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Art & Culture


Cinema is the popular art form which has been a good entertainer and a strong means of mass communication in Kerala from the previous century itself. It has the elements of different art forms including architecture and sculpture in it.

The viewers in Kerala enjoy the films comprehending the reality in it. The possess high insight in distinguishing reality from fiction in the themes of experimentalism. Malayalam Cinema has contributed much to the creative and critical analysis sectors of Malayalam literature.

Kerala has a very rich art and cultural background. Its films are unique in several aspects. Unlike the other linguistic films which have started off taking themes from the Puranas, Malayalam films have taken relevant social issues as its theme from the beginning.

The all time geniuses like Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, John Abraham, Ramu Karriat, P A Bakkar, K.G.George, M.T.Vasudevan Nair, Padmarajan, Bharathan, T.V. Chandran, P.N. Menon, Shaji.N. Karun, K. P. Kumaran, K.R.Mohanan, Jayaraj... are the contributors of Malayalam to the world Cinema. Despite these facts now one can make a novel study of current cinema only in connection with the social life here.

The first silent movie in Malayalam "Vigatha Kumaran" was screened in 1930, when movies abroad has already begun to 'talk' and by 1931 sound films were also made in India.

That year, the second Malayalam film, "Marthanda Varma", based on a well-known historical novel by C.V.Raman Pillai, was made. Although sound films were produced in Hindi and Tamil regularly, Malayalam cinema had to wait till 1938 to present its first sound film, "Balan". In the first few years, Malayalam films were virtually dominated by Tamil producers. Whenever they suffered loss in Tamil films, they ventured into Malayalam Cinema, as the investment requirements were comparatively lower. In 1947, the first major film studio, Udaya was established in Kerala and by the early 50s, more Keralites entered this field.

When Hindi and Tamil cinema started off with mythological themes, Malayalam films showed an interest in dealing with social issues right from the very first film itself (Balan).

One of the biggest box office hits of the 50s was "Jeevitha Nauka" (Boat of Life, 1951). The film contained all the ingredients that were to form the basis for future commercial productions. The film owed its structure more to the village festivals of Kerala than anything else. Cinema was seen as a mixture of various traditional art forms like music, dance, dance-drama, mimicry and so on. Connecting these various disparate elements was a storyline which often showed the triumph of the good over the evil.

It was in 1954 that Malayalam cinema got national attention by winning the President's silver medal for Neelakuyil. Scripted by a well-known novelist, Uroob, produced by T.K.Pareekutty, directed by P.Bhaskaran - who also played the key role, casted by the then leading artists like Sathyan and Miss Kumari, this film deals with the subject of untouchability. Melodramatic in style and filled with songs and dances, the film was a big hit with the public. It was the teamwork of a number of film enthusiasts who took time off their professions to live near the banks of the Periyar river in Central Kerala discussing the script and other details of the film. There was difficulty in location shooting at that time. Also, studio facility was limited in Kerala. In spite of these limitations, they were bent on recreating authentic Kerala setting for the story. Props, household articles, costumes and other cultural artifacts were made and sent to Madras for the studio work. Most of the actors hailed from Kerala (at that time a novelty) and they performed in front of authentically constructed sets with all the manners and mannerisms of Malayali characters. Even the lyrics were derived from local folk traditions. This was at a time when Malayalam cinema had not established its cultural identity and was hardly distinguishable from the Tamil films of the time except for the spoken language.

Another significant effort was Newspaper Boy (1955) made by a group of college students lead by enthusiastic N.Ramdas. It made use of new actors and tried to portray realistically the travails of an orphaned boy. This film stands out from the rest, because for the first time it dispensed with all the elements of the so called box office formula.

When one looks at these early developments, one finds that Malayalam cinema had time to evolve on its own from its silent days. Much of the visual expression in international cinema was possible because silent film had enough time to germinate and mature by itself. But in the case of Malayalam film, sound arrived rather suddenly, and there was no need for Malayalam film makers to think of communicating through visual means. Everything could be spelt out through dialogues. Another aspect that needs to be mentioned here is the lack of exposure to international cinema. No matter, how sincere and competent the script writer and director were, the ultimate product ended up as photographed dramas staged within studio sets. In the early sound films, there used to be less number of cuts and less number of camera movements. Storyline did not seem to be important. Different episodes were self-contained and they made social comments, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, while attempting to entertain.

There were parallel streams of storyline going on. All these traits could be found in Neelakuyil. It appears that there was not much pressure from the audience for a tight narrative. An unhurried, leisurely pace was acceptable for the viewers who enjoyed individual moments of the film more than a satisfying whole, although story was of primary importance. This was understandable especially when cinema was seeking to displace the pastimes of an agrarian society and the best way to do it was by maintaining a close equation to village fairs and festivals.

The literary connections

The practice of utilizing literary materials of repute as raw material for film scripts became more frequent in 1960s. When well-known stories and novels, mostly serialized in literary journals, were made into film, it automatically introduced lot of cultural elements which were absent in the Malayalam films of the 50s.

Novels were preferred to other literary sources. The tendency to borrow literary material for film making was at its peak in the later sixties and early seventies. The combined effort of writers and directors had its impact on Malayalam film. The general standard of production went up. Since many of the literary materials were area-specific, films had to be shot on actual locations. This was something that was unheard of at least in Malayalam Cinema a decade before. Much of the difficulty in providing a realistic touch in a film like Neelakuyil arose from its studio-bound interior shots.

Sixties: Collective cinema

1965 marked the entry of short story writer and novelist, M.T. Vasudevan Nair (affectionately called MT in Kerala) whose writings by nature had a visual orientation. MT was exposed to cinema when he began scripting. Films based on his screenplays had a visual quality unmatched in the rest of the Malayalam films of the time.

MT collaborated with cameraman-turned director, A.Vincent in making 'Murappennu' (Cousin/fiancee) in 1965. Though still theatrical and melodramatic, 'Murappennu' had the advantage of being shot extensively on location and had a strong visual quality. When actors were placed in real locations like river banks, matriarchal family-abodes, gravel paths and paddy fields, they came out with an acting style freed from the theatricality inherent in studio-filming.

The ultimate in collaborative work happened in 'Chemmeen' (Prawn) in 1966 which won the President's gold medal for the first time for a South Indian film. Based on Thakazhy Sivasankara Pillai's well-known novel of the same name, the film had screenplay by S.L.Puram, camera work by Marcus Bartely, editing by Hrishikesh Mukherji and music by Salil Chaudhury, all established names in the Indian film industry. All these contributed immensely to the overall technical quality of the film. Its high caliber publicity greatly aided by the gold medal secured before its commercial release and its technical flourish made a great impact on the audience. Its director, Ramu Kariat who had a few memorable films to his credit, got national attention with this effort.

A major landmark in Malayalam cinema was to come in the next year with 'Iruttinde Atmavu' (Soul of Darkness, 1967). With a screenplay by MT, P.Bhaskaran could make one of the best films of his career and also provide Malayalam cinema with a new direction; that of the low budget film. This happened strangely after the success of Chemmeen, the big budget multi star-cast film that got technical assistance from an all -India crew!

1967 also witnessed the first Malayalam film of a graduate of the film Institute, Pune: P.M.Abdul Aseez's 'Aval' (She). Two years later, another graduate, John Sankaramangalam made 'Janmabhoomi' (Home land) with financial support from the Film Finance Corporation. Shot in Wayanad on the Western Ghats, a pristine location for film making, the film won a Presidential award for its theme of religious co-existence.

By the end of the sixties, the traditional Malayalam cinema had produced a number of good works, most of them based on reputed literary works by authors like Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, Parappurath, K.T.Muhammed, Thakazhy, Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, P.Kesava Dev and Thoppil Bhasi. The films include Odayil Ninnu, Yakshi, Kadalpalam and Ara Nazhika Neram (all directed by K.S. Sethumadhavan): Mudiyanaya Puthran and Chemmeen (by Ramu Kariat): Iruttinde Atmavu (by P.Bhaskaran): and Bhargavi Nilayam, Thulabharam, Asuravithu and Nagarame Nandi (all by A. Vincent).

Towards more visual expression

Reminiscent of the Italian neo-realist films in its stark realism, the film told with immense visual appeal the story of an innocent Muslim girl of Malabar.

Reminiscent of the Italian neo-realist films in its stark realism, the film told with immense visual appeal the story of an innocent Muslim girl of Malabar.

That was also the first authentic statement of the way of life of Malabar Muslims. It was remarkable for its accuracy of Muslim dialect, choice of location and art direction. However, the film's reluctance to part with conventions like songs and melodrama made it miss the mark of excellence. 'Olavum Theeravum', however, serves as an important link to the new decade in Malayalam cinema. Another significant effort was C.Radhakrishnan's "Agni".

In the 70s efforts were to create conditions conducive to the survival of artistic cinema in Kerala. A group of film enthusiasts had already formed a film society in Trivandrum, the first of its kind in the State. It conducted seminars and discussions on films apart from screening international classics. It encouraged the formation of other film societies throughout the state. As an offshoot of this society came the Chitralekha Film Co-operative, the first of its kind in the country formed by a group of trained technicians with the intention of making artistic films. After a period of practice through documentary film making, the Cooperative attempted their first feature, 'Swayamvaram' (One's own choice) in 1972 with Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair as Executive Producer and Adoor Gopalakrishnan as Director. Technically superb, the film dispensed with the clichè of traditional cinema particularly with songs till then considered an essential ingredient in feature film. Although build on a weak narrative, the film was much ahead of all Malayalam films in its cinematic qualities. It launched a major film maker in Malayalam.

The next year MT Vasudevan Nair came up with his own directorial venture, 'Nirmalyam' (Remains, 1973). M.T. was hesitant to shed all the existing conventions but all the same produced a brilliant first work. Although still coming to grips with the medium, he was sure of his characters and their relationships. Much of his pre-occupation with family relationships found earlier in his screenplays was evident here too.

In 1974, G.Aravindan who had established himself as the most intellectual cartoonist working in Malayalam them with his serial, "Cheriyamanushyanum valiya lokavum" ("Small Men and Big World") in a Weekly, made his first film, 'Utharayanam' (Throne of Capricon). Aravindan had no formal training in film making but his cartoon serial would have given him an opportunity to play with composition. His cartoon serial looked more like a story-board for a film! Aravindan demonstrated an extraordinary sense of visual expression and composition like his predecessor, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. He was greatly aided by contributions from cameraman M.Ravi Varma and the art director, Namboodiri.

During the last decade, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan consolidated their positions in not only Malayalam Cinema but in Indian Cinema as well. Adoor made significant films like 'Swaymvaram', 'Kodiyettom', 'Elippathayam', 'Mukhamukham', 'Anantharam', 'Mathilukal', 'Vidheyan' and 'Kadhapurushan'. 'Elippathayam' won the British Film Institute Award for the year 1982. Aravindan made films like 'Utharayanam', 'Kanchana Sita', 'Thampu', 'Kummatty', 'Esthappan', 'Pokkuveyil', 'Chidambaram', 'Oridath', 'Vasthuhara' and 'Marattom', films which dealt with diverse themes in a variety of styles.

Along with Adoor and Aravindan, Shaji Karun also could enjoy international acclaim with the help of his haunting films-Piravi, Swam and Vanaprastham. Piravi is the first Malayalam film which got entry in the Canne Film Festival.

Other prominent film makers who made promising films include John Abraham. K.G.George, K.R.Mohanan and G.S.Panicker, all alumni of the Film and TV Institute of India, Pune and other like Bharathan, K.P.Kumaran, P.A.Backer, Padmarajan, Mankada Ravi Varma and Pavithran. John Abraham who set himself the untouched path of subversive cinema in his first Tamil Film, Argaharthil Kazhuthai, continued in the same vein in his Malayalam Films. Abraham could be credited with demystifying cinema's long evolved conventions and he succeeded really well in blending the theme and form with a dry humour (Cheriyachantae krurakrithhyangal and Ammayariyan). His unexpected demise in 87 caused a setback to the kind of film making that John propounded. Some of the noted Malayalam works of T.V.Chandran in his directing career are 'Alicinte Anweshanam', 'Ponthenmada', 'Mankamma', 'Susanna' and 'Danny'.

Lenin Rajendran has created some remarkable film like 'Venal', 'Chillu' and 'Meenamasathile Sooryan'. 'Janani' is considered to be one of the best films of Rajivnath who has been adjudged as the Best Director in the national level. Lohitha Das is considered to be one of best screenplay writers of Malayalam Cinema. But he has also proved his mettle directing some excellent films like 'Bhoothakkannadi'. Jayaraj started his career directing mainstream films and later slipped consciously or unconsciously into the arena of art films. Jayaraj whose films have got entry in many International Film Festivals, has directed some immortal films like 'Desadanam', 'Karunam' and 'Santham'. M.P.Sukumaran Nair also could prove his directorial excellence in his film like 'Aparahnam', 'Kazhakam' and 'Sayanam'. Sarath, promising director, whose first film 'Sayahnam' has got seven State Awards.

Right from the early days, the traditional Malayalam Cinema had different genres like socials, mythological, historical, comedies, wild life adventure and so on but the most favoured one was socials. In the 60s a number of films dealing with the labour movements were made absorbing the political ferment of the time. The 70s saw the sprouting of many film societies spread across the state in moffusil towns and district headquarters which showed international film classics to a semi-urban audience. The state today boasts of the highest number of film societies in any state (about 75). Late seventies witnessed an emphasis on sex in Malayalam Film. Sex encouraged begun to be treated a more open way which encouraged distributors to promote such films outside the state as soft-porn films.

In the 70s, infrastructure facilities for film making in the state were augmented with the establishment of the state sponsored Chitranjali Studios. Aided by the subsidy scheme of the government and the inflow of 'gulf money' into film making, more films began to be made in Kerala. Location shooting became more popular and the emphasis on realism even in commercial productions was evident. More local artists, technicians and writers contributed to the distinct Malayali flavour of many films.

The presentation of every day life and its problems itself became the goal of many film makers. The audience also seemed to be content with such banality, judging from the popularity of such films. Sex which began to be treated more openly in the 70s came to be handled more indirectly, more at a subliminal level, in many of these films with a realistic exterior. 80s saw a boom in pulp literature in the state and films made out of serialized stories of these journals found a ready market. A number of such films set in the middle class families which cleverly mixed melodrama and violence succeeded well at the box office. The money accumulated in investment companies began to be diverted for film-making of this nature. Monopolistic tendencies began to be felt in production and distribution and with huge investments without regard to returns made the commercial viability of an average Malayalam film at stake. On the other side of the commercial spectrum, film makers who were making sex and violence-oriented films in the 70s changed their course by making family dramas often dealing with a distant past and most often based on screenplays by Padmarajan and M.T. The duo of Padmarajan and Bharathan seem to be the most decisive during eighties in the commercial success of Malayalam film. Both are prolific in their output. Films based on their screenplays and direction they maintained a certain standard which is well above that of the commercial productions in the rest of the country. Although a sizeable majority of films deal with predictable themes, a few of them have explored alternative subjects like tribal life, pollution, gulf migration, performing arts, biography, women's issues and film making itself.

The State Government with the limited resources at its disposal introduced a few well meaning schemes like the annual film awards, tax exemption, subsidy and package scheme, all of which have contributed to the growth of film making in the State. With the absorption of more and more trained technicians, mainly from the FTII, Pune, the technical quality of the average Malayalam film also improved considerably. National recognition has been achieved in areas like cinematography and sound. Enterprising producers have attempted wide screen and three dimension processes with tremendous success.

Although very few commendable efforts have been made in the area of children's film documentaries have received increasing attention from both established film makes and new comers. Chitralekha's early efforts have been followed up by people like Adoor and Aravindan in their personal capacities and also by others. The spurt in the area of documentaries have been facilitated by the subsidy scheme. Biographical seem to be a favourite pre-occupation of the documentary film makers.

A novel and somewhat idealistic method of film making and distribution was attempted in 1986 by a collective of young film enthusiasts, Odessa movies under the leadership of John Abraham. Their first feature 'Amma Ariyan' (86) was made with contributions from the general public and the film screened on a non-commercial basis through out the State. Odessa also screens film classics and arranges discussions in unexplored areas like fishermen's colonies, mental hospital and the like. But such idealist efforts have to co-exist and even compete with an industry financed, controlled and manipulated by businessmen with no interest in the art and craft of film except for the money that it brings. A film maker like Ravi of General Pictures who financed a number of Aravindan's early film and continues to make Adoor's films is an exceptional a group movement like Odessa. Unlike the Kannada cinema of the 70s and the Bengali cinema of the eighties, Malayalam Cinema does not seem to be very favourable to younger generation of film makers. While the commercial producers are surprisingly willing to take chances by financing younger and inexperienced directors, finance for the emerging film makers with some competence seems unavailable. The National Film Development Corporation engaged in financing and promoting films of promise does not fully sponsor regional film although it produces a number of Hindi films which are more expensive to make and tougher to exhibit. Only recently the corporation started supporting a few projects in Malayalam, that too on language basis. Telecasting of Malayalam film on the national television network also suffers due to the discriminatory policies towards regional films.

In the exhibition sector, permanent and semi permanent cinema houses have mushroomed throughout the length and breadth of the State, thanks to the Gulf remittance. Movie going has become more frequent due to the increased wages prevailing in villages and the proximity of theaters, even though television and video have made inroads into urban and rural areas.

The growing recognition that Malayalam film is getting in recent years is evident from the number of Malayalam film featuring in the Indian Panorama section of our International Film Festivals. Every year Malayalam films win national awards and occasionally international awards too. Retrospectives of Malayalam film makers have been held at India's International film festivals and abroad. In taking Indian film to the international front the contributions of P.K.Nair is worth mentioning. He single handedly build up the prestigious Pune Film Archive of India.

Although efforts to imbibe regional cultural in Malayalam film were there right from the 50s, attempts to evolve indigenous narration and expression became more vigorous in the seventies and eighties. Coming to terms with a technological medium imported from the West by continuous practice and by absorbing the rich performing art tradition of the State, film makers have become more at ease in creating native forms of cinema. Narrative methods of Kathakali have been skillfully adapted in 'Kodiyettam', for example. Films like 'Kodiyettam' and Thumb point to the possibility of a native visual language for Malayalam Cinema. 'Kodiyettam' has proved that such films, if made absorbingly and true to the soil, can gain wide acceptance by the public even if they are bombarded with crude Hollywood imitations and cheap melodrama churned out from popular serial stores. With the reassurance of such acceptance, one may hope that the energies of our film makers will be directed at uncovering local truths and thus universal truth in the manner of a Ray.

Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala