With the passing of I.V. Sasi, we have lost the most prolific and perhaps the most eclectic film director this country has ever produced. In a career spanning almost four decades and over 150 films, Sasi cut across languages and genres. The news of his death was not entirely unexpected. He has been experiencing health issues for some time and he hasn’t been active as he once was. In the last decade or so, he has hardly made a fistful of films, compared to his heyday in the 1970s and 80’s when he churned out a movie (or more) every month.

Sasi, who made a rather modest debut as a director in 1976, with Utsavam, strode the Malayalam film industry like a colossus. To cut a long story short, he was the first superstar director of Malayalam cinema. Up until his time, the mainstream commercial movies were known by the stars. He was the first director who created a market for films purely based on his name.

No director in the history of Malayalam cinema, perhaps barring his predecessor and the even more prolific Sasikumar, made so many commercially successful films. This enabled him to introduce many new actors who would go on to become an integral part of the Malayalam film industry. His films played a strong part in turning Mammootty into a superstar and in the growth of Mohanlal from an antihero and supporting hero into the main lead. Actress Seema, whom he introduced in Avalude Ravukal and who would subsequently become his wife, would go on to become the most prolific actress in south India. The Sasi-Seema combo perhaps holds the record for most director-actress collaborations.

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Sasi was the foremost among directors in experimenting with cinematic form. Even though P.N. Menon had already extricated Malayalam cinema from the confines of studio interiors, the mainstream movies more or less looked like photographed stage plays. Sasi used sweeping camera moves, rapid editing and unconventional framing and lighting. His trademark was filling up a conversation scene with rapid close-ups of different characters, creating a montage as opposed to the older style of waiting for one person to finish his dialogue and then cutting to the listeners’ reaction. He also did not shy away from tackling daring subject matter involving sex or violence. Avalude Ravukal, about a sex worker, would turn out to be one of the most controversial films of Malayalam cinema, a trendsetter for exploring bold themes and explicit visuals.

Sasi also broke the mould of the leading man, who, earlier, was more conventionally handsome, perhaps a little too feminine, as exemplified by Prem Nazir. Sasi’s films brought forth a more masculine, sexual, and unconventional looking set of heroes like Jayan, Soman, Sukumaran, Ratheesh, Mammootty and Mohanlal.

Sasi was also in the forefront of introducing masala cinema in Malayalam. Up until his time, the action heroes in movies were characters taken from history and folklore. The Northern folklore legends – referred to as Vadakkan Pattukal – were the chief material for action-adventure films. Then there were the CID movies, mostly starring Prem Nazir based on the James Bond adventures. Sasi introduced the socio-political action cinema build around a contemporary hero, who seems to have mythical roots. Angadi, starring Jayan, Sukumaran and Seema, could be considered the first action film that dealt with contemporary political issues, a genre that would become practically the trademark of Malayalam cinema. It was a genre Sasi invented from the ground up and perfected through a series of films over two decades with the collaboration of the brilliant screenwriter T. Damodaran.

Sasi also broke the mould of the leading man, who, earlier, was more conventionally handsome, perhaps a little too feminine, as exemplified by Prem Nazir. Sasi’s films brought forth a more masculine, sexual, and unconventional looking set of heroes like Jayan, Soman, Sukumaran, Ratheesh, Mammootty and Mohanlal.

Sasi was also instrumental in expanding the scale and scope of Malayalam films. In 1979, he made the fantasy, Allauddinum Albhutha Vilakkum, which could be considered the first Tamil-Malayalam bilingual, made with stars from both languages. He directed Thusharam in 1981, perhaps the first outdoor spectacle, completely shot in Kashmir. He also made 1921, the first big budget historical/war epic in Malayalam, about the 1921 Malabar uprising.

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In the 80s he moved into other languages like Tamil and Hindi, mainly with the remakes of his Malayalam films. Even though he went on to work with the major stars in these languages, he did not taste the same success. It was also in the 80’s that he made the switch to a more esoteric, more middle-stream cinema, in collaboration with great literary writers like M. T Vasudevan Nair and Padmarajan. The years between 1978 and 1991 can be considered his zenith.

His decline started in the 90s. He could not keep abreast with the changing tastes of the audience. His place was taken over by a new bunch of techno-whiz directors. His last great film was the Devasuram, which was a major game-changer for Mohanlal, who until then was famous for characters close to life. This film offered him that rare larger-than-life character which would be lapped up by a mass audience. The last few films Sasi made, even with Mohanlal and Mammootty, like Shraddha and Balram vs Tharadas, would turn out embarrassingly bad, signifying that his days as a great filmmaker were coming to an end.

His death signifies an end of an era.

Here are some highlights from his career:

Avalude Ravukal (1976)

This scene is an iconic moment in Malayalam cinema as far as representation of female sexuality is concerned.

 

Eetta (1978)

Sasi’s first collaboration with Kamal Haasan. Again, a taboo topic of sexual relations between an older woman and younger man, set in a rural ambience.

 

Angadi (1980)

Another trendsetter. The first political action film. The iconic dialogue is parodied by mimicry artists even today

 

Thrishna (1981)

Sasi moved from the mainstream to join hands with literary giant M.T.Vasudevan Nair for a more artistic film, with one of the first major roles for Mammootty. This is a memorable song.

 

Kanamarayathu (1984)

A rather ‘clean’ film, with no sex, violence or politics. A loose adaptation of Daddy-Long-Legs, starring Mammootty, Shobhana and Rahman.

 

Aalkoottathil Thaniye (1984) & Anubandham (1985)

The zenith of his collaboration with M.T., where he strode a middle path as opposed to the more commercial mainstream. Films dealing with themes of loneliness, the urban-rural divide , the clash between the modern and the traditional. Both films featured Mammootty, Mohanlal and Seema

 

1921 (1988)

A big-budget historical epic about the 1921 uprising against British rule. Sasi’s most technically competent film. It boasted an all-star cast lead by Mammootty, and consisting of almost all the actors from Malayalam film industry except Mohanlal.

 

Mrigaya (1989)

Almost 30 years before Pulimurugan, there was Mrigaya. In many ways a much better crafted and more rooted film.

 

Devasuram (1993)

The last great I. V. Sasi film. A great masala film that’s inspired by the Siva-Parvathi Myth. The climax is pure mass masala.

 

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