2021 has seen the release of several Malayalam films that were shot during intense lockdown restrictions of last year. With a limited crew of 50 or fewer, what these films managed to pull off is remarkable, even if the final results were middling. But Malayalam cinema has already had a long list of films that may appear to be shot within the same limited restrictions. Call it the aftereffect of limited budgets or unlimited imagination but we've had a history of films in every genre that used a maximum or two or three locations to tell full-length stories. Some remain enjoyable today while others are best forgotten. Here's a list of these locations and the films that were shot there:
Although one can make the case for Balu Mahendra's Yathra as a film set mostly in a school bus, it is obvious that it's most dramatic portions were flashbacks located in a village and then a prison. A more solid case can be made for the 1985 drama Kaiyum Thalayum Purathidaruthe. Written by playwright Thoppi Bhasi and directed by P Sreekumar, a majority of this political drama is set within a 'fast passenger' bus travelling from Guruvayoor to Thiruvananthapuram. After brief introductions to its diverse characters, including politicians, a thief, a policeman and a woman in search of employment, the drama heightens when two passengers appear to be travelling without a ticket. With several obstacles on the way, including a strike and the carelessness of the bus staff, lives are lost and the destination is never reached. Although Roshan Andrews' School Bus sounds like a contender, it's set more in a forest than a bus.
Large parts of films like Yathrakarude Sradhakku and Husbands In Goa are set in a train but as we move along, the train remains more a rendezvous point rather than a character. In terms of how integral it is to the plot not many films can do justice to the setting like Joshiy's Number 20 Madras Mail. A similar murder mystery made decades later was K Madhu's Nadiya Kolapetta Rathri, although the novelty hard worn off by then. Even Ranjith Shankar's Passenger used the train well to tell its thriller-like story about a Good Samaritan.
Two Mammootty films and one Mohanlal film comes to mind when you think of a prison setting. Of these, both the Mammootty films make you feel the claustrophobia of the prison cell with its limited scope outside the four falls. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Mathilukal is an ingenious "love story" separated by a wall where we never see the lover next door. In Lohithadas' Boothakannadi Mammootty plays another prisoner who spends his time peering outside and into the lives of a family of gypsies using a magnifying glass. And in Sadayam, the prison complex becomes purgatory as Sathyanathan waits to be hanged.
Mathukutty Xavier's Helen is a both a movie about a search as well as a story about escape. When Helen gets locked inside a freezer of a fast food joint, she has no one to call and no option but to survive. With nothing more than a mouse for company, this sub-zero thriller uses every inch of the freezer and every prop available to build and then ease the tension.
If you haven't seen this 2009 Mohanlal film Bhagavan, you haven't missed much. But this film, which is said to be shot in one day, is set almost entirely within a hospital building. It's a thriller that revolves around a doctor who needs to help patients and a Home Minster escape after a set of terrorists plan on bombing the hospital. The film uses everything, right from the gate to the morgue and the terrace to place scenes across the building. In terms of the final result though, it was "operation successful, but patient is dead."
Although not a Malayalam film, one can even add director Priyadarshan's Sila Samayangalil to this list because this too is set almost entirely inside a clinic, as patients wait for their blood results to see if they are HIV positive.
Among Malayalam cinema's best chamber dramas is Joy Mathew's Shutter set within a closed shop space. When an NRI gets locked inside the shutter with a sex worker for company, that too just yards away from his own house, the drama intensifies and the conversation becomes a whirlwind of conflicts and dark humour, crime and punishment.
If 12 Angry Men is the gold standard for chamber dramas, then the closest imitation we have to that is Suresh Gopi's underrated courtroom drama Melvilasom. And its interesting right from the start because it traces the court marital proceedings of a Dalit soldier accused of murdering a higher official. Shot is just nine days, the film has many firsts to its credit and is an example of an experiment done right.
Priyadarshan's Vettam takes several twists and turns but it eventually ends up in a hotel building with its confusing climax using the setting brilliantly to provide laughter. But Bharathan's Malootty is even more ingenuous in the way it uses the spaces of a resort and a hole in its lawns to tell an extremely stressful story. Jayasurya's Luka Chuppi uses a luxurious guest house as the meeting point for old classmates with their different lifestyles and past love affairs providing dramatic tension.
We got a much-loved comedy scene in Mr.Butler that uses the elevator to great effect. Even Jayasurya's surprisingly good film Seconds uses the elevator as a starting point to set off a murder investigation. But it is TK Rajeev Kumar's middling Up And Down: Magalil Oralundu that uses it most elaborately. Said to be based on a Hollywood film (titled Elevator), the film takes off from a murder case when eight people from different background get stuck in an elevator together, revealing different sides to themselves and us.
Finally, we get to the most overused single-location film setting in Malayalam cinema and naturally, it's the apartment. Of course, horror films are expectedly limited to houses (Varathan being an interesting addition to this genre) but apartments have recently become the setting for a variety of genres. In Chettayees, the apartment becomes the setting for a New Year's Eve party with a set of dudebros chilling, before the apartment association gets involved. Even in Vedivazhipadu we see a group of adult men using the apartment as a place to escape from their wives. But it becomes more complicated when apart from booze, the men also organise a sex worker for company. Another Lal film that's set within a flat is the dark thriller Hi I'm Tony. The film now has a set of loyal fans but it was a genuine attempt at a chamber drama long before it was the norm. Had the same team made the film today (instead of Tsunami) during the lockdown, it would surely have been celebrated for its inventiveness.