2021 in a nutshell: When Malayalam cinema saw the bold and the beautiful
While platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix gravitated towards relatively more mainstream affairs, platforms like SonyLiv, Zee5 and Neestream looked towards independent content.
In The Great Indian Kitchen (TGIK), a woman triumphantly walks out after throwing food trash-laden water at her husband and his father. In Biriyaani, a woman feeds the dish with an 'organic' ingredient to all the men who earned her contempt. In Joji, a self-destructive young man uses a pellet gun to vent his ever-growing angst. In Kala, one man gets a painful life lesson from another he considered beneath him. In Minnal Murali, a man wreaks havoc on an entire village for love. In Nayattu, a cop sees the odds mount against him. In Kanakam Kamini Kalaham (KaKaaKa), a missing piece of jewellery becomes the cause for much chaos. In Churuli, two cops in a remote terrain learn that something is not right with the inhabitants on the other side of the bridge. In Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, an older man gets furious when he realises that things aren’t going as per his calculations. In Santoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, a couple gets into an 87-min long argument when the woman begins to suspect that she is pregnant.
These are amongst the most potent, amusing and thought-provoking images that serious Malayalam cinema aficionados witnessed this year. It was generally an exciting year for the industry, especially after the emergence of multiple OTT platforms and their willingness to accommodate an eclectic mix of titles across various genres.
While platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix gravitated towards relatively more mainstream affairs, platforms like SonyLiv, ZEE5 and Neestream looked towards independent content.
Reflecting on the most talked-about films released this year, one realises that a big chunk explored similar themes in different ways. Some filmmakers ventured out of their comfort zones, while the more adventurous ones went in a much bolder direction.
It's the films that laid bare the archaic, regressive mindset and hypocrisy of both men and women - regardless of race, creed, caste, religion or political affiliation - that impressed the most. The subversive ones took on the patriarchal set-up by presenting tales of characters oppressed by the practices imposed on them by religion and society.
What's even more impressive is that these films didn’t lose sight of the craft required to deliver their messages subtly or loudly. TGIK, the first best Malayalam release, started it first. Director Jeo Baby and team relied purely on image and sound to address uncomfortable truths.
The frames came with no needless embellishments. There was a purpose behind every shot and action. His protagonist, played by Nimisha Sajayan, spends most of the runtime in the kitchen, where excruciatingly unpleasant, repetitive tasks push her to take a drastic decision that changes her life for the better.
We also found the subversive bent in the filmmakers behind KaKaaKa, Santoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, Biriyaani, Joji and Churuli.
They dared to traverse unchartered territories. In some, the images did most of the talking; in others, the characters had to speak up, loud and clear. With Joji, director Dileesh Pothan and writer Syam Pushkaran proved themselves capable of going in much darker directions.
Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval's daring social satire KaKaaKa received a less favourable response than his debut feature, Android Kunjappan.
Arguably the most polarising film of the year, it received at once the most colourful bouquets and the heaviest brickbats. With Churuli, we saw Lijo Jose Pellissery unbound, once again, by the shackles of conventional filmmaking and placing his actors in an R-rated landscape.
Elsewhere, filmmaker Don Palathara captured two characters in conversation with one camera - in one long take, that too - in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam. In my review, I said that sometimes such an attempt could be more complex than an action sequence or a CGI creation. Not all filmmakers succeed in holding the audience attention in a film without a single cut.
This year we also witnessed some actors making strikingly audacious moves. After a certain point in director Rohith VS' Kala, we learn that Tovino Thomas' character, Shaji, is not the 'hero'. Once we realise what’s what, we begin rooting for a man initially perceived as Shaji’s adversary.
Speaking of Tovino, he creates a strong impression once again in Basil Joseph's Minnal Murali. India's best superhero film (so far) also introduced many Malayalis to another brilliant actor Guru Somasundaram, who played the primary antagonist in a way that earns our sympathy, despite the character’s disagreeable choice of action in the film's third act.
And we got this year’s bravest performance from Kani Kusruti in director Sajin Baabu's Biriyaani. The actor went where no other female actor in Malayalam cinema had gone before. The Kerala State award is well-deserving.
I have saved the best for the last. Senna Hegde's Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam is the winner of the lot. Before going in, I did not know what to expect of this minimalistic indie feature set in Kanhagad. What a splendid surprise it turned out to be!
It's not every day that you see a filmmaker pulling off a discussion-worthy film with less familiar faces. The unpredictable nature of the film demanded such a clever choice. Free of the problems that usually come with preconceived notions, the film is a classic testament to the belief that a finely tuned script with attention-grabbing characters trumps everything else.