American Junction: Eight Malayalam Movies And The Fantasy Lands They Created, Film Companion
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The concept of world-building has been common in the world of video games, novels, and sci-fi stories. In cinema, it has been an integral part right from the silent era with classics like Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis exploring a dystopian future. With the current studio model cashing in on comic features from Marvel and DC, the concept of films with world-building has never seemed so lucrative.

But the same cannot be said about the humble Malayalam film industry with its limited means and even more limited market. But that doesn’t mean our filmmakers haven’t found ingenious ways to create their own little worlds thanks to their imagination and even more resourceful filmmaking. Here are eight such examples of films with fantastical elements and unique landscapes.

Guru

Director Rajiv Anchal’s 1997 film starred Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi, Madhupal, and Nedumudi Venu and was India’s official entry to the Oscars that year. With an orchestral score composed by Illayaraja, the film was a surrealistic take on religious extremism and is said to be inspired from HG Wells’ short story The Country Of The Blind. But instead of a pill or a hallucinogenic, it is meditation that leads its protagonist into a fictional universe. In this world, everyone is blind and they all appear to wear the same robe of the same colour. The rules of this world are unique too. A sacred juice from a fruit (ilama pazham) is the first food given to newborns but the seed of the same fruit is poisonous. The citizens of this world do not believe there is a such a thing as sight and our protagonist struggles to convince them of this. With strange musical instruments and even stranger headgear, it’s a tiny miracle that such a world could be created without green screens and CGI.

Sundara Kiladi 

The plot of the film written and produced by Fazil have similarities with Vaishali. For example, the element that drives both plots is water. The protagonist of both films possess the talent to retrieve water and both films are based on fictional world-building. If one ends on a tragic note, the other gets a happy ending. A village deprived of water, an underdog protagonist, and a damsel in distress, Sundara Killadi was no less than a visualised fairy tale. The story revolves around Swapna Bhoomi, a fictional village with no source of water. Habitants of this land call upon the prodigal son of a well-digger named Premachandran played by Dileep who later falls (pun intended) in love with Devayani, the daughter of the local physician. Whether Premchandran finds success in setting up a well forms the rest of the story.

If you take a count of Malayalam films in the fantasy genre then at least three of director Vinayan’s films would make it to the list. Vinayan’s films predominantly capitalise on various genres, from melodramatic tear-jerkers like Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum, and Oomappenninu Uriyadappayyan to horror comedies such as Aakasha Ganga and Vellinakshatram. Albhuda Dweepu was an adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels. The plot revolves around four Navy officers played by  Prithviraj, Jagathy Sreekumar (who also plays the Maharaja of the island), Jagadish, Indrans who survive a shipwreck, and end up on a mysterious island only to find out that the island has been inhabited by dwarfs. The film turned out to be a box office success making its star Ajay Kumar gain huge popularity.

Vaishali 

Vaishali is a Malayalam classic that redefined the genre of fantasy. The movie saw stalwarts like Bharathan and M.T. Vasudevan Nair collaborate for the first time. The story of a devadasi (brilliantly portrayed by Suparna Anand) who is sent on a mission to seduce a young sage named Rishyashrungan. She needs to convince him to performing a maha yagnam to bestow rains upon their waterless land. It was brilliantly conceptualised with the help of some impressive technical craft. Apart from a barren kingdom with its powerful king, we also see the contrast of a lush green landscape with greenery, animals and lots of water.

Amen 

Right before Lijo Jose Pellissery turned into a phenomenon with Angamaly Diaries, Ee, Ma, Yau, and Jallikattu and right after his initial ventures Nayakan and City Of God, came a film which screamed uniqueness. From its poster design to its musical score and from its performance to cinematography, Amen is a of a film that made viewers take notice of a talented auteur. Set in a fictional village called Kumarankiri across the backwaters of Kuttanad, the story revolves around the lives of a lot of its people with a prime focus on the star-crossed lovers Solomon and Shoshanna. The screenplay of the film strikes the right balance between a musical and a drama and we see excellent use of muted tones to take us into another world, with its own quirks and madness.

Thenmavin Kombathu 

The late KV Anand’s first work (for which he won the National Award) went a long way to create a unique world and a style for future Priyadarshan films. The film made Pollachi a favourite shooting destination for Malayalam films but the villages and the town in this 1994 film was not based on any real place. The people here dressed differently and their names too were strange (Karthumbi, Gingimood Gandhari, Appakkala). One can argue that Sundara Killadi borrowed a lot of its visual ideas from this movie and even Priyadarshan himself has tried to recreate the magic of this film’s world-building, although not with as much success. The film remains one of Malayalam cinema’s most beautiful, even today.

Also Read: The 30 Best Looking Malayalam Films Of All Time

Athiran 

Most of Fahadh Faasil’s Athiran is set inside one big mansion in a hill station. The mansion itself is one we’ve seen in dozens of films before (including the most recent Bhoomika) but here all the difference is how it is a mental asylum rather than a resort or a summer home for royalty. The film plays tricks with you because you’re seeing the asylum through the eyes of an extremely unreliable narrator. So we enter surreal corridors with secret entries and inmates. We also see dark colourless prison cells that’s the opposite of the bright, beautiful outside world filled with gardens and glass gazebos. What is real and what is not, still remains a mystery even if you’ve seen the whole film and credit must go to its director Vivek for the world-building that worked even better than its storytelling.   

Iblis 

Rohith’s third film, Iblis is set in no definite time or place, but it has its own set of quirks and rules. Death, for instance, is treated like a celebration, as though it’s reason for the entire village to get together to feast on a variety of snacks and the most colourful beverages. So when Vaishakan’s (Asif Ali) best friend passes away, he feels indifference and nothing more. “Don’t you know how to cry?” the well-traveled Sreedharan asks his grandson, seeing the emotionless Vaishakan; it’s an ability most people in the village lack, besides education. With no proper schools, one has to travel across the river to ‘Akkare’, or the mainland, to learn how to read or write (the only teacher in the village is speech impaired, making his alphabet classes extremely monotonous). All the photos taken in the village too are indecipherably blurred, because the only photographer here never really understood how the camera works. The costumes and art-direction is part storybook, part FabIndia experience store, with a boho chic Lal invoking his inner Amitabh-Bachchan-in-Jhoom–Barabar–Jhoom.

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