A Not So Happy Coronam: A Brief History Of Malayalam Cinema’s Big Onam Clashes
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In Kamal’s Subhayatra, Jayaram’s character Vishnu gets nostalgic while describing his childhood Onam tradition. In preparation of the Onasadhya, along with fellow Malayalis living in Bombay, he explains how travelling to Thrissur to watch a movie on the second day of Onam was an integral part of growing up. Just as he begins to reminisce, Innocent interrupts Vishnu and stops him before he narrates the story, yet again, of how his bus crashed on his way to watch the big Onam movie.    

Call that bus crash Covid 19, and it’s easy to comprehend that all of us are stuck in the same predicament as Vishnu was in Subhayatra. For Malayalis, that big Onam release has become as synonymous with the festival as Mahabali or the sadhya. But just as we had come to terms with a ‘no show’ at the movies this year, we got the welcome announcement of three movies releasing on the small screen this year. Tovino Thomas-starrer Kilometres and Kilometres premieres on TV, Mahesh Narayanan’s pioneering ‘shot-during-the-pandemic’ C U Soon starring Fahadh Faasil, Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran premieres on Amazon Prime Video and Gregory’s Netflix comedy Manirayaile Ashokan releases this Onam. We are seeing a major shift in the way the industry, especially the younger producers, are gravitating towards smaller screens. 

Onam has always been the biggest release day for the biggest movies of the year. Theatres were renovated before the season, producers planned years in advance to get a project green-lit and fans of stars scheduled special shows to celebrate the holiday. 

Before we forget the tradition, here’s a quick look back at the fan clashes that made Onam more exciting. 

The 90s: Competing With Oneself

The 90s were the last proper decade where a star’s film had to compete with another film of his to claim the bragging rights of becoming the big Onam winner. Despite the traditional Mohanlal versus Mammootty clash that was the norm, even during Vishu and Christmas, we also had years like 1993 where Mohanlal’s Sangeeth Sivan-directed Gandharavam competed with his own Sibi Malayil-directed Mayamohini. Add a lukewarm Mammootty starrer like Sarovaram to the list and one realises that only Gandharvam can be termed a reasonable success during the season. 

But the first Onam of the decade began more promisingly with the release of Mammootty’s Iyer The Great, directed by Bhadran, taking on the big action film Indrajaalam, with both films ending up as successes in their own right. 1991 was interesting too because it saw Bhadran changing camps to make Uncle Bun with Mohanlal that, in turn, had to compete with Priyadarshan’s Kilukkam. The blockbuster Kilukkam was the clear winner, leaving behind Mammootty’s Anaswaram, directed by Jomon. 

Going into 1992, the competition doubled with two Mohanlal films and two Mammootty releases for the season. We got two superhits with Yodha and Pappayude Swantham Appoos, which also gave us the once-in-a-lifetime chance of an AR Rahman cassette competing with an Ilaiyaraaja cassette in Malayalam. While Priyadarshan’s Advaitham, with the same team as Kilukkam, received limited success, the big disappointment of the season was Mammootty’s Kizhakkan Pathrose, written by Dennis Joseph. 

1994 saw another Priyadarshan-Mohanlal Onam release after a gap year. The film was Minnaram, written by Cherian Kalpakavadi, and Shobana got a heroine entry shot almost exactly like Revathi’s in Kilukkam. On the other side was Mammotty’s ensemble film Sainyam, directed by Joshiy, with a huge star cast that featured a small army of talents in its attempt to repeat the success of Nairsaab. Despite the hype for these films, neither of them went on to become blockbusters.   

The next two Onams would remain disappointing for Mammootty fans, with Fazil’s No.1 Snehatheeram Bangalore North and 1996’s Indraprastham not working any box office magic. For Mohanlal, 1995 saw the release of Manthrikam, a shamelessly pulpy action film that became a huge hit. But a year later (this included a break from cinema itself), Mohanlal returned with Suresh Krishna’s The Prince, still considered one of his biggest flops. 

In 1997, he was back again with the artsy Guru and Priyadarshan’s return-to-form Chandralekha, the clear Onam winner (it released a week earlier) apart from Mammootty’s lukewarm Dileep-Shalini drama Kaliyoonjal. Mammootty did not have an Onam release the following year but the decade ended with another disappointment in the form of Pallavoor Devanarayanan. But the biggest surprise of the decade came in the form of 1998’s Punjabi House. Directed by Rafi-Mecartin, the Dileep-starrer remains an Onam ‘bumper’ and one of those rare instances of a small movie winning big; it ran for more than 200 days.  

The 2000s: The Clash Of The Titans

 The new millennium saw a Mohanlal versus Mammootty clash as many as four times, with several interesting line-ups. The decade began with Shaji Kailas’ Mammootty-starrer Valliettan that competed with Mohanlal-starrer Narasimham. Though a success and the only major Onam release, it couldn’t recreate the mass hysteria of the Mohanlal film. 2001, however, saw a massively hyped clash, with Mohanlal-starrer Ravanaprabhu, a sequel to Devasuram directed by Ranjith) taking on the Mammootty-Dileep combination in  Rakshasarajavu. Even the titles matched but the clear winner, by miles, was Mohanlal’s Ravanaprabhu, which became the year’s biggest hit. 

Strangely, 2002 witnessed the release of just one major Onam release and that was Fahadh Faasil’s big introduction romance Kaiyethum Doorathu, directed by his father Fazil. Though it tried to emulate the hit concoction of Aniyathipravu, the film ended up a big failure. In 2003, the Mammootty-Mohanlal clash was repeated again but the film that ended up the winner was a clear surprise. Among the most hyped films of the period was Lal Jose’ big collaboration with Mammootty after his ultra successful Dileep film Meesa Madhavan. Despite its superhit songs and huge budget, Pattalam ended up a disappointment. But Mohanlal’s family weepie Balettan, directed by VM Vinu, ended up becoming a surprise winner, running for over 100 days in many centres. 

Their luck completely saw a reversal the next year with Mammootty’s low-profile Kazhcha becoming a sleeper hit and a darling among the audiences. Mohanlal’s mass entertainer Natturajavu too released the same year but the film was widely rejected after a big opening. This flip would happen once again in 2005 with Mohanlal’s Joshiy film Naran destroying Mammootty’s Nerariyan CBI (not released on the same day) that season.  

After Naran, Mohanlal attempted another mass hero film for Onam in 2007. But Ali Bhai was a box office disaster and is considered the last in the line of his mass hero films of the decade until it would return in a different form later. 2008 saw the release of two arty films in the form of Prithivraj’s Thirakadha and Lal’s Thalappavu, neither of which were designed as big festival releases. Both 2009 and 2010 didn’t see any major releases, because Onam coincided with Ramzan, usually not a day when big films released.

In one glance, the big Onam winner of the decade was clearly Prithiviraj-Lal Jose’s ensemble blockbuster Classmates, which announced the entry of a new kind of cinema working big, even if it was without the bells and whistles you’d associate with a festival release. 

The 2010s: Winners Play Musical Chair

The 2010’s saw the emergence of newer stars staking claim for the Onam release. 2011 saw the release of Mohanlal-Blessy’s much-loved Pranayam, which had a decent run. 2012 also saw a Mohanlal film with Joshiy after long when they got together for the immensely successful Run Babby Run. Both megastars sat it out in 2013 when Dileep’s Sringaravelan released along with Fahadh’s North 24-Kaatham. While the latter became a celebrated hit, it was Dileep’s film that made the big bucks that year. 

But by 2014, things got back to normal with a big Mammootty versus Mohanlal clash yet again, a first for the 2010s. But sadly, both films ended up as fan service vehicles where Mammootty acted in the Baasha-clone RajadhiRaja and Mohanlal came back with the try-hard Peruchazhi. The winner, however, was the heist film starring Prithviraj called Sapthamashree Thaskaraha.

The latter half of the decade saw multiple films release during Onam with varying degrees of success. In 2015, the hit of the season was the underrated comedy Kunjiramayanam, which left behind Mohanlal’s Loham and Mammootty’s Kamal film Utopiayile Rajavu, both disasters. 

Mohanlal would reclaim the Onam bumper the following year, however, with another Priyadarshan film Oppam, which remains a top grosser until today. The other big releases of the year were flops Oozham (starring Prithviraj) and Dileep’s embarrassing Welcome To Central Jail. But smaller films of the season Kochavva Paulo Ayyappa Coelho and Oru Muthassi Gadha did manage to steal our hearts. 

2017 too was just an okayish year with Mohanlal’s Oru Velipadinte Pusthakam and Prithivraj’s Adam Joan failing, with the only respite coming in the form of Nivin Pauly’s much-loved family drama Njandukalude Naatil Oridavela.  2018, much like this year, was largely forgettable due to the floods, even though Tovino’s Theevandi (a sleeper hit) and Prithiviraj’s Ranam (a flop) released around the same time. The Onam film market was truly revived in 2019 with several big ticket films lined up. Both Nivin Pauly’s Love Action Drama and Mohanlal’s Ittymani: Made In China made a lot of money even though they weren’t critically acclaimed. Prithviraj’s Brother’s Day too released but this again, didn’t work any wonders at the box office. Rajisha Vijayan’s Finals released on the same day and it slowly gained a lot of love among audiences. 

With three high profile releases this Onam, 2020 is expected to be a really interesting year among trackers and fans. Hit or flop, they will show, in their own way, that cinema will go on even during times of stress. Which film do you think will end up as the new-age OTT era Onam bumper? Or is that phase over? 

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