Who is the best Malayalam director in the mainstream entertainment/masala format of this century? We have seen various master craftsmen in Malayalam mainstream from Joshiy, IV Sasi, Hariharan etc who make sensible cinema in a very mainstream fashion that also has a directorial stamp. For the contemporary Malayalam Cinema it is arguably Anwar Rasheed. The prosperous prodigy. Anwar, Rajeev Ravi, Aashiq Abu, Amal Neerad, Sameer Thahir are from the same college. The latter’s carved out respective niche. Abu’s early attempts at the masala and action didn’t work out well, Amal Neerad is an action brand himself now while Rajeev Ravi is handling vérité genre. Some other notable names from the mainstream are Lijo Jose Pellissery and Anjali Menon. Pellissery is in a different ball game altogether. So, I’ll definitely go with Anwar Rasheed above Anjali as he has attempted in innovative masala, outright comedy and heartwarming entertainment and has proved his calibre to be the most successful mainstream director.
Anwar Rasheed started his film career directing Mammootty in Rajamanikyam. It turned out to be an Industry hit, the most grossing film till date at the Mollywood box office in 2007. This especially was a time where formula was nurturing, but Rasheed’s film was the most refined attempt at the Alpha Male. Take the introduction scene/sequence for example, it’s not a lousy template set up working here, it’s the writing instead. The set up is replaced by the build up in writing. A perfectly calibrated elevation supported by Maniyanpilla Raju’s jolted interlude. And with the support of a rapid cut, we get a flash intro of Bellari Raja. A man who has a solid emotional crux build around a flashback- back story. It’s a classic masala. It’s also moulded innovation with creativity. Rajamanikyam happened at a time when machismo and chauvinism was heroism and stone-face was masculinity personified. But Bellari Raja is punctuated by slapstick comedy, specifically without the usual ingredients of body shaming or misogyny or racist jokes. It also subverted the typical expectation of an average moviegoer from Mammootty, a man who was celebrated in completely restrained and contrasted roles in the likes of Hitler, The King, Pappayude Swantham Appoos etc. Anwar Rasheed has said before that the idea of going with the dialect was purely Mammootty’s idea and see how magic happens in cinema. Mammootty nailed it with his hilarious and massy Trivandrum slag which apparently was the cherry on the top. Rajamanikyam was also a welcome relief to the mass movie audience since it didn’t have bombastic one-and-half page long monologues or any cheesy proposal scenes, women interludes and moral science classes from the lead protagonist.
From then on, Anwar Rasheed was the one stand out director who carved real fun out of the masala genre. Be it his sophomore Chotta Mumbai, a rollicking comedy that is unmatched to date. I regard it as an out-and-out Thara Local Festival Film in Malayalam Cinema, bar none. Here also Anwar’s forte was peeling playful performances from his Actors. Almost everyone made impactful performances and these which are riotessly celebrated today by dank meme creators.
Even Anwar’s dual-role masala Annan Thambi though being his weakest creation, was supremely entertaining. It’s super fun to catch Mammootty playing a whimsical mute character. This was also the director’s second collaboration with Actor Mammootty and writer Benny P Nayarambalam (who previously wrote Chotta Mumbai). Wait right there, after a threesome bonanza of entertainment AR’s next was a 30mins short from the anthology film Kerala Cafe. This poignant segment written by Unni R came out of syllabus. Undoubtedly the most accomplished work of the director till date. Bridge was the biggest takeaway from an otherwise (mostly) shoddy anthology. How could someone intimately capture the most innate and complex human emotions of Maternity, abandonment, humanity, loss, desolation and the ultimate parallels of social stratification within a span of 16 minutes, effin 16 minutes? That’s the extravagant expertise of Anwar. Usthad Hotel starring Dulquer Salmaan (in his second film) is written (beautifully) by Anjali Menon was AR’s stupendous follow-up to Bridge. A film that is well balanced between artistic realism and commercial compatibility. This is one of those unsung path breakers of the new-wave Malayalam Cinema. A trend in treatment that we saw lately (not really lately, it happened back in the 80’s with Padmarajan and KG.George) – mainstream cinema with art house sensibilities. Usthad Hotel also earned AR a National Award for best popular film. The Maharaja’s batchmates and Cochin gang (as popularly regarded) became the root for Malayalam Cinema’s further flourishing. And Anwar Rasheed can be a prosperous torch bearer.
Anwar’s transition as a director through different shades and formats of mainstream cinema is just unmatched. He used the mass-masala specimen in its three interesting possibilities. The transition to art house realism was also phenomenal. If i could point out filmmakers post 2000’s who has used art house realism with sensational effectiveness in film-language, without self-indulgence, it will be Lijo Jose Pellissery (in his EeMaYau), Dileesh Pothen in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (though it’s more sugar-coated mainstream), Geethu Mohandas (in Moothon), Sanal Kumar Sasidharan (in Chola) and Anwar Rasheed in Bridge. Usthad Hotel is also one of its kind, like i’ve said above it is one of those unsung path breakers of new-wave Malayalam Cinema. It was a subject that could have been treated more like an-art house cinema, say a Manjadikkuru. But AR opts a maniratnam-esque. And look how good a film it turned out to be. His technological expertise is another redeeming factor. Annan Thambi had dual role technology. Usthad Hotel happens to be the most colourful entertainer at the time of digital renaissance. Aami resulted in a gorgeous technical play of shadows and lights and now with Trance, AR has roped in robotic-cam technology for a specific action set piece.
After venturing into the production business with Anwar Rasheed Entertainments, AR bathed in success. His debut co-production with Sophia Paul – Bangalore Days written and directed by Anjali Menon became a blockbuster success. It was well received by the masses and critics alike. The success didn’t overwhelmed Rasheed nor there was any plan to crack formulas, the quality of content is still uncompromised. And so was with his next solo production venture directed by Alphonse Puthren.
The Nivin Pauly starrer Premam outnumbered box office estimates, becoming a huge sensational success, a film that probably is the biggest profit venture in terms of Return on Investment of the last decade. If it wasn’t for the pirated copies that flood unapologetically as sort of a Virus in the very second week itself, Premam would have rightly been our first 100 crore grosser. AR helmed another short segment in the 2013 anthology film 5 Sundarikal in between. It being his first collaboration with Fahad Fazil and Amal Neerad, was a visual treat underlining both his chops for storytelling and aesthetics. The segment Aamy from 5 Sundarikal might be the personification of a visual narrative. It was a story that’s enriched by the director and cinematographer.
After Taking a big break after the controversies (Anwar withdrew his consent from some major cinema associations including FEFKA) and legal proceedings regarding Premam piracy, Anwar’s third production (with Shyju Unni) marked the debut of Soubin Shahir as a director. It was also AR’s stepping stone into ‘Anwar Rasheed Entertainment: Audio’s and videos’, and look how? A gargantuan success yet again, Parava became the most selling DVD/Blu Ray after Kammattipadam, that too at a time when DVD sales were drastically declining. The only time AR got backfire was by associating with Valiya Perunnal, the recent Shane Nigam starrer. Though it’s just a small crack in the enormous goodwill of a credible director/producer.
It was Anwar who endorsed this debut film of Dimal Dennis by presenting it to the masses. It came with a runtime of close to 3hr 10mins, which by itself is a huge risk at the Kerala box office. And, since i haven’t watched this film yet couldn’t comment about the quality of content. Later, Anwar also had plans to producer Khalid Rahman’s Unda starring Mammootty. This plan was dropped due to the financial constraints – because AR was working on his most ambitious movie Trance. Guess what, Unda became a clean hit. But the director wasn’t satisfied with the output since he couldn’t give justice to the vision per se. One could predict that If Anwar was the producer Unda would definitely be an uncompromising and piercing success venture, than what it is at present.
Another major requisite was the distribution company co-owned by Amal Neerad and Anwar Rasheed. A&A release, which initiated theatrical distribution and charting of Amal’s and Anwar’s projects. Now, Anwar’s biggest project is at stake and this being his second time collaborating with Fahad Fazil and Amal Neerad (DOP). The screenplay of Trance by Vincent Vadakkan is the only remaining mystery to get unraveled. This was a project kick started in 2017, and delayed due to budget constraints and output satisfaction. Those who have reckon with Anwar Rasheed’s filmography would definitely hope for the best, which is nothing short of a career defining movie for everyone involved.