Call it crying over spilt milk, but 2020 looked like it would have been a milestone year for Malayalam cinema. The year's half-way mark would have seen the release of Malayalam cinema's most expensive film yet. Directed by Priyadarshan, the industry's first Rs.100-crore film, Marakkar Arabikadalinte Simham, was all set to eclipse the box office figures of last year's Lucifer, also starring Mohanlal. With the film requiring a worldwide release and a big holiday window, its director has said that it will be pushed to next year. Another biggie that would have released by now is Fahadh Faasil's second film with Mahesh Narayanan Malik, which backed out just weeks before its original release date. Add films such as Mammotty's One, Dulquer Salmaan's Kurup and Nivin Pauly's Thuramukham to the list, and the industry was on course to consolidate itself to finally get rid of the "small-budget industry" tag it had always lived with.
A 100-odd days after the first lockdown was announced, the industry looks nothing like what the year promised. There are dozens of films that remain complete but look unlikely to release until next year. Dozens more that are stuck midway, with the situation proving too difficult to resume shoots and then a dozen others that are on the verge of being dropped for good, only to join the ghosts of hundred others stuck in development hell.
But, if you're a glass half-full kind of person, there are also the stories of films that have resumed their shoots and a set of filmmakers that has already adapted to the new normal. Among these are Lal Jr's Tsunami, which was the first film to resume its shoot on June 15. With just over 12 days of shoot remaining, the film also became the first feature to complete its shoot during lockdown. According to several reports, the film shoot is an indication of how things will now be. Temperature tests are a must for every cast and crew member entering the shoot. Actors are allowed to remove their masks only right before the scene is being shot. The total crew must be kept under 50 and permissions are being given only for indoor scenes. In Tsunami, the makers even made changes to the script to place most scenes indoors.
In a report in The Hindu, M Ranjith, the president of The Kerala Film Producers' Association, stated that as many as 60 films have been affected directly by the pandemic; this includes a backlog of 22 films that were ready for release. Calling the film business the first to shut down due to the virus, he says things are looking brighter, with at least 10 films shoots having resumed across the State.
"Because producers shouldn't suffer more than they already are, the Association has given permission only to those films that were stuck midway," says producer Mukesh M Mehta. "But even so, there's no guarantee that things won't go wrong on the sets. Recently, one of the crew members of a Telugu serial tested positive. Right now, there is no Covid-specific insurance policy for film shoots to ensure that you'll be taken care of; this further heightens the risk. Even my film Bada, starring Kunchacko Boban and Vinayakan, can resume shooting only in October, because we need permission to shoot near the Secretariat, which will not happen any time soon."
The number of films that have resumed shoot is just a fraction of the usual number before lockdown. While a few daring crews have come forward to take a chance, most others don't even have the option to.
The issues these films are facing are wide and strange. In the case of Vineeth Sreenivasan's Hridayam, starring Pranav Mohanlal and Kalyani Priyadarshan, the main issue is one of logistics. Having completed half the shoot, it is unlikely that the film resumes its shoot, given that the certain important portions were meant to be shot in Chennai — a Covid nightmare, with specific locations marked for the film reporting a dangerous number of cases.
In the case of director Basil Joseph's Minnal Murali, starring Tovino Thomas, the situation seems far more difficult. First was the news of right-wing activists destroying a chapel constructed for the superhero film's big climax shoot. It will now need to be built again for the film's final schedule. But things only seem to be getting worse. In a recent video interview, the director stated it would be virtually impossible for the film's action director Vlad Rimburg to travel to Kerala from Los Angeles for the shoot. There are other worries too for the director. A 10-year-old boy, who plays a pivotal role in the film, has started to look very different now, potentially affecting the film's continuity. "And, he doesn't even have a younger brother," the director joked in exasperation.
In the case of Friday Film House's new film, the issue was even weirder. The shooting of the film had to be stopped midway because the lead actors, all dogs, couldn't be trained any longer. A love story between two dogs, the film was expected to use extensive CGI to be completed, which is what they makers are trying to revive now using the new stipulations.
The crew members of Aadujeevitham, starring Prithviraj and directed by Blessy, faced a logistical nightmare of another kind. The crew managed to complete its shoot, but only after being stranded in a desert in Jordan. With all international flights getting cancelled, the crew decided to continue shooting with its 58-member crew after taking all the necessary precautions. Finally, it took a repatriation flight and days of uncertainty for the crew to get back home.
For films that are already complete, OTT platforms seem to be the only ray of sunshine, with Kappela being a case in point. The Anna Ben-Roshan Mathew starrer was one of the last films to release before the official lockdown, with its theatrical run ending in just four days. At first, the makers waited, expecting a re-release once everything opened up. But with matters getting extended indefinitely, it was Netflix that came to its rescue, bailing out the producers and bringing attention to a film that has now become as controversial as it is being celebrated. As the producer of the film Vishnu Venu puts it, it wasn't part of the plan. "It was a film we made with much effort and money, because it was meant to release in theatres. If we had made it as an OTT film, there was no need to mix the film in Dolby Atmos and colour grade it the way we now have. OTT platforms don't need all that," he said.
Producer Vijay Babu, who released Sufiyum Sujatayum directly onto Amazon Prime Video, the first for a major Malayalam movie, says he still thinks of a theatrical release first. "As a filmmaker, when you read a script, only the theatre comes to your mind. That is the dream of every filmmaker. When someone says 'If only this movie had released in the theatres…', it upsets a filmmaker. OTT is only a temporary phenomenon."
He explains, "OTT platforms have their own strategy. Such worldwide releases may not happen very often, because it comes with a huge budget. If the lockdown and closure of theatres extends further, maybe one or two movies may release on OTT. There will not be, say, a premiere every week. Among the 60-odd stalled films, most of them are not ready – they have scenes left to shoot, other movies may have post production work, and others may have signed agreements and gotten a theatrical advance – so only around nine to 10 movies are left. Among these, only a very small number have the potential and may be at the right juncture to go straight to OTT."
For a few directors and producers, lockdown is a time where they've shaken the dust off scripts for series and offbeat movies they had kept aside for when OTT platforms are ready for such content in Malayalam cinema. Fahadh Faasil, for instance, has completed work on Mahesh Narayanan's film that was shot indoors using basic technology. In an interview with Film Companion, he said that the full film was just 95 minutes long, featuring scenes that required Zoom calls and the phone. He isn't even sure if the film, co-starring Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran, can even be called a feature film. What this means is that the lockdown is also pushing makers and actors into subjects and ideas that may have been impractical, at least in terms of business.
Even Rima Kalingal is amidst a film shoot that has embraced this forced minimalism. Parvathy says she will be assisting her friends in a film, "being directed by Harshad. There are just three of four main characters and it will be completed in just 20 days. But they know for a fact that the film will get sold. In pre-Covid times, such a movie would have probably had a tough time getting a release, but now there's a scope for it," she said in an interview to FC.
Like these two crews, even Lijo Jose Pellissery has decided to move on, not willing to listen to the Producers' Association's demand to allot first preference to stalled films. Apart from releasing the trailer of his haunting new film Churuli (without an announcement of a release date or platform), the director went ahead and announced the shoot of a film titled 'A', with the shoot having commenced on July 3. "We are in the middle of a pandemic, a war, jobless people, identity crisis, poverty, and religious unrest. People are walking a 1,000 miles just to reach home. Artistes are dying of depression. So…these are times to create great art just to inspire people to feel alive. Just to give them hope in some form to stay alive," he wrote in a Facebook post.
Given the nature of pandemic and its uncertainty, the only way forward is to take a page out of Lijo's book and hope that great art will follow the great pain we're all sharing.
(With inputs from Swathy Iyer)