Irakal to Appan: The Dysfunctional Family In Malayalam Cinema

In Malayalam, the New Wave that began in 2010 has increasingly looked at the family as a microcosm of society, one that is riddled with prejudice and bigotry
Irakal to Appan: The Dysfunctional Family In Malayalam Cinema

A lecherous old man (Alencier), paralysed from waist below, demands the services of a sex worker in the recently released Malayalam film Appan (2022). His family is disgusted but they oblige because they want his property. They wait outside the closed room – his wife and two adult children – because by now, nothing fazes them. The word ‘appan’ means ‘father’, and director Maju’s family drama paints a disconcerting, darkly funny picture of a dysfunctional family plunged into despair because its patriarch just won’t die. 

Appan is among the many films coming out of the Malayalam film industry that show dysfunctional families. In Nissam Basheer’s experimental psychological thriller Rorschach (2022), Mammootty plays a man who files a complaint that his pregnant wife has gone missing after an accident. But as the mystery unravels, you realise that this desperate husband isn’t all that he seems. At the heart of the film is a controlling mother (an excellent Bindu Panicker) and her devoted sons; a cold-blooded woman who has passed on her violent streak to her boys.

If the dysfunctional family in Rorschach is unsettling, it is the subject of comedy in Senna Hegde’s National Award winning film Thinkalazhcha Nischayam (2021) where a young woman is planning to elope right before her engagement ceremony. Hegde comes from a large family himself and said that this helped him in the writing process. “I enjoy films that depict human behaviour realistically. I developed the script based on my own observations at family events when all your favourite aunts and uncles gather together, and you figure out the relationships that your parents have with the extended family. I wanted to explore these dynamics in the film,” he said. 

In the film, as the guests arrive one by one for the engagement ceremony, the cracks in the family stand exposed. In her review of Thinkalazhcha Nischayam, film critic Anna Vetticad wrote, “The loveliness of this film lies in the way it mines cultural and social specifics to tell a universal story – of flawed human beings with shades of grey, of a home where a husband/father’s whims, frustrations and outbursts of temper determine the mood, a home where children live dual lives because they are terrified of the patriarch, where a woman may be an enabler of patriarchy yet resent it, of normalised male aggression and women’s lack of agency, of sibling rivalries and bitterness that has festered down generations.”

Though such stories are all too common in real life, contemporary films from other southern industries have rarely explored dysfunctional families. However, in Malayalam, the New Wave that began in 2010 has increasingly looked at the family as a microcosm of society, one that is riddled with prejudice and bigotry. Hegde pointed out that the Malayalam film industry has always stood apart from other industries when it comes to realism. 

“On average, Malayalam films are more grounded, more realistic than films made by other industries. There was a brief period in the late Nineties and early 2000s when we kind of went off course, but other than that, it’s always been the case that Malayalam cinema makes realistic films. That’s probably why we haven’t been able to make an RRR or KGF,” he added with a laugh. He also pointed out that writers and filmmakers like Sreenivasan, Sathyan Anthikad and Balachandra Menon made movies with dysfunctional families in the Eighties and Nineties, but these films were different in flavour from what’s being made now.  

“Families then and now are different. They are much smaller these days. You meet relatives for maybe a couple of occasions a year, like a wedding or a funeral. They don’t live in the same house. Also, earlier, filmmakers used to write a film thinking about the male actor who would play the lead. So, the story would be developed around him. I don’t have any such compulsion to write a script like that now. There’s greater flexibility,” he said. 

Veteran film critic GP Ramachandran said the institution of the family was preserved and protected by Kerala society just like all other Indian societies, but Malayalam cinema reflects the change that has come about with more women being empowered to speak up about their lives and experiences “People are now more aware that the phenomenon of the ‘strong family’ is a system that justifies abuse,” he said. Films like Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) or Vipin Das’s Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey (2022) are based on patriarchal, abusive families that would have passed off as ‘normal’ in the past. Even when they’re shown as toxic – like in Sreenivasan’s Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala (1998) which features a self-centred man who neglects his family – the films mostly batted in favour of preserving the institution. Walking out of the family was considered unthinkable, especially for a woman. In both TGIK and JJJH, however, it’s the women who choose to cut their familial ties. 

Previously, other toxic relationships like father and son, too, were shown as reformed and repaired by the time the film drew to an end. Bhadran’s blockbuster film Spadikam (1995) is about a cruel father (Thilakan) who just cannot accept his son for who he is. Mohanlal plays the son who becomes a rebel and does everything possible to humiliate his father for revenge. However, by the end of the film, they reconcile – this is in contrast to contemporary films like Appan where there is no redemption other than the finality of death.

Ramachandran noted that filmmakers like TV Chandran and KG George stood apart in how they portrayed dysfunctional families in earlier decades, daring to show the ugliness of the institution and without offering conventional happy endings.  “Irakal (1985) dealt with the idea of a dysfunctional family in a very progressive manner. Alicinte Anveshanam (1989), Adaminte Vaariyellu (1983),  Susanna (2000) and Dany (2001) are a few other examples. TV Chandran and KG George made these films in Malayalam. They were not commercially successful, but they got attention and opened up discussions that led to revelations, and gave directors the courage to make more such films. This process made new-age filmmaking easier,” he said. 

Dileesh Pothan’s Joji (2021), in fact, has several striking similarities with KG George’s Irakal, though the film is based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Set during the pandemic, Joji is about the youngest son of a large family who has psychopathic tendencies. Fahadh Faasil played the titular character, and won critical acclaim for his performance. In the film, he plots the death of his father and older brother, craftily removing all those who stand in his way. Fahadh also played the antagonist in Madhu C Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights (2019), another film on a dysfunctional family of four brothers. In her review, film critic Aswathy Gopalakrishnan wrote, “The family in Kumbalangi Nights is fuelled and held together by a collective sense of loss and social alienation than by blood, as it is in Shoplifters (2018), Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Oscar-nominated drama. The brothers live in absolute poverty – material and social.”

Joji (2021)
Joji (2021)

In both Joji and Kumbalangi Nights, the women characters drive the plot forward, through their presence or absence. In the first, Unnimaya Prasad plays Bincy, a character based on Lady Macbeth. Here too, Bincy eggs Joji on to commit murder and is aware of his violent nature, but the film does not pin the blame on her like in the Shakespearean play and she receives a far more empathetic treatment. In the second film, there are two families – one conventional and headed by a patriarchal man, and the other, a family without any women. Fahadh’s Shammi is like any other controlling ‘head of the family’, but the film recasts the patriarchal mindset as a sickness and questions our understanding of what constitutes a dysfunctional family. 

Another notable film with a dysfunctional family is Rahul Sadasivam’s horror thriller Bhoothakaalam (2022). A single mother with mental health issues (Revathi) lives with her unemployed son (Shane Nigam) in a seemingly ordinary house. However, the son becomes convinced that his grandmother, who was bedridden for a long time before she died, is haunting the place. The film can be read as a series of supernatural events or as the characters’ journey through clinical depression and grief. Revathi won the Kerala State Award for her performance in the lead role.

Many of these new age films with dysfunctional families have not only received critical acclaim, but they’ve enjoyed success at the box office too. The audience does not seem to view the family as sacred on screen any more, and is willing to accept narratives where its dismantling is the cause for celebration. Ramachandran believes this to be a positive sign. “The box-office success of these films somehow suggests that Kerala society is travelling in a direction towards greater freedom and democracy,” he said. 

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