Though historically KG George can be credited with introducing one of the best satires (Panchavadi Palam) in Malayalam cinema, it reached the mainstream only with the collaborative effort of Sathyan Anthikad and Sreenivasan, with Mohanlal giving a face to it.
It began with TP Balagopalan MA. Sreenivasan's hero is ordinary, middle-class and struggling to keep the family together. He is a government employee but does odd jobs to earn extra cash, is the sole breadwinner, has a greedy sister and brother-in-law and almost loses his girl to a more affluent suitor. But Anthikad and Sreenivasan interlaces a lot of organic humour into the narrative, bringing a light-heartedness to what seems like a gloomy turn of events on paper. Mohanlal's most popular image-makeover occurred during this time.
This formula was repeated successfully in Gandhinagar Second Street, Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam. His characters (nobody did self-deprecatory humour like Sreenivasan) and later films (Vadakkunokkiyanthram, Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala) have always pulled up the pretentious progressiveness of the Malayali middle class. The trio's most stunning collaboration was in Nadodikattu—about two unemployed men (a B-com graduate from a waning Nair family and a lesser educated friend) who pay for a Gulf migration but get swindled and end up in Chennai. What follows is their survival story in the city. Together they battle redundancy, unemployment and poverty with a wry wit that struck a chord with the viewers. So much so, that for over a decade Malayalam cinema nursed a crushing affection for two of its most ordinary "heroes". In hindsight, it could have been just another tired rags-to-riches script. But Sreenivasan was skilful in gauging the Malayali psyche. Their synergy seemed matchless as they collaborated for one fruitful film after another with this formula. Pattanapravesham was a sequel to Nadodikattu. Varavelppu dealt with the issues faced by a Gulf Malayali on his return to Kerala and Sandesham was a socio-political satire. Anthikad's association with other writers have also borne fruit—Raghunath Paleri directed Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu, a fable intricately knitted with rooted characters who spoke effortless humour, is considered as one of the finest Malayalam films of all times.
Cartoon has played a key part in Malayalees psyche and some of the best cartoonists in India are from Kerala—Shankar, Abu, Kutty, OV Vijayan, Ep Unni. "Their sketches and caricatures are lapped up by Keralites. Sreenivasan imbibed these in his writings.
Other directors who tried and succeeded
Director Kamal's Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal (1989) was very Anthikad in making and texture, with an ensemble of comedy actors and situations that evoked natural humour. And there was Dr Pasupathy (1990), a hilarious satire placed in a village headlining a fraudster who pretends to be a doctor. Irony is that it was directed by Shaji Kailas and written by Renji Panicker, both of who later went on to create hardcore political thrillers.
Siddique and Lal—the game changers (1989-95)
In 1989 came a film, Ramji Rao Speaking, helmed by two new directors, who jointly called themselves as Siddique-Lal. They are the architects of situational comedy in Malayalam cinema—where clean, unadulterated humour is procured through a dialogue, a situation, when a comedy skit (their background in mimicry helped) is converted into a sequence. It's not that their stories were different—in fact they also latched on to familiar issues and often focussed their stories around families, friendships, relationships and unemployment but it's the irreverence in which they dialogued their characters, and slithered wit into ordinary situations that made all the difference.
"They created dramatic stories and laced the narrative with humour. Even the dramatic situations are crafted with humour as base. They broke a lot of inhibitions related to humour. The mid 80s comedy can be called our base in Malayalam cinema," admits Chandran.
Probably no one before and after them gave so much originality and identity to comedy characters—be it Mathaichan, the owner of a rundown theatre company in Ramji Rao Speaking, Anjooran, the ageing patriarch and the devious old matriarch, Anappara Achamma in Godfather, the goofy, ham-fisted prankster, Mayankutty in Godfather, the silly Appukuttan in In Harihar Nagar. So good and popular are these characters that each can have their own spin off films.
"Impersonation also was a major comic trope during the 90s. Chithram, Chandralekha, Kilukkam, Meleparambil Aanveedu thrived on these themes and were superhits," notes CSV.
By then the boundaries between hero and sidekick had blurred and the comedian had slowly taken centre-stage. The Siddique-Lal era set the stage for a whole bunch of mimicry artistes to make their foray into Malayalam cinema. There were some genuinely good ones—Mookilla Rajyathu (1991), Mukha Chithram, Kadinjool Kalyanam, Meleparambil Aanveedu. A lot of low-budget films with thin storylines and low-brow comedy (Mukesh-Jagadeesh used to star in quite a lot of them) were being made during this time along with classics like Godfather, Kilukkam, Mannar Mathai Speaking etc.
Jayaram was the first superstar from mimicry and he was part of several films that celebrated comedy in various meters. His partnership with director Rajasenan (Ayalathe Adheham, Meleparambil Aanveedu) remained the most successful.
2000—Dileep brand of comedy
The exodus of artistes from the world of mimicry really started from the millennium. It was also the time Dileep was emerging as a solo hero, along with directors like Rafi Mecartin, JohnyAntony, Thaha and comedians like Salim Kumar, Harisree Asokan. His initial run of films fell back on pure humour—Istham (2001) can be called one of his career best roles, Ee Parakkum Thalika (2001) is another film that went right in his wheelhouse, along with Soothradharan (2001), Kuberan (2002), Pandippada (2005), Gramophone (2003), Vettam (2004).
He teamed up with debutante director Johny Antony to make a Tom and Jerry-ish slapstick called CID Moosa (2003), that turned out to be a commercial blockbuster.
Then came a point when his "comedy films" turned regressive. It might not be wrong to say that Dileep films started this whole unhealthy trend of adulterating humour with crude and sexist jokes and it continued to sail smoothly as they were all box office hits (Mayaamohini, Ring Master, Marykundoru Kunjadu).
Having said that it's not to say in that phase, humour was all adult and deteriorating, there came Ranjith's Pranchiyettan and the Saint, a fantastic social satire, Rajamanikyam, a loud mass masala comedy and Chotta Mumbai, a clever madcap blend of comedy and action.
A fresh new wave turned the tide again
Thattathin Marayathu written and directed by Vineeth Sreenivasan was one of the earlier films that had comedy being very casually and effectively woven into the dialogues. In 2015, Premam, a coming-of- age love story came, bringing along a fresh, innovative cinematic lingo into Malayalam cinema. Written, directed and edited by debutant Alphonse "irreverent-humour" Putharen, it revised all the existing cinematic models around scripting, acting, cinematography, dialogues and comedy. Importantly humour was so spontaneous and effective that it seemed like the actors thought the lines on the sets. This was clean, hilariously ordinary humour. Vimal sir and PT sir (the fabulous Soubin Shahir) weren't loud and slapstick—they just behaved, reacted to each other's situations and lines and it turned out be a productive partnership.
This was also the time when troll groups had entered the social media, and chiefly designed their memes around popular comedy characters or scenes from Malayalam cinema. So, some of the iconic comic characters of Salim Kumar and Harisree Asokan became a motif to vent out socio-political-cinema trolls and memes. Considering some of the best-known trolls are originated in Kerala, scriptwriters have no option than to come up with content that better these trolls.
In Maheshinte Prathikaram, again, like was the case with Sathyan Anthikad-Sreenivasan films, comedy was written for a bigger purpose. Writer Syam Pushkaran desensitizes the viewer of some of the traditional establishments like mother, father, uncles and aunts with his wry wit. While in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, the humour was darker and sharper—there were layers to it. Midhun Manuel Thomas's Aadu Oru Bheekara Jeeviyanu along with situations also had quirky, original comic characters headlining the narrative. Even Kumbalangi Nights. "Shyam Pushkaran has given a fresh realistic spin to the Priyadarshan brand of humour. It's taken from real life, real conversations, peppered with sarcasm."
And like everything else, the role of comedy actors has evolved. They are no longer boxed in that one category. A Soubin Shahir does a goofy Crispin and an intensely emotional Saji with equal flair and we are as receptive. Equally radical are the heroines being given some of the best comedy lines. They get away with saying lines like this– "Chethanu Idhiney patti valiadharanayilla" (Jimsi in Maheshinte Prathikaram) or Baby gets to utter the most satirical punch lines in Kumbalangi Nights. "Considering how the definition of a hero has changed, these changes seem organic. It's also related to political consciousness. When she says he looks like Vinayakan, there is a powerful politics in it," sums up Chandran.