A house with seven bachelors where mice run around freely and unused commodes are inventively repurposed as storage spaces; a spirit called Anamika who is summoned one night through an ouija board turn their already chaotic lives upside down — this is the premise of debut director Jithu Madhavan’s Malayalam horror comedy Romancham (2023). Made on a shoestring budget of Rs 3 crore, the film has already made close to Rs 60 crore so far. It’s the kind of profit margin that film producers dream of, and in the modest world of Malayalam cinema, these small entertainers are proving to be the biggest successes.
Madhavan said that it wasn’t too difficult to put together Romancham, which is based on his own experiences of living the bachelor life in Bengaluru. “I feel it is familiarity that makes horror really work. When people can imagine these events happening to them, everything becomes funnier and scarier,” he said. Before making the film, Madhavan had been assisting director-producer Johnpaul George and when the latter heard the story, George told Madhavan he would produce it himself. “We spoke to actor Soubin the next day and the film took off,” said Madhavan. Soubin Shahir is, in fact, the only well-known face in the cast, a factor that Madhavan believes worked in their favour because it kept the film unpredictable for the audience. “If you have a ‘hero’ in the story, then the audience will anticipate that the film will revolve around them. That can work to the film’s advantage or not. But in Romancham, I wanted all seven characters to be important,” he added.
While other and bigger Indian film industries bank on superstars, extensive (and expensive) visual effects, high octane action sequences and grandeur to woo audiences, the Malayalam film industry has chosen a different route. “In my observation, most small budget films made huge gains at the box office because they were fully packed with entertainment,” said Maneesh Narayanan, journalist and editor of The Cue. “From Jan.E.Man (2021) to Romancham, which were big box office hits, this factor has been evident all through the pandemic period and after.”
Over the years, Malayalam cinema has built itself a reputation for telling realistic, hard-hitting stories, but the industry has been struggling since 2018 due to severe . Then came the pandemic, which struck a death blow to film industries across the world. In 2021 and 2022, the Malayalam film industry suffered estimated losses of and respectively. On average, the Malayalam film industry releases around in theatres every year, with the period action film Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham (2021) being the most expensive Malayalam film ever made at Rs 100 crore. The vast majority of films are made under Rs 10 crore. This is in sharp contrast to the Tamil and Telugu film industries that are star-driven and tend to have much bigger budgets of over Rs 20 crore. The smaller-budget films are not only earning healthy profits at the box office, but they have also drawn new, non-Malayali audiences to Malayalam cinema. The pandemic years saw a sharp surge in the popularity of older films like Kumbalangi Nights (2019), and releases like Joji (2021) and The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) through OTT platforms.
More than the size of the budget, it’s an entertaining story that’s now key to a film’s success with Malayalam audiences, said producer Lakshmi Warrier. “Our film Vikruthi (2019), which received good reviews, didn’t work at the box office,” said Warrier. Vikruthi, based on a real life incident, is about a man whose picture is taken without his consent and uploaded on the internet with a misleading comment, leading to terrible repercussions. Despite being made on a small budget, it didn’t do well commercially. “I realised people were in the mood to watch films that made them laugh and clap in theatres,” said Warrier. It was after this that Warrier produced the small budget comedy Jan.E.Man (2021), directed by debut director Chidambaram. The film is about a male nurse (Basil Joseph) who returns to Kerala from Canada to celebrate his 30th birthday at a friend’s house. Though the film was released during the pandemic in November 2021, it still did well at the box office, making it one of the that year.
Malayali audiences watch a wide range of genres in theatres, but post-pandemic, there appears to be a definite change in terms of the films that are convincing Malayali audiences to step out and buy tickets. The film doesn’t have to be a spectacle, as is the case in Hindi and the other southern film industries, but it does need a well-written and entertaining script.
Warrier’s next production Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey (2022) was an even bigger hit than Jan.E.Man. The Vipin Das directorial was made on a budget of Rs 5 crore and earned close to Rs 50 crore at the box office. What’s more surprising is that the film is about domestic violence – not a subject that’s likely to leave people in splits. Starring Basil Joseph and Darshana Rajendran, the movie is about a young woman who adopts a rather unexpected strategy to combat her toxic spouse.
“I liked the script of Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey because it was about an ordinary woman. She’s not a feminist, she isn’t used to fighting for her rights. I knew that a lot of women would be able to connect with her situation,” said Warrier. The film, which manages to raise a number of questions about patriarchy and the institution of marriage while providing laugh-out-loud, wacky humour, became one of the biggest blockbusters of 2022, even as many films with big stars floundered and bit the dust.
Another film which rode on its appeal to the women audience was Malikappuram (2022), directed by Vishnu Sasi Shankar. The devotional film is about a young girl who decides to go on the Sabarimala pilgrimage by herself. Made on a budget of Rs 5 crore, this film too managed to make over Rs 50 crore at the box office. Though it attracted criticism for seemingly capitalising on the politically volatile issue of Sabarimala in Kerala, it proved to be a winner with the audience, by the dozen to the theatre.
However, Maneesh Narayanan pointed out that this doesn’t mean that films with leading stars don’t work any more. Mammootty’s Bheeshma Parvam (2022), Tovino Thomas’s Thallumaala (2022) and Kunchacko Boban’s Nna Thaan Case Kodu (2022) were all blockbusters, with budgets varying between Rs 7 to 15 crore. The first two were action films while the last was a comic courtroom drama, and all of them made over Rs 50 crore each. But, superstars can’t sit back and take it easy because there were some warning signs. “2022 is the year that the Malayalam box office proved that even superstar films can’t earn initial collections in theatres if they fail to impress the audience,” said Narayanan. “With the increasing frequency of films appearing on OTT, the audience wants something that will entice them to watch the film in theatres.”
Lakshmi Warrier said the Kerala audience’s wide-ranging tastes and the OTT boom has led to certain genres being categorised as films to watch at home rather than in theatres. This has meant that critically acclaimed films like the black crime comedy Mukundan Unni Associates (2022) or the investigative thriller Iratta (2023) ended up doing average business at the box office, and gained a larger viewership only with an OTT release. “Everywhere I go, people tell me that my next film should also be a comedy,” said Warrier.
Jithu Madhavan is on the same page. “Not speaking as a filmmaker but as someone from the audience, I too want to go to theatres to watch a film that will entertain me, make me laugh,” he said. His debut film ends on a note that suggests a sequel, a rather ambitious move for a first-time filmmaker. Acknowledging that this was a risk, Madhavan said, “We knew that ending Romancham without offering an explanation for all that happens could backfire on us. But, we also knew that if the film worked for the audience, they’d come back for the sequel.” Is Anamika real? Will she return to haunt the motley crew of seven or will the dead mice rise from their graves? From the looks of it, as long as the sequel is half as funny as the first film, the Kerala audience is sure to stick around with their popcorn, ready to laugh and be entertained.