2000 was a strange strange year for Malayalam cinema. Coinciding with India’s 50th Republic Day was the release of Mohanlal’s uber-macho mass action film Narasimham (lion-man). The crowds that came to witness this Shaji Kailas-directed blockbuster quickly became the stuff of legend. Playing at Ernakulam’s Kavitha Theatre on MG Road, the popularity of the film is said to have crippled the flow of traffic on the State’s busiest road. This news was then supplemented with a joke Lalettan fans circulated to exaggerate the film’s popularity. It was said that if a tourist staying at the next-door Abad Plaza Hotel decided to jump off the roof, the person would not die, because the body would never hit the ground. A couple of months into its dream run, the box office figures that were being discussed started to sound equally monstrous. On a budget of Rs. 3 crore, the film was said to have grossed a mammoth Rs. 20 crore.
On the other end of the same MG Road was the much smaller Deepa Theatre. As fans of Narasimham got ready to celebrate the film’s 100th day, a small film opened there without making a noise. It was called Kinnarathumbikal, meaning fireflies, another hint at how the film seemed a mere insect in the presence of lions. Within weeks, crowds started to swell and a ‘House Full’ board became a fixture outside Deepa. The figures of Kinnarathumbikal too started circulating. Made on a budget of Rs. 10 lakh, it would go on to collect a sum 40 times that! Sans the hype or the stars, one could attribute its success to the magic of word of mouth publicity. But given the film’s genre, it’s probably more appropriate to attribute it to the hand of God.
The Sholay Of Softporn
Kinnarathumbikal would go on to pioneer a new wave of low-budget softporn cinema in the State, with this period being termed the ‘Shakeela Tharangam’ (wave) after the film’s heroine. Along with Narasimham, Kinnarathumbikal too would go on to define the early years of this new decade.
Within two years, this wave became formidable enough to cause worry to the champions of mainstream Malayalam cinema. The use of the word ‘prathisandhi’ (crisis) became commonplace in discussions about the industry, suggesting that Malayalam cinema, as we know it, would soon cease to exist.
By the mid-2000s, this wave had grown so strong that softporn films trumped mainstream in the number of films in production. The declining quality of Malayalam cinema was blamed as the primary reason for this surge. Stardom had taken over substance and, suddenly, it seemed as though there were no reasons for women and families to go to the theatre.
“But these are just excuses,” says director KR Manoj, who made the excellent Kanyaka Talkies, about a softporn theatre that gets converted into a church. “The late 80s is often described as the best phase of Malayalam cinema, with all the great directors working actively. But we witnessed a softporn phase even then. Which means that they are not both mutually exclusive.”
In fact, a milder erotic phase is said to have been heralded by director IV Sasi’s Avalude Ravukal in the early 70s. Another mainstream director Bharathan made films such as Rathinirvedham and Thakara, which would later set a trend when it comes to films dealing with sex.
A History In Briefs
“These films of the late 70s and early 80s were aesthetically-made, and were explorations of real life,” says critic and film historian CS Venkiteswaran. “The protagonists of these films were usually male, and the films were about real people. In Avalude Ravukal, for instance, you can see the changing phase of a town like Kozhikode. In other films, seduction was very much a part of the narrative, unlike the softporn films that would follow.”
Manoj feels these films addressed the hippie culture that had entered Kerala’s society from the West in that period. “It was a peculiar period and these films catered to that. In one sense, it was a more open period, with cabarets being common at hotels in the cities.”
By the late 80s, however, emboldened by the success of these films, Kerala witnessed a legitimate softporn boom. “It is around this period that films like Ottayan, made by Crossbelt Mani, started getting interpolated with explicit nude scenes,” argues industry analyst Sreedhar Pillai. “Back then, they would show a clean version of these films to the censors and later add ‘bits’ of nudity to spice up the content. There were only one or two people working for the censor board, so it would be difficult for them monitor these prints later. And because these films played in theatres often located away from the cities, they were harder to reach, and hundreds of such shows would play undisturbed.”
He recalls several instances from that period when the projectionists would hide these porn ‘bits’ in the weirdest of places in the fear of a raid. “A film’s reel could get confiscated, but these bits were more valuable because they could be used along with any film,” he adds. As a result of this boom, every town got its own theatres that were labelled the softporn hub, developing its own sub-culture.
Theatres are Male, Televisions are female
Even though these films continued to get screened across the State in these specific theatres, they never had the kind of mainstream impact until the early 2000s with the Shakeela tharangam. The difference, according to Venkiteswaran, is the emergence of television. “I see the softporn wave of the early 2000s as a response to the spread of television. By this point, cable television had proliferated across the State and there was a clear shift of viewership among families from theatres to home. On an average, box office collections dropped, and theatres had become an all-male space,” he adds.
The themes that made up the great films of the 80s were now being made for television he adds. “Serials were being made about the family, the institution of marriage and adultery, which were the staple of the cinema of 80s. Television served the female audience while theatres served the men.”
The macho-hero films of the 2000s too were an aftereffect of television, he adds. “And, apart from this, two other genres that became popular during this period were mimicry and softporn, again appealing to male audiences.” Add the fact that the number of theatres dwindled from over 2,000 in the late 80s to just around 800 in the 2000s, and it’s clear that this phase was one of inevitable transition.
Shakeela, the Superstar
Another major factor that set this period apart from the earlier phases was the superstardom of Shakeela. In her, the softporn business model found a saleable face and a name that quickly became a brand. Along with an “A” marked in bold, the posters of these films would feature massive images of Shakeela, guaranteeing audiences the kind of films they were looking for.
Shakeela became an overnight star, and was the protagonist around whom the film’s plot revolved. In Driving School, another major success, she plays a successful entrepreneur who teaches men how to drive. But she is also the film’s “hero”, sacrificing her love for a man and her riches to her sister, after being diagnosed with a chronic illness.
In Kinnarathumbikal, she helps a neighbour unite with his lover. She even plays a part in exacting revenge against a male superior who takes advantage of her. Even in other films, it is common to see her play the femme fatale, taking on evil men who have either wronged her one of her aides.
Her stardom extended beyond State boundaries as well, with these films getting their own dubbed versions across the country. “I’ve even heard of her films releasing in Kashmir,” adds Pillai. As a result, for thousands of that generation, their only access to Malayalam cinema was the kind that would star Shakeela.
“In neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Shakeela came to represent the promiscuous Malayali woman with terms like ‘chechi’ or ‘aunty’ being used mischievously to describe them,” adds Venkiteswaran. “Given that Kerala had a unique sartorial culture of women wearing a lungi and a ‘blouse’, further added to the stereotype these films catered to in other States. And when they add another common stereotype of the absent Malayali men working in the Gulf, it added another layer to their fantasy associated with these women.”
Shakeela also became the highest-paid person on the sets and the film’s shoot would revolve around her convenience. But did that power and importance on the sets empower female actors in this male-dominated business? “Not at all,” adds Venkiteswaran. “There are several interviews she has given where she explains how these crews would cheat her into shooting as many as three movies at a time, without her knowledge, flooding the industry with her films.” More than the leads in these films, the fly-by-night companies made a killing during this phase.
The End Is Coming
Overproduction finally spelt doom for this trend, says Manoj. Within a few years, Shakeela, with or without her knowledge, would become a part of hundreds of similar softporn films. “By this point, this sub-culture had shown signs of decline,” Manoj adds. “Men, during these phases, would look at the softporn theatre as their centre of desire. A small group of 50 regulars would frequent nearby theatres after a day’s work, in time for the evening show.”
“Richer men could afford a private television for themselves, but for a majority of people, the local theatre was their only source for such content,” adds Pillai. “In fact, it was quite common for projectionists to save all the “bit” scenes for after the interval to ensure sales in the canteen during the break, and to make sure people didn’t leave before the show ended. But the final nail on the coffin was when Internet became affordable and smartphones, accessible.”
There will never again be a softporn phase, he adds. Most of these theatres have either shut down or they’ve reopened with state-of-the-art technology and play mainstream films. The Internet has also changed the idea of pornography among younger Malayali men, says Venkiteswaran.
Is there a parallel one can draw between the softporn phase and the wild popularity witnessed when someone like Sunny Leone visited the State some years ago? “The sexual imagination has now changed and it has become more global. Since the emergence of the Internet, people’s idea of pornography has come from what’s available in the West. There will never be another Shakeela again.”