The film that will in all probability end up as the best Indian film of 2021 has already been released – no surprise here: it comes from the Malayalam industry aka Mollywood. Writer-director Jeo Baby’s (The Exhibits and the Eyewitness, 2017).
Fahadh has acquired a reputation for often giving up being a film’s hero in favour of a supporting role that appeals to him and lending an X Factor to that role. His confident choices ultimately led to India-wide accolades for C U Soon (2020) that marked a new frontier for Indian cinema at large with its exploration of the desktop genre tailored to fit the constraints imposed on filmmakers by the COVID19 lockdown.
Fahadh 2.0 is at the forefront of the Malayalam New New Wave and has gradually grown to be considered one of India’s finest actors by pan-India cinephiles too.
The Rise of Parvathy
Her next film, Varthamanam, has already irked Censors with its political content, adding another chapter to Parvathy Thiruvothu’s life in a fish bowl in recent years.
The New New Wave has been lauded for creating strong women characters but this praise holds water only in a comparison with the two preceding decades during which women were sidelined. The 2011-2020 phase is an improvement on Mollywood’s immediate past, but the sad truth is that even Malayalam New-Gen cinema is dominated by men. Parvathy is that rare contemporary woman actor who has turned that tide. Over 15 years, this gifted young artiste has become a brand in her own right in a male-centric Mollywood in which women stars tend to have short careers, producers tend to consider them interchangeable, few women are directors, producers or writers, and women-centred scripts like The Great Indian Kitchen or Parvathy’s Uyare are still not common.
In an interview published on Firstpost in 2017, Parvathy told me that while she’s glad women actors tend to have an all-India presence by acting in multiple industries (she herself has done Tamil, Kannada and Hindi films in addition to Malayalam) she is “also worried that there isn’t a certain … iritham, oru orapa, to grow roots in a space and stay there to create more. Because somehow the replaceable idea is also attached to female actors, the idea that you are dispensable, people are not banking on you…”
Slowly but surely though, Parvathy has been chipping away at the patriarchal resistance to strong women in Mollywood – with her film choices and her public stances. When she got rape threats for criticising the misogyny in the Mammootty-starrer Kasaba (2016), she did not back down. She is part of a pioneering women’s rights movement in Mollywood as a founder member of the Women In Cinema Collective (more on that later in the article). Her frank comments about the misogyny in the Telugu blockbuster Arjun Reddy (and its Hindi remake Kabir Singh) in the presence of its star, Vijay Deverakonda, during a joint video interview in 2019 earned her respect across India. And Take Off (2017) and Uyare (2019) have established her as a box-office presence in her own right. A “Parvathy film” is a thing now and Parvathy herself is becoming synonymous with fearlessness. In an industry that still usually sees the world through a male gaze, that is a huge achievement.
The Return of Manju Warrier
If there had been no Manju Warrier, could there have been a Parvathy? Each generation of women builds on the battles of women who faced the world before them, and for any young woman entering Mollywood right now aspiring to be another Parvathy, the path has been made just that much easier because Warrier exists.
In a highly conservative society that largely views women actors as short-term travellers who will inevitably fizzle out or retire after marriage, Warrier established herself as a superstar in the 1990s, right in the middle of the Mohanlal-Mammootty era that otherwise succeeded in marginalising women characters and actors.
Then she quit films after marrying fellow star Dileep.
Then the unexpected happened: she returned to the big screen 15 years later to a heroine’s welcome from Mollywood and fans.
That a woman star’s comeback after marriage and divorce became an event in Kerala is in itself momentous. Like Fahadh Faasil 2.0, Manju Warrier 2.0 most likely happened because she was the right woman making the right choice in the right place at the right time. Sections of the Malayali audience who do not have a patriarchal bent of mind yet have not so far been served anything like How Old Are You (2014) warmly embraced her as the protagonist of that heroine-led New-Gen film befitting her pre-hiatus star stature, a return that defied the convention of relegating women like her to playing the wife or mother of a male character played by a major male star.
Warrier’s filmography since then has been a mixed bag on the commercial front. It is a measure of how challenging Mollywood is for women that she has intermittently taken up inconsequential supporting roles in male-star-led films like Villain and Lucifer. However, the very fact that she has notched up hits like Udaharanam Sujatha (Example: Sujatha, 2017) and is being sought out for scripts written with her in mind is a measure of the gigantic change – albeit a baby step – that she represents.
The formation of the Women In Cinema Collective
In February 2017, eight months before the MeToo movement broke out in Hollywood and about a year before it arrived in Bollywood, women of Mollywood (among them Manju Warrier and Parvathy) joined hands to form the Women In Cinema Collective (WCC) to counter patriarchy in their industry – an official announcement came in May that year. The trigger for WCC’s formation was the abduction and rape of a prominent woman star of Mollywood, a crime condemned by all quarters until the industry was split down the middle when police investigations alleged that the prime conspirator was Dileep who is, at present, one of Mollywood’s biggest superstars.
Since then, WCC has become a contentious presence in Mollywood with Dileep’s financial clout and connections ensuring that a sizeable section of the industry has fallen silent or become hesitant to support their larger cause or even the survivor in this particular case – some have gone so far as to publicly malign the survivor.
Bruised and scarred but unrelenting, WCC has emerged in these four years as an advocacy group demanding systemic change in Mollywood, going so far as to file a PIL in the Kerala High Court to ensure compliance with The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, by various film bodies. The organisation has inspired women to join hands in other southern Indian film industries. Just weeks back, WCC wrapped up a several-months-long campaign against online abuse that was joined by some of their male allies too.
India’s deeply patriarchal film industries are never happy with women who refuse to be cowed down. For proof, look no further than Bollywood where the MeToo movement lasted for a few months while comparatively less influential figures like Nana Patekar and Alok Nath were accused of sexual crimes, but fizzled out the moment a truly powerful entity – Rajkumar Hirani, one of the most successful producer-directors in Bollywood history – was named. Meanwhile, WCC, which has taken on the most powerful man in Mollywood from its inception, is still standing.
The national stage for Lijo Jose Pellissery
In an interview to journalist Maneesh Narayanan on the digital news platform, The Cue, Fahadh said last year: “Since 2010 there has been at least one Malayalam film per year that the rest of India has sought out.” In at least three of those years, the film in question has been directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery.
For a decade now, Pellissery has kept audiences in Kerala enthralled with films that managed to be both supremely cerebral and supremely wacko. In 2017 though, the rest of India sat up and took notice. Angamaly Diaries – an adrenaline-packed account of gang wars in the pork business in Angamaly town – not only earned public commendations from Mohanlal, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Nivin Pauly and other prominent Mollywood personalities, it drew applause from Kollywood’s Karthik Subbaraj, and in Bollywood, Anurag Kashyap became its most enthusiastic and persistent ambassador. Pellissery’s hilariously insightful funeral film, Ee.Ma.Yau., followed in 2018. A nationwide fan club now keenly awaits each Pellissery release.
His Jallikattu is India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2021 (nominations will be announced shortly). And Pellisserians already have their sights set on the auteur’s upcoming sci-fi adventure Churuli.
The north-focused Delhi and Mumbai mainstream news media and northern theatres have for decades marginalised cinemas in all Indian languages apart from Hindi, but the arrival of the social media and streaming platforms has served to educate pan-India audiences about films beyond Bollywood while making access easier for those who were already seekers. Pellissery has been one of the prime contributors to and beneficiaries of that trend, and his feats have served to further push New Malayalam Cinema at large on to the national radar.
Pellisserians are language-agnostic cinema lovers who are drawn to his off-kilter narratives examining universal themes and chronicling Malayali society with delightful detail and irreverence. And today, Pellissery is one of India’s most widely acclaimed and influential contemporary directors.
The story of a dysfunctional family of four brothers, the women who impact their lives and their clash with patriarchy lay at the heart of Kumbalangi Nights (2019). The film was set in a village near Kochi, and its local lingo, cultural specificities and globally relatable concerns caught the imagination of viewers across state borders.
In 2015-17, the producers of the two Baahubali films (Telugu) spent an ample portion of their multi-crore budget on marketing the franchise across India, and found an eager audience for their special-effects extravaganzas that now stand among the highest grossing Indian films of all time. Since then, the ‘national’ media has been selectively covering tentpole projects from southern India. Without this coverage, without the SFX of the Bahubali films and without the conventional commercial appeal of Rajinikanth’s cinema, the smaller and more intimately framed Kumbalangi Nights ran non-stop for 7 weeks each in Chennai and Bangalore, 6 weeks in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and 5 weeks in the National Capital Region.
This success was a culmination of decades in which a once-niche film-viewing crowd among non-Malayalam speakers have been seeking out Malayalam films at festivals, on DVDs and, as the exhibition sector began opening up, at mainstream theatres too. In an article published on Firstpost in 2019, Kumbalangi Nights’ director Madhu C. Narayanan acknowledged the debt of gratitude that filmmakers like him owe Kerala audiences who have nurtured experimentation by the film industry. “The fact that there is a ready audience for quality cinema in Kerala gives us the confidence to explore more such unusual subjects,” he said. This experimentation has, in turn, won the interest of viewers outside Kerala.
There have been many turning points for Malayalam cinema in the past decade, and Kumbalangi Nights is the one that once and for all pushed Mollywood to the place where it is now, a film industry about which the veteran Malayalam literary stalwart NS Madhavan tweeted this weekend: “Are Malayalam films the new Iranian? Seeing the number of reviews of The Great Indian Kitchen by non-Malayalis and their dips into the past, I am lulled to feel so.”
Also read on Firstpost —
How Mohanlal, Mammootty and the ‘national’ media failed the pioneering women of Mollywood
The Kumbalangi Nights Phenomenon: One small step for Mollywood, a giant leap for Indian cinema