Recently, when the Malayalam film Veyilmarangal won the award for ‘Outstanding Artistic Achievement’ at the 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival, lead actor Indrans stood up and hugged Bijukumar Damodaran (known mononymously as Dr. Biju). This hug might as well be for the entire Malayalam industry that has been seeing huge wins and mentions at various international film festivals this year. Jallikattu directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery and Moothon directed by Geethu Mohandas premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Chola premiered at the Venice Film Festival and Jayaraj's Roudram is heading to the Cairo Fest. Uyare, directed by Manu Ashokan, is part of the Indian International Film Festival in Boston and Washington DC South Asian Film Festival. The sun has risen yet again in a glorious riot of colours for the Malayalam film industry that is seeing a strong showing abroad, through local themes that have the ability to resound globally.
Like the bi-lingual Nivin Pauly starrer Moothon (The Elder One) did, when it premiered in Toronto to a global audience, who took to social media to express their appreciation for director Geethu Mohandas and lead actor Nivin terming it his ‘breakthrough performance’ and ‘a gritty, gripping master class in story and development’. Another fan tweeted that the love that Geethu had invested in the film was there to be seen. Nivin says, “It is a dream-come-true moment for me. I always wanted to take my films to a wider audience.” Moothon is the tale of a young boy’s search for his elder brother, whom he has never met, after being fascinated by the stories about him.
The younger brother embarks on a journey in search of his elder brother from the Lakswadeep Islands to Mumbai. “Moothon is a film I shot with complete honesty and a lot of hard work and preparations have gone into the making of this film,” states Nivin, appreciating his director Geethu, producer Anurag Kashyap as well as the technical team.
Meanwhile, Jallikattu is about a buffalo escaping from an abattoir and running amok in a village in the high ranges. Chola looks at the happenings during a road journey when two teenagers elope and Veyilmarangal follows the trials and tribulations of a labourer who migrates to North India for work. Roudram is about an elderly couple stranded in their home during the floods and Uyare is about the social stigma surrounding an acid attack victim and her fight for justice. Themes that are set in rural and local milieu yet manage to pull at the heart strings of an international audience.
“Obviously, it is the content that has made this possible,” begins Sanal, adding that in the recent past, commercial as well as independent films are giving due importance to the script and content which has brought about winds of change. “See, in the past, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, Bharathan and many other directors have received international acclaim for their films with locally rooted themes and narrative styles, but set in a language that even global audiences can relate to.” Cutting across the commercial and parallel divide, mainstream cinema in Malayalam is increasingly moving towards realistic themes set in realistic surroundings with realistic performances ensuring that audience can relate to the story and the characters. Sanal opines, “Cinema was at one point considered as drama and the more the melodrama, the better! Even the audience was trained to see such drama-sque kind of stories and characters which commercial films presented. There was a time when Malayalam films won big at various international festivals abroad, but soon that phase was replaced by larger-than-life superstars and over-the-top, commercial stories with only the subjects changing, but the basic ‘drama’ format remaining the same. All that has now changed.”
That change is due to the influx of fresh talent, armed with new and innovative methods of storytelling, reflecting the political, cultural and social milieu of today, that pull in the audience, making them a part of the film. It is also because actors are ready to step away from their comfort zones and take on roles that necessitate delving deep into their acting reserves. Script has become the king. Sanal says, “The filmmakers of today have brought back the true meaning of what cinema strives to be. The result of that is there for all to see in the form of international recognition.”
International recognition has been there all along, especially in the past four years, feels Dr. Biju. “But, it is only this year that Malayalam films have seen back-to-back recognitions at international platforms at almost the same time.” Dr Biju’s film Veyilmarangal earned the achievement of being the first Indian film to win a major award at the 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival. The film was one among the 3,964 entries submitted from 112 countries for the prestigious Golden Goblet Award. Lead actor Indrans was adjudged the Best Actor at the Singapore South Asian Film Festival for the same film.
Dr Biju, while happy with the recognition that Malayalam films are getting internationally, has a word of caution though. He says, “It is too early to celebrate. The Toronto Film Festival has always given Indian films a healthy chance because it basically is a semi-commercial film festival platform. The real test is the
Venice Film Fest, Cannes, Berlin Film Fest and Shanghai among others which are purely artistic platforms. Malayalam films should fare well at these festivals which is when we can say we have arrived internationally!”
While Dr Biju does elaborate which international festivals are the real acid test, he agrees that the content has evolved drastically over the past couple of years. “The making has changed in mainstream films and also moved away from the ‘star’ syndrome. Art films have always gone to international festivals earlier too, but unfortunately the absence of star power doomed such films to anonymity.”
In parting, he quips, “The litmus test is also whether such films get theatrical release in Kerala and the audience receive them and their plots, especially in the absence of star power to propel them.”