“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.
Bhargavi Nilayam (1964)
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.
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.
Namukku Parkan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986)
Kakkothi Kavile Appoppan Thadikkal (1988)
Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989)
Thenmavin Kombathu (1994)
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.
Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu (1999)
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.
Chandranudikkunna Dikkil (1999)
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 (2007)
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?
Iyobinte Pusthakam (2014)
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.