Malayalam cinema’s big moment at the international film festivals

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A village chasing a water buffalo running amok in the high ranges of Kattappana, in Kerala’s Idduki district, forms the story of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu. In Geetu Mohandas’ Moothon, a bi-lingual in Hindi and Malayalam, a 10-year-old leaves Lakshadweep in search of his elder brother who’s gone to Mumbai to look for work. Meanwhile, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Chola, a road movie, tracks the misadventures of two teenagers who elope.

All three films, part of a new wave in Malayalam cinema that is erasing the line between mainstream and arthouse conventions, are creating ripples of excitement. And all three are premièring at prestigious festivals abroad: Jallikattu and Moothon at the Toronto International Film Festival (September 5-15) and Chola at the Venice Film Festival (August 28 – September 9).

There is more. Bijukumar Damodaran will be in Singapore to participate in the competition section of the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival (August 30-September 7) with Veyilmarangal. The film, which follows a labourer who migrates to North India for work, had premièred at the 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival in June and won the Outstanding Artistic Achievement award. His previous film, Painting Life, is still doing the rounds at international film fêtes. Jayaraj — whose Bhayanakam won the best cinematography award at the 2019 Beijing International Film Festival in April — is heading to the Cairo International Film Festival (November 20-29) with his new film, Roudram. It is about an elderly couple trapped in their house during the 2018 Kerala floods). And Uyare, about an acid attack victim’s fight for justice, is part of the Indian International Film Festival in Boston (September 13-15) and the Washington DC South Asian Film Festival (September 20-22).

Geetu Mohandas with directors Anurag Kashyap and Lijo Jose Pellissery

Geetu Mohandas with directors Anurag Kashyap and Lijo Jose Pellissery  

“It has been a long time coming. Of late, most of the films being made in Malayalam are of international standard, whether it be Kumbalangi Nights, Uyare, Thamasha, Virus or Unda…We punctuate our films with the times we live in, the political and cultural issues we are facing,” says actor Parvathy Thiruvothu, talking about the strong showing at international platforms. She adds that the “new crop of directors is bold enough to make the kind of films they want, instead of following a formula. But this success has not been achieved overnight. Lijo has been at it since City of God, which was not a commercial hit, but he did not give up his distinctive vision”.

Mohandas agrees. She underlines that film directors and scenarists today are narrating stories that are realistic, yet captivating. Much like Moothon. “Although the theme has been with me for some time, I took about two years to write the script. I made no compromises in any department of my film. It has been exhausting but totally worth it,” says the director, who is excited that her film will be screened at a venue with greats like Pedro Almodóvar.

A still from Jallikattu

A still from Jallikattu  

Local themes, global reach

Sub-titling, availability on streaming platforms, and the buzz created by festivals have helped the regional film industry make an impression and reach audiences beyond just the hardcore Malayali viewership. “Also, over the last four or five years, a talented bunch — which includes people like scenarist Syam Pushkaran and filmmakers Aashiq Abu, Dileesh Pothan and the like — have changed the profile of Malayalam cinema,” says film critic Baradwaj Rangan. “The industry has always had a tradition of great arthouse cinema, and masters like the late Padmarajan and Bharathan made mainstream cinema with a lot of artistic flourishes. But what this lot is doing is filtering the same through a new-gen lens, and that is extremely interesting.”

The emphasis is on local themes with a global resonance. “I try to tell stories that are rooted in our soil. I know the people, the premise. I don’t think I’d be able to do the same in a different place and a different setting. This is my comfort space and I’m able to explore the kind of films I want to do,” says Pellissery, who is already ensconced deep in the hills, shooting his next film.

A still from Roudram

A still from Roudram  

Credit to IFFK?

The conviction to narrate local stories for a global audience also comes from a democratisation in cinema in the last 10 years. “Now, anyone, anywhere can view the best of world cinema. That has changed our perspective,” explains Zakariya Mohammed, director of multi-award-winning Sudani from Nigeria (2018).

Festivals on the mind

  • Directors dismiss the notion that their films are made specifically for festivals. According to Pellissery, of all his features, only Jallikattu, completed last December, was targeted at a festival — and only because of its concept. “It is not awards that motivate me,” he says. “And I don’t see them as just festivals; I see them more as places where you can exhibit your films to a different kind of audience, in a different part of the world. That gives me a high, I guess.” Meanwhile, Nivin Pauly, who stars in Moothon, believes that good movies need to be watched and discussed wherever possible. “I’ve always wanted to take our films to a wider audience and I’m glad it’s been done with Moothon.”

Moreover, the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram has also been steadily exposing cinephiles to world cinema, and shaping the tastes and views of filmmakers. Many in the current crop of avant garde filmmakers, such as Sasidharan and Damodaran are self-taught, while Pellissery and Mohammed cut their teeth in the ad industry. “It is not a direct connection, but there is a correlation with the fact that the IFFK has sourced some of the best of world cinema and brought it to Kerala. I feel that the more experimental films are being watched and talked about, the better it is,” says Bina Paul, artistic director of IFFK, and a programmer for several prestigious fêtes, both in India and abroad. “It also gives our filmmakers an opportunity to network and that is so important. Right now, when it comes to cinema in India, Kerala is the most exciting place to be in.”

Is there a formula to ensure a film is chosen at a festival? “Not really,” she says, adding that filmmakers and producers have become smarter and know how to network and market their films. However, the length of some of our films do test the patience of international audiences, she observes.

Director Bijukumar Damodaran

Script, front and centre

Malayalam cinema, especially arthouse cinema (a categorisation that many directors rightfully object to), has never had it so good since the 70s and the 80s, when auteurs like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan, Shaji N Karun, Bharathan and KP Kumaran wowed cinéastes with their content and narrative style. The resurgence, feels director Jayaraj, is because of a combination of things. “The script is the star of the marquee now. And producers (many of whom are from within the industry) are willing to bankroll projects that veer away from the mundane, the conventional,” he says.

But, most importantly, young actors today — with no hang-ups about screen time or image — are bringing in a new kind of subtlety to their roles. Stepping out from reel locations, these characters inhabit small towns and villages, shanties and slums, and speak in the voice and dialect of the common man. If Dileesh Pothan’s Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016) celebrated Idukki, Eeeda (2018) focussed on a love story in Kannur. Sudani… was a paean to Malappuram’s craze for football, while Ee.Ma.Yau (2018) was located in Chellanam, a small coastal village near Kochi.

A still from Veyilmarangal

Confidence — in the story, its execution — is also making a big difference. “We have the conviction to take up experimental narratives and trust that the content will reach viewers,” says Damodaran, who believes that, more than big budgets, content matters. “I’ve made films on both shoe-string and lavish budgets. But to impress curators, it is technical finesse, narratives and themes that matter,” he adds.

Actors like Thiruvothu are excited to be a part of this generation of Malayalam cinema. “When I started out, we had lost our game for a while, though movies like Salt N’ Pepper,Traffic and City of God were pointers. Some were commercial successes, but not all clicked. Lijo once told me there will be martyrs, but we have to keep pushing the envelope. We used to watch cult classics in the 80s. Now cult classics are being made for youngsters today. It is an exciting phase for all of us.”

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