The Malayalam movie 2018 adapts the story of Kerala’s survival during an unexpected disaster, the first of its kind after the infamous 1924 flood (known as the great flood of Malayalam year ’99) that hit the state. When one of the leads played by Tovino Thomas, Kerala’s homegrown superhero, is introduced to the audience as someone who fled from his Indian army posting out of fear and is being taunted by his villagers, even someone who does not know the real-life context will understand that we are signing up to witness a different kind of heroism.
I watched 2018 at an early morning show in a packed theatre in Bengaluru. The urban Malayali crowd had sacrificed their much-coveted extra sleeping in time on a weekend for a ticket to this movie- and this, at a time when we have become increasingly used to just waiting for movies to release on a streaming platform. Speaking of the movie’s success, the director Jude Antony Joseph had shared on his social media that his job was only to respectfully adapt the screenplay collectively written by the people of Kerala. This explains why there were a myriad of intense emotions across the spectrum floating inside the cinema hall. There were many collective sighs and tears that we did not feel the need to suppress or hide. Everyone patiently sat through the entire rolling down of end-credits alongside real-life visuals from the flood. There was a deep sense of community as we walked out red-eyed.
After the horror of 2018 floods, the state of Kerala had moved on to fight the Covid-19 trauma with the rest of the world along with a follow- up flood visiting us almost every year from then on, leaving no time or space for us to process the mammoth horror we had just experienced. The film brought in the whole deal- there was a re-experiencing of anxiety, helplessness, fear, anger, joy and pride. For every life saved, there was a life lost and the collective viewing experience became a container for all of those fleeting memories.
I found it interesting that on one side, suspension of disbelief was not much of a challenge here. One - for the obvious reason that this is a lived experience for every Malayali. Two - because we have seen the same star faces that we see on the big screen actively engaging in flood-relief work with commoners, putting their privilege and social-media influence to good use. If the film failed to technically impress, it would have invited a lot of flak for the very same reasons. There was indeed risk taken to put together a movie of this scale within a limited budget, and the movie delivered with responsibility.
The buttons pushed with expository dialogues and uplifting background score seemed a little unnecessary at a few places - simply because this story already had all the drama it needed. The film does a touch-an-go on certain sensitive issues like the impact of climate change, politics over water between Tamil Nadu and Kerala and the possible mis-calculations from the government machinery while managing the crisis – but the film does not explore these threads in depth and largely follows the uni-dimensional narrative of celebrating the collective spirit. Even as a lover of nuanced story-telling, I was able to embrace the direction it stuck to, as this was the first time the state was dealing with a disaster of this magnitude and what indeed did help us get to the other side of this crisis was compassion and empathy over blame-game. In the polarized times we live in and with propaganda films with no nuance whatsoever coming up every election season, we can sure do with a solid reminder of the power of togetherness.
The movie reminds us of a time when we shared our personal numbers with strangers while coordinating inter-state relief materials, when our politicians made SOS calls to newsrooms turned control rooms, when glamorous movie stars became one among the umpteen citizen volunteers and ordinary fishermen worked along with the army to heroically save the day. The situation had broken down all power dynamics, which is why we were able to rise above any dividing forces. However, jarring inequalities resurface soon after equalizing disasters and this story is a gentle reminder to hold on to what makes us strong. The film came with the tagline “everyone is a hero”, and the Malayali audience has coined another on their own in the context of a controversial movie that recently released, calling 2018 “the real Kerala Story”.