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Which Malayalam movie created a mass change in the industry itself?

Malayalam is one of the quality film industries in India. It has managed to produce some of the finest filmmakers of India over the years.

During the latter part of the 20th century, world cinema rejuvenated to a large extent with help of various revolutionary movements, and Malayalam immensely had its influence from neorealism.

But contemporary cinema here has witnessed drastic changes over the last decade or so and has seen filmmakers and screenwriters making bold attempts to deviate from mainstream cultures.

Below is the list of top Malayalam movies of the 20th century that revolutionized the industry.

1. Esthappan, 1980

G. Aravindan is an auteur, who handles multiple creative aspects of his films with ease. Esthappan is a fisherman from a predominantly Christian fishing village. And while the simple fisher-folk are unable to grasp the eccentricities of Esthappan, the persona they create for him is one that is larger than life and peppered with stories of his miracles and mischief. The film has a very strong Biblical context that binds the story of Esthappan to that of Christ and is one of Aravindan’s finest.

2. Elippathayam (Rat Trap), 1981

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is still a very current figure in the world of cinema, and every Malayali’s claim to great cinema. Elippathayam is a commentary on the disintegration of the feudal system in Kerala and how the storm of change traps a young man and his three sisters, who are unable to cope and adapt to the progression of the times. The long tracts of silence can be baffling and make the film uncomfortable, but in the tapestry of the film, the silence is very telling and becomes another party in the narrative. Nizhalkutthu is another film by Adoor that just missed this list.

3. Thoovanathumbikal (Dragonflies In The Spraying Rain), 1987

This one is a classic by director Padmarajan, who has also given us films like Moonaam Pakkam (Third Day) or Innale (Yesterday). Starring Mohanlal, Parvathy, and Sumalatha in lead roles the story shows us the dual-life of Jayakrishnan, a bachelor who is torn between choice and love, and the need to do the right thing. The story weaves beautifully through Jayakrishnan’s life in the village verse the persona he creates for himself in the city, the rain plays a role in the narrative adding the necessary natural element to make a film truly poetic.

4. Nadodikkattu (Vagabond Winds), 1987

This film is the first of a three-part series that Malayalis never tire talking about, the film directed by Sathyan Anthikad stars the prize-winning combination of Mohanlal as Ramdas and Sreenivasan as Vijayan. The two are unemployed and decide to head to the Gulf to better their prospects. They are gypped and wind up in Chennai instead, what follows is a series of comedic errors that are dark for the reality it mocks. Also included in this list are Pattanapravesham (1988) and Akkare, Akkare, Akkare (1990).

5. Kireedam (Crown), 1989

A film that mines the tragedy of the life of Sethumadhavan, a young man who was on his way to becoming a police inspector like his father. And when a twist of fate changes his destiny the man struggles against the stereotyping of society to be different and take charge of his fate. Kireedam was directed by Sibi Malayil and saw a moving performance by Mohanlal in one of his career’s finest and even had a sequel titled Chenkol (The Sceptre).

6. Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha (A Northern Story Of Valour), 1989

Written by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by Hariharan who is responsible for classics like Nakhakshathangal and Amrutham Gamaya. The movie draws from the historical legend of Aromal Chekavar a warrior from north Kerala who was killed in a fight when the blade of his sword broke at the hilt, in this retelling of the popular story MTV and Hariharan approach the story from the perspective of Chandu, essayed by Mammootty, who allegedly tampered with Chekavar’s sword.

7. Sandesham (The Message), 1991

Any Malayalam movie list is incomplete without a film scripted by Sreenivasan, of which there are many. For this list, I have chosen Sandesham, a comedy directed by Sathyan Anthikad that so expertly caricatures Kerala’s political activism. The story revolves around two brothers who belong to opposite parties and the dark comedy of their rivalry is put in perspective when their father, played by the late Thilakan, returns to retire after a life of service with the Indian Railways.

8. Devasuram (The God Demon), 1993

With director IV Sasi’s experience and writer Ranjith’s unparalleled knack for drama Devasuram was a film that is heavy with old rivalries and broken bridges. Mohanlal plays Mangalassery Neelakantan, a conceited, aristocratic man and he is opposed by Mundakal Sekaran, played by Napolean. The film is recognised for its powerful dialogues and strong characters, and its success saw a sequel Ravanaprabhu (2001).

9. Manichitrathazhu (The Ornate Lock), 1993

Any Malayali will swear by this movie, directed by Fazil and starring Mohanlal and Shobana, the movie is set in a beautifully haunted tharavadu (ancestral home), a curious new bride, and the added twist of multiple personality disorder. The film features the popular pairing of Mohanlal-Shobana, however not opposite each other and has impacted a whole generation with its iconic dialogues and characters. The remakes were popular too, Bhool Bhullaiya in Hindi, Chandramukhi in Tamil, but once you have watched the original, the others are a joke.

10. Guru, 1997

Guru was selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars’ in the year it was released. And why not, the fantasy narrative of the film uses a metaphor of sight and blindness to make important statements on communal violence and is eerily so relevant today. Starring Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi in the lead roles Guru features on this list for its experimental plotline, and the music composed by Illayiraja for the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Hungary.

But contemporary cinema here has witnessed drastic changes over the last decade or so and has seen filmmakers and screenwriters making bold attempts to deviate from mainstream cultures.

Subsequently, 21st century Malayalam films have such a diverse style and universal appeal. Below is the list of top Malayalam movies of the 21st century which were path breakers in their own right.

Honourable Mentions: Shantham (2001), Kadhavasheshan (2004), Naalu Pennungal (2007), Ore Kadal (2007), Pranchiyettan and the Saint (2010), Neram(2013), Left Right Left (2013), Munnariyuppu (2014),Iyobinte Pusthakam (2014), Premam(2015), Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016), Angamaly Diaries (2017).

1. Thanmatra (2005)

Adapted from P. Padmarajan’s short story “Orma”, director Blessy created the heart-breaking narration of a man, the spine of his family, who develops Alzheimer. The story is incredibly touching, and the film is the most accurate and true-to-core portrayal of it. There was no other actor to replace Mohanlal for this role and gives one of the best performances of his career. This movie excels in almost every class. The relationship between human beings is probably the best thing in the entire world, and sometimes we tend to forget that. The film also addresses this fact and makes use of the tiniest of details and emotions to make us deeply care for Rameshan (Mohanlal) and his family.

2. Classmates (2006)

This was a film which went onto become a campus trendsetter in Kerala during the time of its release, and rightly so. It showcases every emotion that we supposedly undergo during the college days. Friendship, love, politics, puns and others are characteristics of college lives and they are shown here with palpable innocence and aesthetic value. Director Lal Jose’s and every other artists’ career went sky high after this. It is still a sure favourite of people of the mid-thirties in Kerala, for whom the film evokes pure and raw emotions. It is a quality film you can sit back and enjoy.

3. Manjadikuru (2008)

‘Manjadikkuru’, directed by Anjali Menon, also the debut film by her was massively refreshing, yet in a way revolutionary in its ideas and an ode to a forgotten period. It is a story of home-coming where 10 years Vicky reaches his ancestral home for his grandfather’s funeral. During this period, Vicky discovers more about himself, his family and culture than he had expected to. He discovers the new worlds of friendship with funny Kannan, cute Manikutti and the innocent Tamil servant-girl Roja. The stark contrast between the clear untainted world of children and the hypocritical and mean ways of adults brings about a beautiful evolution of the story. It is an auspiciously inspiring film and is a marvellous gift to film lovers.

4. Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, Son Of Adam) (2011)

This drama written and directed by Salim Ahamed garnered a lot of praise and attention upon release, especially for Salim Kumar who played the role of Abu. His last wish is to go on a Hajj pilgrimage, but his means are limited as he does not make much selling attar, but along with his wife Aishumma played by Zarina Wahab they gather what they have and prepare to leave, but fate has other plans. The film is bitter and sweet and leaves you with a lump in your chest that can only find release in therapeutic tears.

5. Traffic (2011)

Still, one of the best road thrillers to be produced in India, ‘Traffic’ was a film which evoked wondrous reactions after its initial release. The film which was supposedly based on a real event came out without a large buzz but initiated much talk. An engagingly new-fashioned narrative style backed up with a strong script with challenging situations directed brilliantly by Rajesh Pillai were the main highlights of the film. Another film which contributed to the “New generation” movement, it is a confounding one which will leave you in shock. The editor and the cameraman also deserve the praises for their fabulous work.

6. Ustad Hotel (2012)

‘Ustad Hotel’, is an inspiring account of a young man who realizes his right obligations through a delightful relationship with his Uppooppa (“Grandpa”). This marked the second film for Dulqeer Salman (after a promising debut in Second Show in the same year). The character was apt for him and he does full justice to it. Actor Thilakan’s performance as ‘Karim Ikka’ was imaginatively real and the character earned a cult status post-release. Anjali Menon, one of the matchless artists in Kerala, wrote the screen and won the National Award the corresponding year. This film also features food as the main lead. An aesthetically rich film makes use of subjective dispositions from the writer as well as other crew members to build a true-to-heart film which bears several undertones is helpful in a life-changing way.

7. Salt N Pepper (2013)

Directed by Ashiq Abu and starring Shwetha Menon a dubbing artiste and Lal an archaeologist this film is a modern day love story that simmers between two people by their mutual love for food. The film is warm, funny, genuine, and features on this list because this slice of life came at a time when the Malayali masses were still reeling from a series of mass entertainer films with back-breaking stunts, and bone-crunching misfit English dialogues.

8. Celluloid (2013)

‘Celluloid’ is an artistically brilliant biographical drama, portraying the story of J. C. Daniel, the father of Malayalam cinema. The film is quite clean and straightforward in its narrative, showing the love of Daniel for Cinema and also the social discriminations existed in Kerala that period of time. The film created a few controversies after its release on criticizing some notable figures in the history of Kerala. The film had the responsibility of showing key moments in his life without much drama and what caused his downfall, and it does that with stability. Actor Prithviraj was the best choice as Daniel, the other actors are well-chosen and done with care.

9. Drishyam (2013)

The film which is already famous all over India, due to its remakes into different languages including Bollywood, ‘Drishyam’ was one of the real thrillers of this century. Starring Mohanlal as Georgekutty, ‘Drishyam’ told the tale of a family’s miserable attempts to save themselves from a criminal accusation. Director Jeethu Joseph’s panache when it comes to writing thrillers were already reflecting on his earlier works, but he took it to another level in ‘Drishyam’. Plotting his story in a village, he manages to question the true morality of things which is often not considered before the law. A film which starts on a slow-paced level intensifies in the second half and is brought to an awe-inspiring end by probably the climax of the century!

10. Mumbai Police (2013)

‘Mumbai Police’ was yet another revelation in the way in which psychological thrillers went in Malayalam cinema. Written by the established duo Bobby-Sanjay, it follows a police officer who lost his memory assigned to investigate a murder of his own friend by another mutual friend of them. The friendships of three officers are effectively used as a key element in the film. It makes use of slow-paced narrative to arise both tension and suspense. It gives away nothing through conversations, but slowly builds the uneasiness. The movie relies on a heavy, daring climax, and it towards the end was done with utter perfection.

11. Ottaal (2014)

An adaption of “Vanka” by Anton Chekhov, one of his timeless works, ‘Ottaal’ by the outstanding director Jayaraj tells the affecting story of a child and his grandfather. The filmmaker’s poetic visions are reflected throughout the film. The story is as relevant as it was back in Russia in the 18th century, and is told with distinctive nuances and typical chastity, particularly exclusive of this film. The lead characters are incredibly organic and actor Kumarakom Vasudevan is a fisherman in real life too. The film will take you to a world of its own with its cinematography. As true art form always does, it will make you think of the real meaning of everything and question oneself. Kavalam Narayanan Panicker’s poem ‘Aa Manathilirunnu’ with a haunting tune at the end of the movie leaves you with chills down your spine.

12. Bangalore Days (2014)

Bangalore Days surprised me on multiple levels. The three main characters, Arjun, Divya and Krishnan (fondly called Kuttetan), are cousins. Extremely close to each other while growing up in Kerala, they always promised each other that they’d go to Bangalore when they were older. As it turns out, their life takes them exactly there; and their journey is something truly worth sharing. Don’t be overwhelmed by the runtime of 172 minutes. Every minute is worth it.

13. Ozhivudivasathe Kali (2015)

This is a film that revolutionized independent filmmaking in Kerala. Sanal Kumar Sashidharan is a brave and valiant director, who actually makes use of no particular screenplay for this film. Most of the scenes in the film are improvised to an extent, yet is relevant as the whole subject matter. It is an absolute gift to the admirers of gritty realism and to the viewers of general world cinema; whom to which the movie would strike in a stunning way and they will pause, rewind and make themselves thinks of the infinite levels to which it travels. This movie has inspired many a different film aspirants in Kerala to boldly come forward with their ventures.

14. Charlie (2015)

Probably my most daring inclusion in this list, ‘Charlie’ is a truly magical film done with extreme style. It follows the story of a young woman who gets fascinated by a man and goes in search of him; the movie gradually develops unveiling the lead character. It quickly immerses you into its narrative style with some marvellous cinematography and intriguing soundtracks. The characters speak audaciously of who Charlie is, and at the end of this, you will be fascinated by the lead character. Actor Dulquer Salman gives a dashing performance as Charlie, and the other actors are equally good. The characters weaved according to societal roles, though entirely different in nature are wonderfully used to draw the mystique of Charlie. The movie inspires us to free ourselves of expectations and live fully.

15. Kammatipaadam (2016)

Actor Dulquer Salman’s best work till date, this 2016 film by Rajeev Ravi told the tale of a forgotten era with a humane touch. The film pays tribute to the working class of time in southern Kerala, who were oppressed and thrown away from their lands by the so-called superior ones. It is a film with vast ambition and stays realistic for the larger part of it. It understands itself as an art form and is approached in a uniquely benevolent way. The characters are raw, and show shades of altruism even though primarily are spirited apparently with violent behaviour; thus showing the true nature of these people and how their conditions force them to overturn their compassion. A must watch. Reportedly the actual duration of the film was 4 hours but was later reduced to 3 hours in order to make the film more audience-friendly.

16. Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017)

The greatest thing happened in Malayalam cinema this year, more accurately Indian cinema; ‘Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum’ is a complete film that Malayalam has been in search for long. The movie possesses a visual and narrative style of its own. The movie is filled with heavy undertones, and it even subverts some of the basic techniques used in the film. This film uses an analogous colour grading, normally used to reduce tension and give a warm feeling, and the film could have built with extreme tension which the story offers, but it chooses not to; which in itself is a paradox. The film rather unveils many different social issues, both political and philosophical through an uneasy narrative with its aforementioned ingenuity. An extremely classy film, and is a must watch.

P.S. This article can also serve under the heading of ‘Best of Malayalam Cinema’. So if you are looking for some solid recommendations in Malayalam cinema these films would be a great starting point. Millennials can start with films from the 21st century as older films are an acquired taste.