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Balan: The First Talkie
Indian cinema had already entered the talkie age even before Marthandavarma was released. Balan, the first Malayalam cinema with a sound track was released in 1938. Produced by Tamilian, T R Sunderam at the Modern Theatres, Balan was directed by Notani. A melodramatic film, with more Tamil influence than Malayalam, Balan featured the struggle of two orphaned children, Balan and his younger sister, oppressed and exploited by their evil stepmother until they are rescued by a kindly lawyer. Even though this film could be considered irrelevant in artistic sense, its economic success created a base to the Malayalam film industry. Followed by the success of Balan, Jnambika was released in 1940. After Prahlada (1941), Kerala had to wait till 1948 for the next film. Nirmala (1948) directed by P J Cheriyan explored the possibility of music and songs in Malayalam cinema. Legendary Malayalam poet, G Shankara Kurup penned the lyrics for this film. Thus song-dance sequences became an essential ingredient for commercial success in Malayalam cinema.
Inspired from an imported film – Life of Christ – Phalke started mentally visualising the images of Indian gods and goddesses. What really obsessed him was the desire to see Indian images on the screen in a purely Swadeshi venture. He fixed up a studio in Dadar Main Road, wrote the scenario, erected the set and started shooting for his first venture Raja Harishchandra in 1912. The first full-length story film of Phalke was completed in 1912 and released at the Coronation cinema on April 21, 1913, for special invitees and members of the Press. The film was widely acclaimed by one and all and proved to be a great success.
It is notable that none of the Malayalam films that came before the independence of India reflected the mood of the struggle for independence and also the film that came after independence and the early 1950s reflected that torrid period of Kerala, where the Communist upspring was taking place changing the entire social climate of the State. Cinema continued to be dramas happening in a totally artificial and alien world.
Jeevithanouka – 1951
(The boat of life)
Jeevithanouka was a turning point for Malayalam cinema. This highly dramatic musical film, which narrated the story of ego clashes in a joint family, was mainly directed towards the women audience. Jeevithanouka was a huge success, and can be considered as the first ‘super hit’ of Malayalam cinema. Thikkurishi Sukumaran Nair, an actor from the stage, became the first ‘superstar’ of Malayalam cinema after the success of the film. But this success had also an adverse effect on Malayalam cinema. Films that were produced after Jeevithanouka were made according to this success formula, and nothing creative was seen for a long time. Superstars took over the driver’s seat and directors were forced to the background.
Acclaimed as an innovator of Malayalam cinema of the 1950s to the 1970s, Ramu Karyat (1927-79), is one of the protagonists of Kerals People’s Art Club in the domain of the communist IPTA. After Neelakuyil in 1954, he shot Minnaminungu (The Firefly) in 1957, a path breaking film of Malayalam cinema. Thoppil Bhasi’s famous play Mudiyanaya Puthran (The Prodigal Son) was filmed by Ramu Karyat in 1961. This film featured Satyan, a specialist in ‘macho’ roles, which is a convincing melodrama about the irresponsibility of a self-centered young man who deliberately sinks into anti-social behaviour before being reconciled with life by the love of a young ‘untouchable’ girl and by the warmth of a group of workers. After Moodupadam (1963), a social film about the relationship between three major religious faiths of the State, Hindu, Christian and Muslims, Ramu Karyat made Chemmeen a definite turning point in Malayalam cinema.
P Bhaskaran started as a lyricist for the film Chandrika and made his directorial debut with Ramu Karyat as a co-director and an actor in Neelakuyil. He attempted hard-hitting realism in his earlier films but later works were mainly love stories and melodramas with social concerns. Some of his memorable films are Rarichan Enna Pauran (1956), set in the neo-realistic vein of Newspaper Boy, Anveshichu Kandethiyilla (1967) and Irutinte Atmavu (1967).
A Vincent joined Gemeni Studio, Chennai as an assistant cameraman in 1947. He handled camera for the path-breaking film Neelakuyil. He made his directorial debut with Bhargavinilayam (1964), based on story by renowned Malayalam writer Vikom Muhammad Basheer. Nadi (1969) won him the State award andThulabharam (1968) the National award for second best film.
Neelakuyil – 1954
(The Blue Cuckoo)
Through Neelakuyil Malayalam cinema for the first time had an authentic Malayalam story. The story for Neelakuyil was penned by renowned Malayalam writer Uroob and directed by the duo of P Bhaskaran and Ramu Karyat. This melodramatic film dealt with the issue of untouchability in the society. Satyan and Miss Kumari were elevated to stardom after the huge success of this film. Malayalam film music till then were cheap imitations of Hindi and Tamil film music, also came up with original Malayalam tunes through this film. The lyrics written by P Bhaskaran were arranged by K Rghavan, influenced by Malayalam folk music, which became popular among the masses. This was also the first Malayalam film to be shot outdoors. Neelakuyil announced the presence of Malayalam cinema in Indian film arena.
Newspaper Boy – 1955
Newspaper Boy (1955) was the reflection of neo-realism in cinema, which became popular all over the world. This film was a result of extreme hard work by a group of college students. Newspaper Boy was directed by P Ramadas, who was totally new to cinema and almost all technical works were handled by amateur students. This film was distributed some months before Satyajith Ray’s Pather Panchali came out. This film narrated the sad story of a printing press employee and his family reeling through poverty. He dies of extreme poverty and illness, which forces his children to stop their education. His elder son Appu leaves to Madras in search of a job. Failing to secure a job there, he returns and decides to take up the job of a newspaper boy.
Towards New Sensibilities
Even though Malayalam cinema right from the first talkie, Balan ventured into social themes instead of cosmetic dramas from Hindu Mythology, like anywhere else in India, they stood far away from social realities. While cinema elsewhere in the world, except India, took big leap forward in devising new cinematic forms making cinema an art form by itself, the Indian filmmakers right from the beginning considered cinema as a platform for combining all the art forms available in India. This was the concept about cinema even among the leading film critics then. Malayalam cinema was no exception in this regard. The first International Film Festival of India held in 1952 opened up the window to a new world of cinema to the Indian filmmakers. For the first time they understood that cinema has advanced much further than the make-belief Hollywood films, which were the only source of foreign films then. Films like Bicycle Thief, which was shown for the first time in India compelled a new generation of filmmakers to take a new path of filmmaking. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali triggered the movement, which was taken up by other new generation filmmakers in Northern India.
Malayalam cinema too took a new path during the mid 1950s towards more down-to-earth social realities, rather than cosmetic social dramas. But this change in sensibility was not due to the effect of world cinema on them, as the Malayalee filmmakers were virtually absent at the film festival. Hence, even though Malayalam cinema became more sensible during the mid 1950s, it had to wait till the mid 1970s, till the new breed of FTII trained filmmakers started filmmaking, for Malayalam cinema to become ‘real cinema’.
In fact, it was the powerful movement that happened in Malayalam literature spearheaded by literary giants like Thakazhi Shivashankara Pillai, Viakom Muhammad Basheer and M T Vasudevan Nair and the ‘Library Movement’ which coincided with it became the real factor for this changes in Malayalam cinema. Also the strong presence of playwrights like N Krishna Pillai, C J Thomas, C N Shreekhantan Nair, G Shankara Pillai and K T Muhammad opened up new vistas in the field of stage plays. Dramas of Thoppil Bhasi like Ningalanne Communist Aakki, Survey Kallu and Mudiayanaya Puthran created ripples in the society. Malayalam cinema, which followed these footsteps but couldn’t create its own cinematic form and remained as novels and dramas.
The Growth: 1960s
After the success of Neelakuyil, films with authentic Malayalam stories set in the backdrops of Kerala villages started arriving. Minnaminingu directed by Ramu Karyat and Rarichhan enna Pouran by P Bhaskaran were noted films produced during the late 1950s. Takazhi Shivashankara Pillai’s famous novel Randidangazhi was also seen on the silver screen.
In 1961 Kandam Bacha Coat, the first full-length colour film in Malayalam was released. This was an adoption of a famous social drama. Bhargavi Nilayam (1964) directed by A Vincent is a notable film of this period. This was a cinematic adoption of renowned Malayalam writer Vykom Muhammad Basheer’s novel. Vincent also directed some of the best films of early ages like Murapennu, Nagarame Nandi, Asuravithu and Thulabharam. Irutinte Athmavu directed by P Bhaskaran, based on M T Vasudevan Nair’s story, gave a new face to superstar Prem Nazir, who till then was seen only in romantic hero’s role.
Chemmeen – 1965 (Prawn)
Chemmeen (1965) directed by Ramu Karyat was the first South Indian film to bag the President’s Golden Lotus Award for the best film. Based on a famous novel of the same name by renowned Malayalam writer Takazhi Shivashanakara Pillai, Chemmeen pioneered the growth of Malayalam cinema in technical and artistic aspects. It brought together some of the best technical talents then available in India, Salil Chowdhari (music), Markes Burtly (cinematography) and Hrishikesh Mukhargee (editing). It also had a huge star cast.
The post-Chemmeen Malayalam cinema arena saw an upsurge in quality films, mainly based on literary works of some of the best writers of Kerala. After Chemmeen, Ramu Karyat directed Ezhu Rathrikal which narrated the story of the down trodden. The renowned Malayalam writer M T Vasudevan Nair made his film debut by writing screenplay for Murapennu. Directed by A Vincent, Murapennu was a landmark film. Oolavum Theeravum by P N Menon announced the revolutionary changes Malayalam cinema was about to witness in the early 1970s. A new generation of filmmakers who realized the uniqueness of the language of this medium, ventured into a different kind of cinema. This film could be considered as the bridge between the two eras of Malayalam cinema.
Here onwards Malayalam cinema got split into two distinct streams, one that considered cinema’s artistic qualities as its primary objective, which kept away all the formulas of popularity and the other the crass commercials, which took into consideration only the possibilities to entertain the mass and spin money.
The Malayalam New Wave
The growth of film society movement and the screenings of world classics forced a drastic change in Malayalee film sensitivity during the early 1970s. A new movement often termed as the ‘New Wave Malayalam Cinema’ or the ‘Malayalam Parallel Cinema’ emerged. Adoor Gopalakrishnan made his first film Swayamvaram in 1972, which made Malayalam cinema noticed at International film arena. G Aravindan through his Uttarayanam in 1974 accelerated this radical change in Malayalam cinema.
Another major stream of Malayalam cinema that appeared during the 1970s, which was a synthesis of the highly commercial popular cinema and the parallel cinema from which the masses always stayed away, was the ‘middle-stream cinema’. These films, mainly from directors like K G George, Padmarajan and Bharathan, had meaningful themes but had popular forms of presentation and had influenced a generation of film viewers.
Film Society Movement in Kerala
The Film Society Movement, which started in 1960s and gained momentum during the 1970s, brought in a new consciousness about cinema as an art form and stood for a different kind of cinema, which was termed as ‘parallel’, ‘newwave’ or ‘art’ cinema. Contrary to other parts of India, this movement was never an urban phenomenon, but something that cut across all terrains and sections of society. At a point of time, the great classics of World Cinema reached even the rural Kerala and discussions on them were held at the layman’s level.
The ‘Chitralekha Film Society’ formed under the leadership of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair in 1965 at Trivandrum, was the first Film Society in Kerala, though even before this there was an attempt at Trissur to form a Film Club, namely the Trissur Film Club in 1955. ‘Chitralekha’ also did work towards formation of Film Societies in Schools and Colleges and also succeed in setting up a film studio of its own. Soon Film Societies were formed at other parts of Kerala.
The Naxalbari agitations, student revolt in Paris, Vietnam war and the hippie movement formed the general ambience of the 1970s. This agitated environment combined with Malayalam literary scene, which was already vibrant with the new ‘modernist’ ideas became the foundation for the spread of Film Societies all over Kerala during the 1970s. More that a hundred Film Societies sprouted all over Kerala, of which some of them have completed more than 25 year now. Even today, Kerala has the largest number of Film Societies in India and still trying to create awareness about cinema as a serious art form.
Among the Film Societies of Kerala, the ‘Odessa’ experiment, started by John Abraham, stands apart from all the experiments in various ways. It never had a formal / legal structure or any political backing. Its attempt was to attack the problem comprehensively at all levels – exhibition, distribution and production, by ensuring people’s participation in all its activities. But with the untimely demise of John Abraham, ‘Odessa’ movement started waning.
International Film Festival of Kerala
Started a decade ago, the International Film Festival of Kerala, now held permanently at Trivandrum, has grown into one of the best in India and a notable one in the international circuit. Apart from showcasing the latest and classics of world cinema, IFFK also becomes the forum for open discussions on cinema. IFFK also has a competition section for Asian, African and Latin American films. IFFK is conducted during the month of December every year by the State run Kerala Chalichatra Academy.
Malayalam Mainstream Cinema
Popular cinema of Malayalam rarely tried to adopt the language of cinema till the 1980s. Delivering highly dramatic dialogues and singing and dancing in a set that resembled a stage were the widely accepted format of Malayalam commercial cinema.
Joshi, whose earlier films like Moorkhan (1980), Raktham (1981) and Sambhavam (1981) were all made in the same old format pioneered this change of form of Malayalam commercial cinema with his later films like New Delhi (1987), Nair Saab (1989) and Pathram (1999). With Joshi, Malayalam cinema too entered into an era of technically superior films.
Priyadarshan who started with slapstick comedies like Poochakkoru Mookkuthi (1982) slowly transformed his form to a more serious one. Sentimental stories with a coating of humour became his trademark. His collaboration with Mohanlal created some of the all time hits of Kerala like Thalavattam (1986), Chitram (1988), Kilukkam (1991) and Kaalapani (1995).
Fazil created a narrative style of his own, and created super hits without the help of superstars. He introduced many newcomers to Malayalam cinema, most of them later became stars. His first film Manjil Virinja Pookkal (1980) itself established him as one of the most noted director of commercial Malayalam Cinema. This film also saw the birth of a greater and later superstar, Mohanlal. Films like Ente Mammattikkuttyammkku (1983), Nookketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu (1983), Ente Sooryaputhrikku (1991) and Manichitrathazhu (1993) were all trend-setting films.
I V Sasi started with Ultsavam (1975), a small-budget film with no big stars. Since his film form has undergone several transformations and succeeded in almost all of them. His Avalude Raavukal (1979) was a milestone in the history of popular cinema in Kerala. But when many soft-porn movies started arriving on this format, I V Sasi started with star-studded films like Angadi (1980). A series of big-budget films came from him after the huge success of Angadi. While his films like Trishna (1981), Raagam, Anubandham and Aalkkuttathil Thiniye (1984) with screenplay of M T Vasudevan Nair where artistically superior, films like Ee Nadu (1982), Vartha and Aavanazhi (1986) with screenplays of T.Damodaran were made with a political flavour. I V Sasi’s film 1921 (1988), a historical, stands apart.
Balachandra Menon is a cinema-journalist turned director, who has made several popularly acclaimed films like Ishtamanu Pakshe.. (1980), Karyam Nisaram (1983), Prashnam Gurutharam (1983) and April 18 (1984). These films are mostly humorous films with down to earth characters. With Achuvettante Veedu (1987) he tried to take a new path and Samantharangal (1997) was critically acclaimed and won him the Nation award for best actor.
Films of Satyan Antikadu have won popular acclaim even while making socially relevant films. Whenever Satyan Antikadu paired up with Sreenivasan as the scriptwriter, Malayalam cinema received films with social relevance and down to earth characters like T P Balagopalan M A, Gandhinagar Second Street, Sanmanasullavarkku Samadhanam and Naadoodikkattu.
Kamal started with Mizhineerppookkal (1986) and is one of the biggest presence in Malayalam popular cinema with almost all his films becoming commercial successes.
Some of the other directors who have guaranteed commercial success are Rajasenan, Vinayan, Bhadran, Anil Babu, Thambi Kannanthanam and T S Suresh Babu.
With Prem Nazir leaving the limelight of Malayalam cinema, the concept of superstar-centred cinema also disappeared for a short while. But 1980s saw birth of new superstars, and the entire film industry revolved around these stars. Ignoring the films with more than life characters, which made them the superstars they are today, Mammootty and Mohanlal are two great actors, who have proven their ability whenever they have got chance. Mammootty excelled in his verity roles of Yavanika, Yathra”, Thaniyavarthanam, Vidheyan, Mathilukal and Oru Vadakkan Veeragaatha. Mohanlal with his natural and original style excelled in films like Kireedam, Vaastuhara, Vaanaprastham, Kalapaani and Bharatham. The new superstar of Malayalam, Dileep specialises is comedy films. Malayalam cinema has also received some of the best actors of Indian cinema like Gopi, Nadumudi Venu, Thilakan and Murali.
Producer Appachan of ‘Navodaya Productions’ is distinguished as a pioneer of technical experiments in Malayalam cinema. He is the producer of the first cinemascope film of Malayalam cinema Thacholi Ambu (1978), first 70 mm film Padayottam (1982) and India’s first 3-D film My Dear Kuttychathan (1984).
The first Indian film shot and exhibited in digital format, Moonnamathoral gets released in 2006.
Even though the new millennium started with Malayalam cinema facing threats never seen before, it seems to have over come them within few years. When, the emergence of cable television along with other factors threatened the very existence of commercial cinema, soft-porno films, often termed ‘Shakeela films’- Shakeela being the name of the actress who filled the silver screen during those period- filled up the cinema halls and became commercial successes. Malayalam cinema managed a comeback with several meaningful commercials and the ‘Shakeela films’ slowly disappeared.
Apart from Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Nizhalkkuthu (2003) it was T V Chandran with his various films who filled up the Parallel Cinema arena. Films of newcomers and non-resident filmmakers like Murali Nair, Satish Menon, Liji Pullapilly etc. were also shown and widely discussed. Other new directors who emerged during the last few years was Rajiv Vijayaraghavan and Sharath.
Commercial success of film like Kamal’s Perumazhakalam and Blessy’s Kazhcha has given a new birth to the middle-path stream of Malayalam cinema. New directors like Pradip Nair (Oridam), M D Sukumaran (Ullam) and Albert (Kanne Madanguga) emerged with their socially relevant films.