South Indian cinema is witnessing a digital renaissance. With streaming behemoths Netflix and Amazon’s aggressive push for quality content, what has resulted is a select boutique of delectable films making the cut on the premier streaming platforms. This has led to a cine cross-pollination, where fans from all parts of India can consume content freely, not restricted by regional divides and markets. The floodgates were open. With great curiosity and an open mind, I ventured into the cinematic backwaters of Malayalamland. Little did I know, that I would be taken forever by the magical realism of cinema from God’s Own Country. Here are some choice picks for the uninitiated, especially for Non-Malayali cinema enthusiasts.
KUMBALANGI NIGHTS: (2019)
If Wes Anderson wrote a romantic email to Kerala, KN would be it. Possibly a story of a dysfunctional band of brothers, their misadventures and relationships, KN is far more than meets the eye. KN paints the island hamlet of Kumbalangi with swirling silky colors that get tattooed on your brain permanently. Featuring the cream of Malayalam cinema’s new wave, KN is introduces you to the nocturnal magical realism of Kerala like nothing else. Chinese fishing nets, rocking rickety boats and beach football enthusiasts become glowing fireflies in the director’s dreamy vision. Characters at odds with each other, who let fists fly and then break down and cry like the boy-men they are make you laugh and feel their pain and hopes. Somehow they work things out. Just like life. Never perfect, sometimes painful, but in the end, it’s surreal that you lived through it. The all star cast of “Faahad Fasil and friends” are just like your friends, and you can’t help but smile at the relatable absurdity of it all.
FREEDOM AT MIDNIGHT (Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil): (2018)
A breakout film that you will leave you on tenterhooks till the throbbing conclusion. Slick and stylish, FAM takes you on a pulse pounding journey which begins with the loutish protagonist being thrown behind bars and follows him and his new shady accomplices as they deal with the jail’s sinister politics and unsavoury characters. Questions of trust, hope, frustration and freedom remain with you long after the end credits roll. How far would you go to be free? Hollywood stylistics rooted in intrinsically Malayalee mannerisms and set pieces, this action thriller is not to be missed for die-hard adrenaline junkies.
MAHESHINTHE PRATHIKAARAM: (2016)
Arguably, one of the most discussed films to come out from Kerala in recent times. Taking an absurd situation and spinning it wildly on its head, MP is the story of every lovable loser who wishes for that one chance to turn it around, like that perfect comeback which springs to mind a day later while having your morning coffee. With a superlative performance by FF and the support cast, MP feels almost like a rural fable come to life. A whole gamut of emotions in a rollercoaster ride of emotions best describes MP. It’s possibly also the only film where a humble slipper shines as bright as its leading star. David Bowie said it best and it suitably describes MP “We can be heroes, just for one day..”
Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa: (2017)
If biryani and cinema are two things you can’t resist, look no further. Lena stars in this tale about a village which has to make the complicated decision of letting a widow prepare biryani in lieu of the regular village cook, who unexpectedly passes. Dealing with social taboos, and highlighting the progressive attitudes that exemplify Kerala, this film leaves you mulling over the still existing archaic norms and values that exist all over India even today. Narrated in a light tone, it avoids any melodramatic heavy-handness that would be such a Bollywood trope. You applaud the makers for paying ode to one of our favorite dishes, the biryani while making a pertinent social comment on egalitarianism. Add to that a fantasy element as well, and you have the perfect ingredients for a well-made film.
ANGAMALY DIARIES: (2017)
Comparisons are a shortcut to thinking, mused Jim Morrison. Truer words count not apply more to AD. Lijo Jose Pellissery, the enfant terrible of Malayalam cinema, helms this testosterone fueled, blood soaked manic modern take on the age old gang rivalry tale. AD is the kind of intentionally lustfully violent film that unashamedly arouses you when someone screams shrilly while bones crack and limbs are hacked. Hindi cinema would never be able to make a mainstream film like this nor would it have many takers. But AD has won applause from all quarters and made stars of the cast and was an ominous precursor to LJP’s raved about followup, Jalikattu. To compare him to his influences, would be doing his art a disservice, so it’s best to soothingly bathe in the blood red glow cast by his violence-porn Malayali masterpieces.
Experimentation is just one of the innumerable strengths of this innovative new age director from Kerala, Bejoy Nambiar. SOLO is his most ambitious project till date, where DQ sheds his charming boy next door image to take on a complicated part. The film has 3 individual stories and deals with the philosophies of nature. The film has drawn mixed responses, but is well worth a watch if you want to see Dulquer move away into a darker world. Tender, brutal, romantic, nostalgic…there are many ways to describe SOLO. The visuals are dazzling, the cinematography is stunning and poetic; capturing Kerala’s shining wet finery. The soundtrack blending Malayalam folk with the rumblings of rock features some of Kerala’s hottest rock acts and will appeal to music lovers from all parts of the world. Highly recommended viewing if you want something offbeat yet entertaining.
Mammooty and cop roles, a match made in Heaven. Unda is the film that Newton aspired to be. A black comedy at heart, it is based on a true story where members of a ragtag Kerala Police unit are sent to Chattisgarh as part of their other state election duty. There they deal with a strange land, wistfully longing for the familiarity of their God’s own country. The language differences and other cultural discrepancies make them the proverbial fishes out of the backwaters. And that’s the least of their problems.
If you are an Indian in a state where you feel out of place, this film reminds you of how vast, diverse and lonely our nation can be. Mammooty proves yet again why he is the Face of Malayalam Cinema forever, leading from the front and inspiring his flagging men to fulfill their duties faithfully even when all odds are stacked against them. If you want to see a solid cop ensemble film about a burning issue while enjoying a good ol’ fashioned shootout, do not miss Unda. Cowboys from Kerala, could have been another title for this action gem from debutant gunslinger/director Khalid Rahman. Expect more salvos to be fired from his corral.
An educator, cinephile, fitnesser and sports lover.