Malayalam Cinema 101: 20 Must-Watch Films For The Uninitiated, Film Companion

Curious about those exciting films and hilarious movie scenes your Malayalee friends keep talking about? Wondering where to get started in your endeavour to learn more about Kerala’s amazing films? Fear not! We present a beginner’s guide to some of the most talked about Malayalam films — a list of  films that transcend the boundary of language to help ease you into Kerala’s culture, humour, aesthetics and cinematic art. This list isn’t necessarily about the greatest of Kerala’s films, but it’s just enough for you to understand and begin to appreciate our cinema. What’s more? All these films are available on Hotstar, Netflix and YouTube. So get ready to binge!

Manichithrathazhu (1993, Mainstream classic): This masterpiece by Fazil features an ensemble cast (Shobhana, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi, Thilakan…). The film, more than being an epic psychological thriller, offers the perfect dose of Malayalee nostalgia — forgotten folktales, decadent bungalows, love affair with literature, black magic, and the mystical romance of kings and courtesans. That’s probably why the film was completely lost in translation when it was remade in other languages. Not even Priyadarshan (with Bhool Bhulaiyya) could bring out the real essence of what the film truly represented—a romance with a culturally-rooted past.

Bangalore Days (2014, coming-of-age): This film reached out to a younger movie audience outside Kerala. Like every Anjali Menon story, family is the cornerstone in this light-hearted dramedy about the lives of three cousins. One reason the film connected with the audience in Kerala is the strong bond between the very different cousins Divya (Nazriya), Kuttan (Nivin Pauly) and Arjun (Dulquer Salmaan). This is also perhaps the best celluloid tribute to Bangalore. There is such a positive verve about the city that sails throughout the film—the ITians, the bright radio jockeys who are a part of every Bangalorean’s mornings, the increasing number of multiplexes, the deluxe apartments, the buzzing art cafes, the bike racing community, and just the joie de vivre of the city.

Angamaly Diaries (Gangster-drama, 2017): It’s a delectable cocktail of food, testosterone-induced fights in butcher shops, quintessentially local characters, humour and romance set in Angamaly, a principal town in Central Kerala. The narrative traces Vincent Pepe (Antony Varghese, who also gives a voiceover regarding the events that unfold), his righteous gang of friends, his love interest and family. Another highlight of the film is a 11-minute long take in the climax featuring 1,000 artistes. Director Lijo Jose Pellissery displays fine craftsmanship in this film that introduced 82 fresh faces, not to forget Girish Gangadharan’s excellent frames.

Sudani From Nigeria (2018, Feel-good drama): Zakariya made an unforgettable debut with what could be described as the mother of realistic, feel-good cinema. Set in the backdrop of Malappuram and ‘sevens’ football with a Nigerian headlining the narrative, the film is an endearing melting pot of culture and emotions with characters you fall in love with instantly. The Nigerian, one of the many roped in by Malappuram clubs to keep their winning streak ignited, captures the hearts of the villagers, especially two loving mothers, and his football club manager and mentor.

Premam (2015, Rom-com): Premam has been an easy crossover film for non-Malayalee cinephiles. Alphonse Putharen gives a fresh spin to an otherwise ordinary coming-of-age tale of a young man. Premam rests a lot on little nuggets of everyday life—a childhood crush, a college romance, many heartbreaks, and a culmination into love and marriage as an adult—it’s a story that can be placed anywhere in India. Nivin Pauly became an overnight sensation. It’s fun, cheeky, and just so relatable.

Ustad Hotel (2012, feel-good): Scripted by Anjali Menon and directed by Anwar Rasheed, Ustad Hotel set in Kozhikode, one of the cultural capitals of Kerala, digs into the warm bond between a granddad (Thilakan) and his globe-trotting grandson (Dulquer Salmaan). They bond over a common passion for food—both chefs, they stand poles apart in their ideology and the politics of food. The film leads us through the evolution of their relationship and how it thaws a generation of ill will between a son and father, with some help from steaming cups of specially brewed Suleimani tea. With many montages of delicious food, conversations about secret recipes, and some fine performances, Ustad Hotel is a cinematic treasure.

Piravi (1989, arthouse, drama): It’s a fine example of arthouse transcending into the mainstream in Malayalam cinema. Shaji N. Karun’s brilliant directorial (inspired by a real-life story of the Emergency) centres around an absent hero, an engineering student in the state capital. His father, who lives in a remote coastal village, awaits his imminent return, journeys each evening to the bus stop, only to be disappointed. 83-year-old Premji is heartbreakingly authentic, reflecting the pain and indecisiveness of a father’s wait for his son. The film also addresses the politics of the time, the infringement of guaranteed rights of the modern world by traditional beliefs and a corrupt establishment, as well as the role of women and education. A master of nuance and mood, Karun values grace and the human spirit, but the film ends on a tragically ambivalent note. Quiet and contemplative in its narrative style, it is deeply moving in effect.

Yavanika (1982, crime thriller): It’s considered one of the finest crime thrillers to have been made in Malayalam cinema. Directed by K.G. George, said to have made a strong presence in the new wave movement, Yavanika explores the backstage drama of a travelling theatre group. The plot is structured around the mysterious disappearance of the troupe’s unpopular tabla player (‘Bharath’ Gopy). This evenly paced, finely-crafted thriller also boasts of some of the most relatable, yet unusual characters and they are all brought alive on screen by a fabulous set of actors. The auteur K.G. George’s films continue to be discussed 30 years later.

Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha (1989, period drama): Scriptwriter M.T. Vasudevan Nair does what not many would have dared to do in OVV—he presents a fresh, crafty twist on the old North Kerala folklore of swindler Chandu Chekavar. M.T. rewrote his story and gave him a new lease of life—as a victim and a fallen hero. It’s one of the best-made epic films of Malayalam, with heavy prose, stylised performances (for which Mammootty won the National Award), music, and a setting that is deeply rooted in Kerala.

Thaniyavarthanam (1985, drama): The story is, once again, entrenched in the culture and ethos of the people. A perfectly sane man is branded a lunatic for belonging to a family with a history of mental illness. When his own family fails to have faith in him, he is chained to the bed. In the end, the distraught mother poisons him and herself. The traditional Nair tharavadu, the beliefs and deep-seated superstitions attached to them are all captured perfectly in this Lohithadas-scripted Sibi Malayil film. Mammootty’s Balan is rated as one of his finest performances.

Kilukkam (1991, comedy): Director Priyadarshan is credited to have introduced a whole new brand of comedy to Malayalam cinema. He also lends a distinct colour grading to the frames, especially in Kilukkam. A tourist guide finds himself chaperoning a half-wit woman in Ooty and the film chronicles the various complicated situations he lands in, coated with loads of humour. In the mid-80s Priyan-Mohanlal films were a breath of fresh air for an audience fed on I.V. Sasi action dramas and literature-heavy themes. It has the Malayalee brand of humour and that’s probably why the remakes in other languages didn’t do so well.

My Dear Kuttichathan (1984, 3D fantasy): The first ever 3D film in India, directed by Jijo Punnoose, remains a motif in the lives of every 80s Malayalee child. It’s about a little ghost/chathan who is rescued from the spell of an evil sorcerer by three children. The film chronicles their journey, how they hoodwink the world and create a happy kingdom together. Jijo deftly crafts a world of fantasy with black magicians and friendly ghosts, and seamlessly makes that trip through the mind of a child. It was dubbed in Hindi as Chota Chetan in 1997.

Vanaprashtham (1999, drama): Directed by Shaji N. Karun with dialogues by Raghunath Paleri, Vanaprashtham follows the life of a Kathakali artiste – the man behind the varnish – and his impoverished existence. Not only does Karun successfully blend in the aesthetics of the art form, but he also gives a nuanced account of an artiste’s struggle to keep his mind and body together, his constant battle with self, and the reality of living a life that has no identity apart from the various attams (roles) he performs on stage. With power-packed performances from Mohanlal and Suhasini, superb cinematography, and music (Zakir Hussain), Vanaprashtham is a must-watch.

Perumthachan (1990, Drama): Perumthachan or the ‘Master Carpenter ’, is part of Kerala’s folklore and M.T. Vasudevan Nair gave it a fine cinematic whirl with this script. Directed by Ajayan, the film tells the story of a master artisan who cautions his son against being carried away by his own blazing ambition. Superb performances (Thilakan and Nedumudi Venu) and great cinematography (Santosh Sivan), with a keen eye on capturing Kerala’s architecture and aesthetics, make Perumthachan an important milestone in the history of Malayalam cinema.

Thoovanathumbikal (1986, Romantic drama): Directed and scripted by Padmarajan (based on his book Udakkappolla), the film deals with the complex layers of love and lust in a relationship.  A man torn between guilt and love finally succumbs to love in this finely-crafted, beautifully-orchestrated musical in the backdrop of rain. Widely rated as one of the most romantic Malayalam films of all times, the film didn’t find the audience it deserved at the time of its release, as it was considered a culture shock for a prudish society. 30 years later, the film enjoys a cult status and almost every aspect of the film—be it Jayakrishnan and Clara or the terrific BGM — is revered and celebrated in all its glory.

Mathilukal (1990, Arthouse): Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s superb adaptation of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer’s book of the same name, the film that falls in the arthouse genre is an intense love story. Basheer is jailed for treason and he falls for a woman known only as a voice behind a wall. He captures the scent of the woman beautifully on celluloid. Mammootty breathes life into Basheer while KPAC Lalitha lends her voice to the faceless stranger. 

Sandesham (1991, Satire/comedy): Malayalam cinema’s best socio-political satire, Sandesham, written by Sreenivasan and directed by Sathyan Anthikad, the film tells the tale of two brothers, each belonging to opposing political parties and the hilarious mud-slinging that ensues between them. In the middle of this mayhem stand their helpless parents. With terrific dialogues that touched on the hypocrisy and double standards of society, Sandesham is still discussed among cinephiles and some of the dialogues have turned into superb memes.

Ramji Rao Speaking (1989, Comedy): The magical duo who brought a new brand of irreverent comedy into Malayalam cinema—Siddique-Lal. They weave a tale around middle-class woes and unemployment, layering the issues with generous doses of humour.  Fine actors, superbly comic lines, and the beauty of the middle-class all came together nicely in this film. It also stirred a bunch of mimicry artistes out of anonymity into the world of cinema.

Amen (2013, Fantasy/Romance): Kumaramkari, a tiny village in Kuttanadu, is mediating a love story between a local music band player and the daughter of a wealthy contractor. Into this conflict enters a priest with a spring in his walk, determined to unite them. With loads of humour, peculiar characters, and flavoursome music, director Lijo Jose Pellisery delectably captures the local flavour, aesthetics and naivety of that tiny church town and its people. 

Kireedom (1988, Drama): Widely regarded one of the finest screenplays (by Lohithadas) in Malayalam cinema, Kireedom (Directed by Sibi Malayil) is about a young man Sethumadhavan (Mohanlal won a Special mention at the National Awards) who is victimised and criminalised by society for no fault of his. It has one of the most poignant and complex depictions of a complicated father-son relationship on screen.


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