Malayalam Cinema 2020: Ambitious, fluky and unfortunate

Thanneer Maththan Dinangal

The year 2020, overshadowed by the mid-crisis of COVID-19, has universally proven to be a challenging period for the film industry. The lockdown phase has not only disrupted lives but has also brought about unfortunate incidents, particularly impacting the movie world. In Malayalam mainstream cinema, a profound loss was felt with the untimely departure of Sachy – a talented dialogue writer, scenarist, and a promising filmmaker. Sachy’s final creation, “Ayyappanum Koshiyum,” released just before the year’s tumultuous turn, stands out as the most successful film both critically and commercially.

Cinema’s Struggles in 2020: A Year Marred by Crisis and Loss

Despite its success in the creative realm, the economic landscape of 2018 was relatively modest. The cinematic landscape experienced a significant upswing in 2019, marked by notable productions like “Lucifer,” “Kumbalangi Nights,” and “Thanneer Mathan Dinangal.” Buoyed by this success, ambitious projects were set in motion for 2020. From Priyadarshan’s “Marakkar Arabikadalinte Simham” to Fahad Faasil’s “Malik,” a slew of big-budget movies were in the pipeline. Even the few releases in the first half of 2020 showcased a notable shift towards larger-scale productions compared to previous industry standards.

Anjam Pathira
Anjam Pathira

Glimpse into the releases

The cinematic landscape in 2020 faced unprecedented challenges, with the onset of the global pandemic reshaping the trajectory of the Malayalam film industry. Despite the hurdles, Midhun Manuel Thomas’ “Anjaam Paathira” emerged as a shining beacon, capturing the attention of crime genre enthusiasts and setting the stage for subsequent successes like “Forensic.” This positive trend in the early months of the year, especially in the crime thriller genre, indicated promising developments with projects from acclaimed directors Rajeev Ravi and Martin Prakkat in the pipeline. However, the unforeseen impact of the pandemic cast a shadow of uncertainty not only on these specific films but on the industry as a whole.

In February, Dulquer Salmaan ventured into production with “Varane Aavashyamundu,” a star-studded film featuring Shobana and Suresh Gopi. The film, along with “Ayyappanum Koshiyum” and “Shylock,” contributed to the thriving theater revenue in the early weeks of 2020. Unfortunately, the flourishing theatrical business came to an abrupt halt in March as the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentum, disrupting the release schedules of newer films, including “Kappela,” which had a brief one-week run.

Navigating the Waves of 2020: Malayalam Cinema’s Journey Amidst Challenges

From January to March, there were 40 theatrical releases (compared to 55 during the same period the previous year, with a total of 200 releases for the entire year). The subsequent months, from April to July, witnessed only two releases: “Sufiyum Sujathayum” and “Musical Chair.” “Sufiyum Sujathayum” made history as the first Malayalam language release on a digital streaming platform, premiering on Amazon Prime in July. Meanwhile, Vipin Atley’s “Musical Chair” became the first pay-per-view release on a mainstream TV app. However, both releases received mixed responses in the midst of the challenging circumstances.

Jallikattu Movie

A year of experiments

The resounding success of films like “Jallikattu” has sparked a creative renaissance in Malayalam cinema, inspiring filmmakers to venture into uncharted territories. In 2020, a significant portion of the releases embraced experimental narratives, pushing the boundaries of conventional storytelling.

A standout example is Abrid Shine’s “The Kung Fu Master,” a remarkable action spectacle that marks the first proper female-centric action film in Malayalam. Prasobh Vijayan, following the success of “Lilli,” continued his streak with “Anweshanam,” crafting a tense narrative against a singular backdrop to amplify the drama.

“Paapam Cheyyathavar Kalleriyatte” carved its niche in the adult comedy genre, adding a playful twist to the experimental wave. However, the experimentation wasn’t confined to niche circuits; it extended to the mass entertainment format.

Breaking the Mold: Experimental Narratives Shine in Malayalam Cinema

Sachy’s “Ayyappanum Koshiyum” challenged conventional macho expectations and skillfully brought dalit-politics into the mass narrative, making it a pivotal film in the Alpha-male Ranjith-esque genre. Anwar Rasheed’s “Trance” undertook a “mass” experiment, redefining the classic masala template with a unique take on the underdog story and delving into the complex theme of mental health.

Even filmmakers like Ajay Vasudev deviated from their usual style with “Shylock,” infusing idiosyncratic star energy and avoiding crass elements, showcasing the industry’s readiness to explore diverse storytelling avenues. The year 2020 witnessed a remarkable influx of experimentation, demonstrating Malayalam cinema’s commitment to pushing artistic boundaries.

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.

Box Office Blues: Major Releases Face Unprecedented Challenges in 2020

The year 2020 dealt a severe blow to the film industry, witnessing two major releases with budgets exceeding 20 crores turn into catastrophic disasters at the box office. As the industry navigates through these setbacks, the road ahead appears uncertain, and challenges loom large.

Films like “Marakkar,” with a budget above 20 crores, face a unique predicament as more than half of their business relies on revenue from outside Kerala (ROI/ROW). This dependence on non-Kerala markets adds an additional layer of complexity to the already challenging situation. Similarly, upcoming big-canvas projects, whether announced or already in production, find themselves grappling with the same uncertainties. Producers are forced to reconsider plans, make difficult decisions, and modify screenplays by altering scenes and removing exotic locations to adapt to the new normal.

Adding to the industry’s woes, the producers of “Minnal Murali” find themselves in a contingent state of affairs. The film’s climax, featuring extensive sets, faced destruction at the hands of anti-social activists, further complicating the production landscape. The unprecedented challenges of 2020 have reshaped the filmmaking process, leaving producers and filmmakers to navigate uncharted waters with resilience and adaptability.

Anna Ven in Kappela
Anna Ven in Kappela

Much ado about nothing

The lockdown has taken a toll on the movie industry, unleashing a cascade of challenges and controversies. From Vidhu Vincent’s resignation from WCC to allegations against Geethu Mohandas by costume designer Stephy Xavior, internal matters fueled sensational discussions on social media. However, instead of fostering solidarity, the issues led to hate-mongering, personal attacks, and calls to dismiss the organization, even from self-proclaimed feminists.

Movie Industry Turmoil: Lockdown Fallout and Internal Strife

Simultaneously, drama unfolded within the producers association, leading to boycotts of OTT releases and restrictions on shooting for new projects. The lockdown sparked heated political debates on cinema, with films like “Kappela” facing controversies despite a successful OTT reception. The rise in COVID cases, coupled with the impracticality of reopening non-essential spaces like movie theaters, poses a significant challenge. The impending Onam season adds uncertainty, considering the surge in cases and the state of Trivandrum, a major releasing center. Social distancing protocols, audience reluctance, and hold-over periods further complicate the financial landscape, potentially leading to collateral damage unless the government intervenes with tax holidays and deductions. Reports indicate that some renovated theaters are now up for sale, signifying the turbulent times for cinema owners.

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About the Author

Arjun Anand
CA Student who's enthusiastic about films.

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