Even as Bollywood is reeling under the shocking performance of the Aamir Khan-starrer Laal Singh Chaddha and Akshay Kumar's Raksha Bandhan at the box office, the Malayalam film industry has reason to cheer. It's had hits in different genres even as fears swirl in other industries about audiences being disinclined to watch films in theatres. A film is generally considered to be a hit if it makes substantially more money than was spent on its production, marketing and distribution. Profits have traditionally come from a film's theatrical run while other sources, like music, satellite and streaming rights supplement earnings.
Between January and April this year, Malayalam films like Mammootty's Bheeshma Parvam (a contemporary tribute to The Godfather), Pranav Mohanlal and Kalyani Priyadarshan's coming-of-age romance Hridayam, and Prithviraj's courtroom drama Jana Gana Mana have made between Rs 50 to Rs 100 crore each worldwide, at the box office. Alongside these hits, 2022 has also delivered a few unexpected flops in theatres. These included acclaimed director Rajeev Ravi's Kuttavum Shikshayum with Asif Ali, Vineeth Kumar's Dear Friend with Tovino Thomas, Sajimon Prabhakaran's Malayankunju with Fahadh Faasil, and Abrid Shine's Mahaveeryar with Nivin Pauly.
The low footfalls in theatres — despite the films opening decent to good reviews and having well-known names in their cast and crew — had the Malayalam film industry worried. Since May, the only films to be declared hits are Shaji Kailas's masala action film Kaduva starring Prithviraj, and Joshiy's crime thriller Paappan with Suresh Gopi (both released in July). However, new releases Nna Thaan Case Kodu and Thallumaala, which came out on August 11 and 12 respectively, have buoyed hopes that audiences are returning to theatres.
Khalid Rahman's Thallumaala is a non-linear action comedy film with Tovino Thomas in the lead. The film made Rs 33 crore worldwide in its first week (its approximate budget Rs 20 crore) and is holding up well at the box-office. While Thomas's critically-acclaimed Dear Friend – a slow-paced, meditative thriller – did not fare well at the box office, the actor said he had no doubts about Thallumaala becoming a hit. Both Dear Friend and Thallumaala have the same producer, Ashik Usman.
"There was a time, even during and after the pandemic, when all kinds of films were being welcomed by the audience," said Thomas. "Malayalam films were making a name across the country for their content. Dear Friend was written at that time. But by the time the film was released in June this year, people's expectations from a theatrical release had changed. It got rave reviews when it came out on OTT." Thomas added that Dear Friend was never considered blockbuster material by its team. Thallumaala, on the other hand, is a fun film and Thomas said that the team knew it would bring people to theatres in droves.
Understanding the pulse of the audience in the post-pandemic scenario has become a guessing game for film industries across the country. Forum Keralam, a film industry tracker for Malayalam cinema, said that acclaimed small films like the hostage drama Pada (released in March) struggled in theatres because the audience now has a preference for what they want to watch on the big screen and what they classify as an 'OTT-watch'.
However, Nna Thaan Case Kodu, directed by Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval, which came out in the same week as Thallumaala has also been welcomed by the Kerala audience. The satirical courtroom drama about a small-time thief who decides to sue a minister over a pothole on the road, stars Kunchacko Boban and Gayathrie in the lead and has a host of new faces in supporting roles. The trailer was released on YouTube just a week before the film hit the screens. Yet, despite being a small-town comedy with no grand action scenes or heavy promotions, the film made Rs 12 crore in its first week (approximate budget Rs 5-7 crore), and is set for an overseas release this week.
"Nna Thaan Case Kodu didn't generate too much interest initially but had an absolute change in fortune suddenly due to the 'Devadoothar' song and the way it was lapped up by the audience. The positive word-of-mouth further made it a successful outing at the box-office," said Forum Keralam.
Veteran film exhibitor Liberty Basheer is of the opinion that contrary to popular perception, OTT platforms have not dented the audience's love for the cinema hall in Kerala much. "When good films are released in Kerala, the audience always comes to the theatre," he said. "The audience here is extremely knowledgeable about cinema. They are thronging theatres for late night shows of these superhit movies, including Dulquer Salmaan's Sita Ramam which is a Telugu film dubbed in Malayalam. How can we say that they've lost their love for the big screen?"
Basheer attributed the failure of critically-acclaimed films like Faasil's survival drama Malayankunju to the poor word-of-mouth. "Kerala does not have a flex board culture. The publicity here is dependent on the audience that turns up for the first few shows. If they like the film, they will tell others to watch it. If they don't, the film gets rejected," he said.
Considering the change in attention span, interest and what appears to be working at the box-office, Thomas predicted that it would take time for the audience to press the reset button and return to the theatre to watch serious films. "It's clear that perhaps for a year or more, it is films that have a high entertainment value that will work in theatres. It may change after that and serious films may also work. However, as an artist, I'm interested in doing all kinds of films and will not restrict myself. I see cinema more as an art than a business. I've never defined my success by box-office records and that's how I will chart out my career in future too," he said.
With the upcoming Onam festival in September, the Malayalam film industry and exhibitors are hopeful that theatres will continue to attract crowds for the new releases. Unlike last year, when theatres were closed in Kerala for Onam due to the pandemic, there are currently five films of different genres scheduled for a theatrical release – Ottu, Palthu Janwar, Gold, Pathonpatham Noottaandu and Oru Thekkan Thallu Case. "We have to see which films will work at the box-office, but we're confident that the audience will come to theatres," said Basheer.