"But the songs were amazing." This is a consolation we offer even the most forgettable of films, as though the music had somehow undone a range of frailties to keep the film relevant. But why don't we offer the same generosity to how beautifully it was shot? I have no memory of Kilichundan Mambazham's ending but I can recall even the colour of Soundarya's thattam in 'Onnamkilli Ponnankili'— a song you watch, rewatch and watch again for the beauty of its visuals as much you return for Vidyasagar's music.
Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvvanabhoomi is now a movie that looks even more beautiful given how we've come to value and respect the freedom to travel. Like music, its visuals offer precious escape with the colours becoming tunes and movement, its words.
Despite the limitations of its budget, Malayalam cinema has always had a treasure trove of great looking films that have the power to outlive performances and storylines. Here's a list of 30 such films that took us to new places and left us there. Feel free to add on.
A Vincent's mastery comes through even on the terrible print that's available on YouTube. Among the first films to be shot outdoors, the 70-year-old classic looks nothing like films of its time. It's not merely a two-dimensional recording of a stage play; the use of space and shadows could be employed even in films today. Notice the scene in which the privileged Sreedharan (Sathyan) goes through a conundrum when Neeli, a Dalit woman, takes refuge in his house. There's heavy rain and thunder strikes. A curtain-like separation keeps waving back and forth to the wind outside. Each time the curtain moves, it cuts light from Sreedharan's face, getting us to see his two minds, before he shuts the door to let the plot kick in. This is one of many interesting uses of the visual to amplify the plot. The songs are even more beautiful and you can see the influence of 'Kuyiline Thedi' on a particular genre of the hero-praise song.
All you need to see is the opening credits of this film to be convinced of its beauty (directed by A. Vincent, this time). It doesn't need jump scares or special effects to scare us. The shadowy glimpses of the haunted house is clearer than an 'enter-at-your-own-risk' warning sign. We never get a sense of the geography but when the two windows upstairs keep opening and closing, they look like two blinking eyes of a scary bad guy we shouldn't mess with. Some shots feel like they're right out of a 1930's German movie while others, opulent and precise, feel like they have American heritage. It doesn't have to rely on a separate tone or heavy DI to set another time period for the flashback. Lighting is all it needs to take us back to cheerier, more romantic times. A longish dissolve from a smiling photograph to Bhargavi's ghost is two pictures giving us more than a thousand words.
Marcus Bartley, who shot epics like Mayabazaar in Telugu, also shot a majority of what was then the biggest ever Malayalam film. The shots of the fisherfolk going into the sea, the whirlpool ending and that of Pareekutty (Madhu) walking along hundreds of stationary boats could be inserted into a similar film today. To understand its use of colour, one should compare it with a film like Kandam Becha Coat (1961), which looks simply like a black and white film shot accidentally on colour. In Chemmeen, colours have a purpose and that's why they stay there when we recall scenes and songs. A lot of things in this film may have aged but not its visuals, which give an epic, mythical quality to what is essentially a modest love story about regular, everyday people.
Among the great Ramachandra Babu's early films, MT Vasudevan Nair's Nirmalyam is a film one should study for its compositions alone. A conversation between an upper caste man and a street vendor, features only the lower half of the former's torso. The state of the village temple is shown to us through the cracks on its walls and its broken roof tiles. A romantic moment uses ultra wide shots which then narrow down the distance between lovers using a silhouette inside a cave, as it rains outside. The shot is later reversed as the man walks into the distance, leaving her. The woman's dreams of him feature erotic paintings intercut with backlights forming a halo around her profile. Even in the shocking climax when the oracle finds his wife's big secret, her face is framed through the crescent of the same divine sword he believed would protect his family.
This KS Sethumadhavan film is a novelty item in this list of obvious entries. Upon close inspection, you see a clash between two visual styles within the same film. About the love affair between an Anglo Indian woman named Julie and a boy from an Orthodox Hindu family, you see the sensibilities switch as Julie moves between her Westernised modern home and into her lover's traditional household. Even when her family travels in their old vintage car, you see the film showing us how alien they appear in the rural Kerala setting. Julie's hip 70's era clothes, her Femina magazines, family drinking sessions and a window into the dancing culture of that time present a colourful film that's fun to keep looking at.
Instead of terming it good-looking, KG George's first film is best described as his most 'disturbing looking' film. Starting with a disoriented man walking into nighttime Madras, the film's dream/nightmare sequences are hypotonic and are impossible to flush away from memory. The whole film unravels in the form of a psychoanalysis session and the imagery compliments that through surrealism. We see a dream within a dream as this man finds himself burying his wife. In another, we see a recurring loop of him being surrounded by his enemies, all dressed in black as the camera goes around him. Even the shot of him staring into his lover's bedroom at night will not leave you easily.
This Aravindan classic, shot by Shaji N Karun, is pure fantasy without the gimmickry one might associate with a film about children and a mythical bogeyman. There's something inherently innocent in this film about a boy who gets magically transformed into a dog. The film has uses many ultra wides with nothing but the children and the Kummatty taking over the whole of the barren Malabar landscape. There are hardly any dialogues and you never feel the need either when you're able to see and make sense of the world through a child's eyes.
On another day, the Padmarajan film to make this list would have been Novemberinte Nashtam but that's only because of the beauty of its heroine Madhavi. If you look at a film in its entirety, however, there's not many that come close to Namukku Parkan Munthiri Thoppukal. Because of this film, Mysore just isn't any other town for a Malayali. The two houses, the vineyards, the picket fence, the hills and the romance all come together to create a little piece of heaven, with problems and people from hell. Shot by Venu, the film has a timeless quality to it, almost like it's getting better with time.
Among director Kamal's earliest and finest films is one that's truly built up in the world of children. Regular people like teachers look and behave like beastly giants because that's how the children see them. The film is a slice of childhood for a lot of us and the nostalgia one associates with simpler times. The song 'Kannam Thumbi Porame' places it on a pedestal of beauty that goes beyond lenses and cameras.
Bharathan's classic begins with an image that does not require any further words. A vulture is chewing through the remains of a bull as a group of people walk rightwards into the desert. We're witnessing an exodus, no less, as the king's chariot rides beside the subjects. In one frame, we feel the thirst this kingdom has been feeling for years and we immediately join the king and his people in their search for water. The remaining film is equally gorgeous, as though we have become a part of an Amar Chitra Katha. So when it rains at the end, the victory feels like it's ours.
It has Mammootty on one side and Madhavi on the other. Which means that there's only so much beauty left in the world to make it into the frames of this Hariharan masterpiece. But Ramachandra Babu manages to do this and more in an epic historical film that looks better than similar films made twenty or more years later. P Krishnamoorthy won the National Award for Production Design and his citation aptly read, "For adding to the aesthetic value of the film as a whole by carefully recreating the essence of the reality of a bygone era in Kerala with minute attention to details."
Even black and white films give us the impression that they are more colorful than this Adoor Gopalakrishnan film. That is a result of a monochromatic beauty of a film set within the grey walls of a prison. Which means that the few flowers in Basheer's small garden feel like little trophies of freedom in a desert of rules. The red of his roses (a gift to his lover Narayani), the red brick pillars and the shade on the guard's hat feel like completely different colours because those are really the only we get to see. The compositions are such that people appear tiny next to the beastly prison compound walls and gates. Who said you need colours for beauty?
Ajayan's film is about a sculptor and it's fascinating to see how Santosh Sivan sculpts sunlight to reveal its many forms. As the master sculptor is at work, we see light splinter through thatched roofs to create a halo around him. In close-ups, we see several profiles, with characters treated like landscapes. How else would you see a film about a man who looks closely at people as though they are subjects for his next big art work.
The late KV Anand's first film is arguably THE most beautiful Priyadarshan film. He managed to create a fictional world out of thin air populated with people and places we had never seen before. The best part about this film is how it's beautiful all throughout. The painstaking image-making is as evident in the lovely songs as it is in a seemingly mundane confession scene set in a cattle shed. A comedy scene, with top angle shots and movement, was treated with as much care as a hero introduction scene. The film created the Priyadarshan aesthetic — a pattern he and other directors have been following ever since.
Malayalam cinema has had many films set in and around the Bharathapuzha but the river becomes so much more than an aesthetic choice in this heartbreaking film. Directed by Jayaraj, this again, is a film that will never age. It does not have to explain its time or setting. Staging choices, like how the teacher controls his students using his big toe or the pot with the Kathakali face painted on it, are reminders of how individual visuals can briskly take you back into the film's world. This too is a fairly monochromatic world with the brown of the characters' bare bodies matching the browns of the soil and the mud walls. Rewatching 'Kaliveedu Urangiyallo' today, you see the connection between a waterless river, a stationary boat and a parent who has just lost their son.
Shot jointly by Renato Berta and Santosh Sivan, Shaji N Karun's third film is also arguably his most beautiful. In his film Piravi, rain became a central character, giving company to a father who has to wait for his son's return. In Vanaprastham, mere mortals are asked to stand in for the roles reserved for the Gods. A recurring motif is chayam or the makeup work by Kathakali artistes. A great performer, with the help of makeup, can become the character he plays on stage. But what happens when the chayam refuses to come off? And what if you don't want to wash it away to avoid going back to reality? The loaded film requires one's full attention but that's the case with the visuals too. Every frame is truly a painting.
It's the visuals of Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu that elevate a seemingly regular revenge thriller to a higher place, quite literally. Shot by Ravi K Chandran, the film used cranes like we'd seldom seen before to give us maddeningly disorienting top angle shots that took you in and out of house boats on the Vembanad lake. Kuttanad too looked different in this movie. The edginess of the film's lead spilled over into the film's visual language. There's beauty but never comfort. There's a lot of green and blue skies, yet not a moment of calm. The effect is that of an entire film shot in Dutch angles. In other words, the film's visuals are seductive but it's certainly not empty beautification like one could assume.
If Lal Jose later became our primary visual director of the 2000's, it's largely due to the visual success of this moderately successful film. The Dileep starrer is a film that continues to live on for the beauty of its songs and in Lal Jose, we finally found a director who could match Vidyasagar's music with visuals. Like Thenmavin Kombathu, Chandranudikkunna Dikkil too exists in a place that falls somewhere in between dreams and reality and S Kumar managed to co-build this world you'll only see in novels.
Another Jayaraj film to make the list is this story of two political ideologies, two brothers and two mothers. Among the first shots track the rapid movement of plantain leaves in a banana plantation. We don't see people but the static frame gives us enough clues to suggest that someone is being attacked. Shot almost entirely in natural light by Ravi Varman, the film embraces the mood and the melancholy of cloudy skies. As we wait for the rains, we're also waiting for an inevitable tragedy.
Kuttanad is simply home and nothing more in Blessy's Kazhcha. There's no outsider's gaze when we see this region. So a boat can become a school bus and a canoe can become a grocery store. It's more a window into a lifestyle than an aesthetic decision. The remoteness of the place contributes to our love for the innocent characters. It also shows us to see the alienation of a lost boy who grew up in a desert like Gujarat, now trying to survive in the backwaters. I have a theory that the film is basically ET, but that's for another day.
A lot more natural than the world of Chattakari is Shyamaprasad's interpretation of Anglo Indians and their lifestyle. This too is a film that we recollect from a novel long-forgotten, complete with cobble-stoned streets, crystals figurines and a lighthouse at land's end (it is inspired from a Tennessee Williams' play). The 70's art design and costumes too are done with utmost sincerity. We see characters watching Sholay during its release and old defunct movie theatres coming alive again. It is an anachronism of a film that finds beauty is the littlest of things.
Directed by Santosh Sivan, Anandhabhadram begins in the form of a grandma's tale being handed down from a mother to her son. It is set in a place where flames of fire talk to each other with tiny snakes guarding big secrets. No one but Sivan could have visualised such a film. A mix of folk tales and fantasy, we seldom see such scale in films of this genre. With his association in Mohanlal's Barozz, this is the visual zone I hope he gets back to rather than big mass films.
Big B is less a movie and more a cultural marker for a generation. The most obvious change it brought about was through its look. Raised on Star TV and video games, the film looked like the wet dreams of English-thinking Malayali fanbois/girls. There was style in every frame. It made the Tata Safari a status symbol, a shot gun a plausible weapon in Fort Kochi and Bilal (Mammootty) our style icon. Bilal might not have changed, but Malayalam cinema hasn't remained the same since Big B's release.
Directed by VK Prakash and shot by Jomon T John, this friendship story completely justifies its title. It had the freshness of organic Ooty strawberries and a pair of lenses through which even Panampilly Nagar looked new. Given that the film was mostly set indoors, the scenes where the quadriplegic Stephen Louis finally steps outside felt like a personal victory for viewers. The contrast, the many shades of whites, the music and the rains contributed generously too.
Lijo Jose Pellissery, collaborating with Abhinandan Ramanujam, created his own surreal universe for Amen. People look and behave a certain way. Angels appear in dreams and the trumpet is the primary musical instrument. Beef cutlets got a POV shot and a slo mo food fights is filmed like it was the last of the Napoleonic Wars. But there's a remarkable amount of consistency among all living and nonliving things and a devotion to its uniquely quirky pitch. Why make sense when you can make a work of art instead?
Can a mass film ever look beautiful? Shot and directed by Amal Neerad, the film brought period swag to modern Malayalam cinema. It placed King Lear before a backdrop of tea plantations and communism and the result was a hefty film that packed both style and substance. No villain has had as much swag as Angoor Rawther and not many heroes have been able to pull off the period look like Fahadh Faasil. It may have its flaws, but a deficiency of coolth is certainly not one of them.
Premam is a season more than it is a film. It is also a film that owes much of its immense re-watchability to Anand Chandran's cinematography. Certain shots teach you why a certain something is called 'Golden' light. The film is five years old but you could watch it in 2031 and still think it's going to release following week. There's a harmony between the intentionally bleached out love songs and the rustic, grungey texture of 'Kallipu'. No location is special, yet they appear so. No one looks extraordinary, yet they've come to define what's handsome and what's beautiful.
Charlie is among a handful of films that can claim the visual quality of a graphic novel. Even insignificant shots maintain a allegiance to beauty. This is important because it helps us delineate realism from the film's otherworldly pitch. It's easier to think of Charlie as a fairy godmother with a heart of gold rather than a real person with EMIs and daddy issues. The music video quality spreads right across the movie and the art direction in the film (by Jayashree Lakshminarayanan) is already the stuff of home decor legends.
Parava isn't a film that believes in broad strokes. The film wants to zoom in on the smallest of characters doing the most innocuous of things to present us with a story that has room for heroism, love, despair, triumphs and losses. For people from the area, Mattanchery was always sidelined for the Colonial beauty of Fort Kochi. But Parava got Mattanchery right like no one had before. The pigeons, shot painstakingly by Littil Swayamp, was also a triumph in itself. It's a visual pursuit bigger films don't seem to bother with. And as someone who grew up in Mattanchery, the film is all kinds of warm.
Kumbalangi Nights is not just a beautiful film but it's also the idea of how beautiful Kerala is for lakhs of outsiders. But nothing is intentionally special about Shyju Khalid's cinematography, although he appears to have the gift to make everything look special. Despite the brothers' broken home with no doors (or toilets) any one of us would still happily move in with them. You can watch the film without subs and sound and still appreciate it. But don't be fooled by these picture postcards. Flip over to the back side and its filled with text that can fill books.