, and longing in the way the film depicted the bond between cousins and the casting helped to provide context to the trio’s real-life camaraderie. Bangalore Days captured a moment in time from a relationship through the insane character dynamics between its leading stars.

Kumbalangi Nights (2019)

Stars: Fahad Faasil, Soubin Shahir, Shane Nigam, Sreenath Bhasi.

Director: Madhu C Narayanan

Streaming on: Prime Video

Arguably the most lowkey star ensemble in the list, this coming-of-age drama dealt with a dysfunctional family of flawed men coming to terms with their personal demons and finding their ideal home in the process. The film, now placed among Malayalam cinema’s modern-day classics, is a drama filled with career-defining performances. Kumbalangi Nights brought together Soubin Shahir, Sreenath Bhasi, and Shane Nigam and managed to blend in the texture of grainy village life with a new sensibility, thanks to the earnest writing by Shyam Pushkaran. The effective yet toned-down performances from the ensemble contrasted delightfully with Fahadh Faasil, who chewed the scenery with aplomb, as 'psycho' Shammi.

Traffic (2011)

Stars: Sreenivasan, Kunchako Boban, Rahman, Asif Ali, Vineeth Sreenivasan and Anoop Menon.

Director: Rajesh Pillai

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

No Malayalam film has defined casting and character design the way this multiple-character drama--which is now remembered as a revolutionary highlight in the annals of Malayalam film history--managed to do. The film, reminiscent of European art house nonlinear dramas following disparate protagonists within crumbling arcs, utilizing the seniority of actors like Sreenivasan, Rahman, Kunchako Boban, and Sai Kumar to great effect without letting go of the immediacy and agency of the sub-plots of the younger stars like Asif Ali, Vineeth Srinivasan, Roma and Anoop Menon. Traffic is an airtight thriller, standing tall in its time-splicing narrative ambitions. There has been no looking back since, and it won't be much of a hyperbole that there is a 'Pre-Traffic’ and ‘Post-Traffic’ casting phenomenon when it comes to humungous ensemble pieces in Malayalam cinema.

Virus (2019)

Stars: Kunchako Boban, Tovino Thomas, Indrajith Sukumaran, Rahman, Revathy.

Director: Aashiq Abu

Streaming on: Prime Video

Aashiq Abu’s impressive medical thriller hit the sweet spot by bringing together some of the finest acting talents on screen. The film, by virtue of its interlocking structure and narrative strategy blended in a larger-than-life persona of stars with the mundane everyday characters forced to reckon with a deadly virus outbreak. The choice of actors for the different parts and the film’s clever subversion of more mainstream crowd-pleasing tendencies helped to punctuate the gravitas of the situation that tested human resilience. The film used a different side of the usual suspects of ensemble dramas like Kunchako Boban and Asif Ali, paired opposite outliers like Tovino Thomas, Joju Goerge, Indrajith Sukumaran and Rahman who brought a different humane quality to the grim subject matter.

Amar Akbar Anthony (2015)

Stars: Prithviraj Sukumaran, Indrajith Sukumaran and Jayasurya.

Director: Nadirshah

Streming on: SunNXT

Probably the funniest ensemble in this list, this comedy, directed by Nadirshah, traded Prithviraj Sukumaran's usually seen serious, sophisticated side for a carefree, gullible loafer. This contrast in casting helped the film as the comedic beats worked with the other major stars- Jayasurya and Indrajith, effortlessly equipped to handle laugh-out-loud moments and innately funny material. The trio and their longstanding chemistry from the Classmates days helped making their on-screen bickering and banter entertaining. There has been a dearth of such unserious, self-aware comedies with superstars being in on the harmless meta-referencing and self-deprecating jokes of late.

A still from the film
A still from the film

Sapthamashree Thaskaraha (2014)

Stars: Prithviraj Sukumaran, Nedumudi Venu, Chemban Vinod Jose, Asif Ali, Neeraj Madhav and Sudheer Karamana

Director: Anil Radhakrishna Menon

Streaming on: SunNXT

Following the format of Steven Soderberg’s ‘Ocean’s trilogy’, this desi reworking of the heist comedy subgenre was filled to the brim with star power. The film starred Prithviraj Sukumaran as a convicted criminal, recruiting a team of inmates to pull off an impossible mission for personal reasons of their own. The self-aware comedy achieves its tonal and stylistic finesse through the mismatched on-screen partners. The rag-tag team of losers uniting for a mission template was upended by the unique chemistry between actors who have rarely been on screen together before. The film hinges on their awkward, uncomfortable interactions for its laughs and the ensemble delivers on all fronts.