Ayyappan As Superhero: How The Malayalam Devotional Film Malikappuram Made Rs 50 Crore

Debutant director Vishnu Sasi Shankar says his film is a hit because it bucks the rationalist, progressive trend in Malayalam cinema
Ayyappan As Superhero: How The Malayalam Devotional Film Malikappuram Made Rs 50 Crore

When the devotional film Swami Ayyappan was released in 1975, its music was such a huge hit that the ‘Harivarasanam’ song from the album became a part of the closing ceremony at the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. Composed by G. Devarajan and sung by K.J. Yesudas, ‘Harivarasanam’ is considered an “urakka paatu” or lullaby for the deity. Nearly 50 years and many political controversies later, another film on Ayyappan has become a blockbuster in Kerala in 2022 – Malikappuram, written by Abhilash Pillai and directed by debutant filmmaker Vishnu Sasi Shankar. 

Released on 30 December, 2022, Malikappuram is still running in theatres. According to Forum Keralam, a film industry tracker, the film crossed the milestone of earning Rs 50 crore at the box office on January 5. Only a handful of Malayalam films have managed to achieve this feat so far. 

Made on a modest budget of Rs 3 crore, Malikappuram’s success comes at a time when New Wave Malayalam cinema is geared towards rationalist, progressive ideals and is experimenting with form and content. The success of this old-fashioned, devotional film comes as a disruptor of the trend. “It has been a while since we had a film of this genre. We’ve been making raw and realistic films in the last few years, and this film fits a pattern of storytelling that the audience was missing,” said director Vishnu Sasi Shankar, adding that his film was popular with women and children, which made it a family watch. “Usually, it’s young men who make up the majority of a movie audience. Elderly people, women and children are in the minority, and are unlikely to go alone to watch a film. But when a film succeeds with the family audience, it becomes a big draw because everyone at home goes to watch it,” he said. 

One of the reasons Malikappuram stands out is that its protagonists are children, a rarity in Indian cinema where hero-centric narratives are the norm. The film is about an eight-year-old girl, Kallu (Deva Nandha), who dearly loves Lord Ayyappan and wants to go to Sabarimala to visit him. Her father promises to take her on the long and arduous pilgrimage, but tragedy strikes before he can do so. A heartbroken Kallu decides to go on her own. When she sets off, her friend Piyush Unni (Sreepath) jumps onto the bus with her. A criminal who’s part of a child trafficking ring targets the unaccompanied minors, but a mysterious man named Ayyappan (Unni Mukundan) comes to their rescue. The story unfolds through the point of view of the children – their experience of seeing the beautiful forests along the way, the rituals surrounding the Sabarimala Temple, and their impressions about the mysterious man who, they suspect, might be Lord Ayyappan himself. 

The appeal of Malikappuram also lies in its easy crossover from devotion to fantasy. A fight sequence involving the mortal Ayyappan has him emerging in the form of the Lord and taking on the enemy in a (very, very) low budget version of the climax seen in RRR (2022). For a young audience today that’s growing up on a diet of Marvel and DC superheroes, such a packaging of the divine isn’t just about religion, but also about the escape that popular cinema offers. Unsurprisingly, the film refers to Ayyappan as a ‘superhero’ at the beginning, and Unni Mukundan has been comparing the role to Tovino Thomas’s superhero film Minnal Murali in media interviews. 

While the film is innocuous enough, it has been at the centre of controversy since its release. In 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that women of all ages could enter the Sabarimala Temple (previously, women in the menstruating age bracket of 10 to 50 years were barred from entering Sabarimala). The Left government in Kerala – which had been in favour of revoking the ban – executed the SC’s order, but there was political mayhem and violence in the state, with the Right wing protesting the move. Thousands of people were arrested, and till date, Sabarimala remains a contentious issue in the state’s political landscape. 

Malikappuram does not take an overt stance on the entry of women into Sabarimala. Kallu’s family often calls to attention her age – that she’s “already eight” – and that time is running out for her to go to Sabarimala. There are also a couple of references to the controversy surrounding the SC’s order, but the film doesn’t delve into discussing the merit of the verdict. However, its release in this political context and the fact that its lead star, Unni Mukundan, is associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party, have led to allegations that Malikappuram is an attempt to push saffron politics in Kerala. 

Shankar disagrees. He pointed out that the film’s makers were very clear from the beginning that they wouldn’t get into the controversies surrounding Sabarimala.  “We didn’t want to make a political statement with the film. We wanted to make a film that everyone can enjoy,” he said, noting that the opening credits of Malikappuram thank leaders across the political spectrum, from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Mohan Bhagwat to Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Congress leader Oommen Chandy. 

In fact, the film was marketed as a non-political film that people can watch with their families, added Shankar. The team used WhatsApp and social media to spread the word. “The first two days, we had only a few housefull shows, but from Sunday onwards, it started picking up. The word-of-mouth publicity was really strong,” he said.

Even as the film made news for its box office collections, a voice recording of Unni Mukundan abusing a YouTuber for sharing his views on the film went viral. This, too, kept the film in the news, but as Forum Keralam has maintained, a film can’t do the numbers that Malikappuram has done solely on controversies.  “At the end of the day, the quality of a movie decides its fate, and it was evident from Malikappuram’s box office numbers that it worked for the general audience, especially women who turned up in large numbers after the first few days, ” Albin from Forum Keralam said. 

The film was also dubbed and released in Tamil and Telugu in the second half of January, but the dubbed versions didn’t create much of a splash. “The film had a pretty decent release in Tamil and Telugu states mainly due to the great reviews and collections from Kerala. However, the box office collections have been subpar and not on the expected lines for the dubbed versions,” said Albin. This could be the case because the big budget Pongal and Sankranti releases that hit the screens in mid-January are more preferred by the audiences in these states. 

But beyond the controversies and box office numbers, Shankar is a satisfied man. How does he view Malikappuram’s success in the line-up of maverick directors who are pushing boundaries in Malayalam cinema with their experimental films? “There are all kinds of people in our country and we need all kinds of cinema, too. We shouldn’t forget that,” he said.

Related Stories

No stories found.