Malayalam Cinema 2020: Ambitious, fluky and unfortunate all at once

Thanneer Maththan Dinangal

Affected by the mid-crisis of COVID-19, 2020 is, so far, unanimously a terrible year for cinema in general. The lockdown phase has also witnessed some unfortunate incidents across the globe, for the movie industry particularly. For Malayalam mainstream cinema, a part of itself pass on, with Sachy. An inequitable loss of a talented dialogue writer, scenarist and a promising filmmaker. Sachy’s last film, Ayyappanum Koshiyum, was released before the year was broken into two, and it certainly remains as the most successful film from the year yet. Both critically and commercially.

However, coming to the business metrics, 2018 was considerably lower in scale of economics, whereas the huge turnaround made by 2019 with Lucifer on the big-canvas level and Kumbalangi Nights, Thanneer Mathan Dinangal, among the moderate/smaller budget level propelled ambitious projects in 2020. From Priyadarshan’s Marakkar Arabikadalinte Simham to Fahad Faasil’s Malik, there are a dozen other big-budget movies lined up. Or even, take the fewer releases that preceded during the first half of 2020, almost all of them are considerably ‘bigger’ appropriation of scales compared to respective previous standards.

Anjam Pathira
Anjam Pathira

Glimpse into the releases

The first major release to hit theatres was Midhun Manuel Thomas’ Anjaam Paathira which met with unbelievable word of mouth (WOM) and eventually lucrative success. Midhun’s film starring Kunchako Boban made an important early breakthrough for the year, tickling the G-spots of ‘crime’ genre movie lovers of Kerala, which later pampered the success (quite a phenomenal success considering it’s stature) of a lesser WOM attracted same genre film like Forensic. This was a constructive trend, despite its artistic merit, because there were many ‘crime-thrillers’ work in progress on the pipeline which includes big names of Rajeev Ravi and Martin Prakkart. But unfortunately, now the pandemic made an insurmountable wall where the future is bleak not just for these particular films but the Industry in general.

In February, Dulquer Salmaan made his debut production venture, Wayfarer films, through Anoop Sathyan’s Varane Aavashyamundu. The biggest ensemble since Lucifer, starring Shobana and Suresh Gopi after their short hiatus. Varane Aavashyamund and Ayyappanum Koshiyum ignited the already prosperous theatre revenue that was sparked by Mammootty’s Shylock. February early weeks were exceptional as 2020 charted the highest initial collection in the recent couple of years. But the peak COVID scenario put an end to the theatrical business by March, thus obstructing the run of newer releases (Mainly Kappela which succumbed to a mere one week run).

Apart from the 40 theatrical releases from January-March (last year stats at this time span being 55, total of the year being 200), the only two release that accompanied April-July were Sufiyum Sujathayum and Musical Chair. With Sufiyum Sujathayum being the pioneering OTT release i.e the first Malayalam language release on a digital streaming platform, hit Amazon prime on 3rd July. While, Vipin Atley’s Musical Chair became the first pay-per-view release on mainstream tv app just after a week. Both the releases unfortunately met with mediocre responses.

Jallikattu Movie

A year of experiments

Box Office success of films like Jallikattu has prompted filmmakers to think out-of-the-box. In that wave a bunch of experimental narratives were tried out in 2020. Infact, If you take half of the films released, most of them are experimental. Of those there are, Abrid Shine’s action spectacle The Kung Fu Master; the first proper female-centric action film in Malayalam. Prasobh Vijayan’s follow-up to Lilli, Anweshanam, had a tense timeline and one tangential location to build drama. Paapam Cheyyathavar Kalleriyatte morphed into the short-list of adult comedies in Malayalam. The experimentation wasn’t just limited to these minimal-mainstream circuits but also, the mass entertainment format.

Sachy’s Ayyappanum Koshiyum subverted macho expectations and limelighted dalit-politics through it’s mass format, it could be called as one of the most important films to come out on the Alpha-male Ranjith-esque genre. A much overlooked and often under discussed “mass” experiment was in Anwar Rasheed’s Trance, which took the classic masala template of underdog story and done altogether different things―wrt both the genre essentials (the hero-elevation is rewired majestically) and the subject matter (mental health). Even someone like Ajay Vasudev came up with a film like Shylock, a far cry from his previous films―with idiosyncratic star energy and without much crass ex-factors.

Trance Fahad Fazil

Ambitions broken, left in despair

That said, 2019 was a year that put Malayalam Cinema on the map. And the legacy that carried forward to 2020 was an additional burden as well as a prospective ground. Thus followed super-ambitious projects on the likes of, Trance and Big Brother (among released) and Malik, Marakkar, Minnal Murali, Aadu 3 and Bilal (among unreleased). But none of the films which were released could live up to the hypes of theatre audiences.

Two big releases of the year, both made at a budget of above 20 crores were catastrophic disasters at the box office. Whereas, the road ahead is absolutely uncertain. For a film like Marakkar, more than half of the business relies on outside Kerala (ROI/ROW) business. For already announced/party shot big-canvas films, the situation is the same. Dropping/delaying plans and rewriting screenplays (altering scenes, removing exotic locations) have been the only option. On the other hand, the producers of Minnal Murali are in a contingent state of affairs since the huge sets constructed for it’s climax have been demolished by Anti-Social activists.

Anna Ven in Kappela
Anna Ven in Kappela

Much ado about nothing

As you can see, the lockdown has had a serious effect on the movie industry, on multiple levels. Apart from the aforesaid matters, there was much drama that rolled down in recent months. Among that is prominent, Vidhu Vincent’s resignation from WCC and an immediate allegation of costume designer Stephy Xavior on Geethu Mohandas. The issue, although concerned with internal affairs of the collective, was sparked as a sensational topic on social media. With of course, hate-mongering responses and personal attacks towards the members, social media was flooded with female-bullying and callouts to dismiss the organisation.

Even the self-proclaimed feminists disregarded the collective’ cause in no second, not even sparing a minute to wait for the response there off. Among other matters, there was unnecessary drama within another organisation (the producers association), boycotting OTT releases and restricting shooting for newer projects. On the cultural front, the lockdown created heated political debates on cinema. Kappela which unfortunately lost its theatrical run got an exceptional OTT reception (with filmmakers outside to the Industry like Anurag Kashyap, Vasan Bala and Tarun Baskar raving the film) and spearheaded these controversies.

With the COVID cases rising rapidly without any lockdown restrictions (and without any affordable further restrictions able to be made), a public domain like movie theatre, a non-necessity, is impossible to have a reopening in foreseeable future. Take into account the recent covid-positive numbers and the state of havoc of Trivandrum (the second major releasing centre of Kerala), it’s a big question mark whether theatres would facilitate an Onam season which is just a month away. Adding to that, the social distancing protocols, the prospective audience, word of mouth, hold over period etcetera would make a huge collateral damage to expenses―unless otherwise government allows tax holidays and deductions. As of now, theatre owners are in a turbulence, some cases are being reported that renovated theatres are now up for sale.

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About the Author

Arjun Anand
CA Student who's enthusiastic about films.

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