For me, the year started with Bhoothakalam, a superb debut by newbie Rahul Sadasivan, that explored horror beyond the frights and screams to delve deep into the psychological nightmares of humans. Revathy made a stunning comeback as a toxic mother who keeps piling on her guilt and loneliness on her adult son (Shane Nigam) who is yearning to flee from home. The horror tropes were weaved smartly into the narrative and soon we were left wondering if the supernatural had penetrated the psychological horrors of the characters.
Very few biggies made an appearance in January. There was the much-awaited candy floss romance Hridayam, directed by Vineeth Sreenivasan that showcased the coming-of-age story of Arun Neelakandan. Pranav Mohanlal made a valiant effort to exorcise the ghosts of his last forgettable outing, but was clearly awkward in a lot of areas, especially dialogue delivery that was very flat. But he looks a lot like his father and therefore it’s much easier to forgive his flaws. What saved the film from plunging into mediocrity, to some extent, was the fabulous musical score by Hisham. Kalyani Priyadarshan and Darshana Rajendran delivered as promised. Hridayam was one of the top ten grossers of this year.
Meanwhile, something significant happened on January 10. Bhavana put up an Instagram post where she described her difficult journey and expressed her gratitude to those who supported her. “To see justice prevail, to get wrongdoers punished and to ensure no one else goes through such an ordeal again, I shall continue this journey. For all those who are standing with me - a heartfelt thank you for your love.” Surprisingly Mammootty and Mohanlal shared the post and expressed their solidarity (rather delayed) with her.
Bro Daddy, the sophomore outing from Prithviraj Sukumaran, got a direct OTT release but turned out to be a family melodrama with too much emphasis on Mohanlal’s virility. Prithviraj seemed a misfit there, required a much younger actor. Lalu Alex was a relief, though.
Mohanlal tried to reclaim some of the glory he lost during last year’s colossal disaster, Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, through an out-and-out action potboiler called Aarattu, directed by B Unnikrishnan. But neither Mohanlal’s Neyyattinkara Gopan nor the regressive and boring narrative, pricked with double-entree dialogues, managed to bring in the crowd. And clearly, the superstar found it difficult to digest the brickbats that came his way as was evident in an interview he gave to a News channel, where he cast aspersions on those who criticise films. He pointed out that cinephiles in Hyderabad never found fault with their films and that technical know-how was essential to critique films. For someone who has always stayed away from courting controversies all through his career, this was unexpected, and trolls were merciless on him.
This month also saw Senna Hedge's film 1744 White Alto forming an internal complaints committee for the first time in Malayalam cinema.
Another shocker was the death of KPAC Lalitha which seemed so personal. She was such an integral part of our childhood and cinema that it suddenly felt like we had lost a member of our family.
The month started on a buoyant note with the Amal-Neerad Mammootty film Bheeshma Parvam delivering more than it promised. A superb retelling of the Mahabharata and Godfather, it was impressive to see Neerad balance out Mammootty’s stardom and the actor in him. And the second release, the equally awaited Naradan directed by Ashiq Abu, revolving around the media circus, unfortunately, turned out to be his weakest film to date, despite a solid Tovino Thomas performance.
It was emotional to watch Bhavana being honoured at the IFFK Inaugural ceremony. And a few days later a film was announced with her in the lead. Her last Malayalam film was Adam Joan (2017).
Navya Nair makes a sparkling comeback in VK Prakash’s Oruthee in which she plays a boat conductor who gets into a scuffle with a corrupt jewellery establishment.
On April 23, veteran screenwriter John Paul who wrote classics like Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam, Yathra, Kathodu Kathoram, Ulsavapittennu and Unnikale Oru Kadhaparayan passed away.
Producer-actor Vijay Babu was accused of sexual harassment by a female actor and the accused had the audacity to come on FB live and name and shame the victim.
Meanwhile, Jana Gana Mana directed by Dijo Jose Antony, headlining Prithviraj Sukumaran and Suraj Venjaramoodu opened to raving social media reviews, though I found it to be a dishonest attempt to cash in on the political unrest in the country. Prithviraj Sukumaran hams as a lawyer who unceremoniously appears in court to fight against his state-appointed counterpart. But was declared a superhit. With Makal, Sathyan Anthikad once again proved he is unable to update himself with the changing narrative of Malayalam cinema.
The most famous franchise involving Mammootty, CBI 5: The brain got a Sunday release and despite the mostly mixed reviews, it turned out to be a winner at the box office. Except for the consistency in which Mammootty portrayed the canny and gentle CBI Officer Sethuramaiyyer, the plotline and sub-characters never really rose above the banal.
Puzhu got a direct OTT release and Mammootty’s portrayal of a bigot and toxic parent won rave reviews, though the film was met with mixed opinions.
Meri Awaaz Suno, yet again, had Jayasurya attempting a character with physical inadequacies in a middling narrative. If M Padmakumar’s Pathaam Valavu, Jeethu Joseph’s 12th man, Abhijit Joseph’s John Luther, Rajeev Ravi’s Kuttavum Shikshayum barely managed to stay afloat, Santosh Sivan’s Manju Warrier sci-fi thriller, Jack N Jill, was an exercise in patience and arguably, one of his worst films till date.
June witnessed some interesting releases. Dear Friend (starring Tovino Thomas, Basil Joseph and Darshana Rajendran) which unfurls in Bangalore focused on a group of friends, one of whom goes missing, leading to stunning revelations and perspectives. Vaashi was an interesting debut by Vishnu Raghav, headlining Tovino Thomas and Keerthi Suresh that depicted the nuances of the courtroom accurately, though its politics turned out to be a grey area. Priyan Ottathilanu was an endearing feel-good film with a charming Sharfuddin making it worthwhile.
There was the festival film Paka, directed by editor-turned-director Nithin Lukose. Produced by Anurag Kashyap, it was set in the backdrop of two feuding families in Central Kerala. A fine effort, but not for the faint-hearted with its unhealthy dose of blood and gore.
Meanwhile, one of the most successful mainstream directors of Malayalam cinema, Shaji Kailas, resurfaced from a self-imposed hibernation with Kaduva, an unapologetic alpha male hero-driven action potboiler set in the early 90s. Prithviraj Sukumaran played an arrogant rich planter who gets into an ego scuffle with a cop. It has all the Shaji Kailas staples and hardly offers anything new. Prithviraj tries but is unable to match the charisma of his senior superstars who aced such roles effortlessly.
Eminent director-writer-actor Prathap Pothen passed away on July 8.
Shahi Kabir who made waves as a writer with Nayattu and Joseph debuted as a director with a crime thriller, Ela Veezha Poonchira, which also marked the return to form of Soubin Shahir. It’s an atmospheric film that mostly revolved around two cops stationed at a wireless station on a hilltop. Once the characters started to evolve out of their daily humdrum, it turned into a chilling revenge drama, with the closure knocking your socks off.
Fahadh Fasil’s first Malayalam release of the year, though worked mostly for his character arc and performance, Malayankunju (written and framed by Mahesh Narayanan) somehow fell short of being truly spectacular. The same goes for Nivin Pauly’s Mahaveeryar, which pivoted between a time traveller fantasy and a modern courtroom drama. Directed by Abrid Shine, it struck an interesting crossover between past and present-day politics in the country.
Meanwhile, debutant Indu VS failed to construct a compelling narrative and utilize her actors (Nithya Menen and Vijay Sethupathy) well in a film titled after Article 19 (a) of the Indian constitution, which upholds the freedom of speech and expression. The plotline and intent seemed ill-conceived and ambiguous. July end saw Suresh Gopy making a stellar comeback in Pappan, an otherwise tiresome murder mystery directed by Joshiy.
The state award winner Aavasa Vyooham, directed by Krishnanand, was released on Sony LIV. Textured like a mockumentary, ecology fantasy and satire, the film with its engaging structuring, had myth and divinity brilliantly interwoven. The central character Joy who is plugged as this man from nowhere can easily be a local marvel superhero. It’s dark humour at its stingiest. One of the best of this year.
Another surprise winner was Nna Than Case Kodu, a courtroom drama and satire, directed by Ratheesh Pothuval that had Kunchacko Boban playing a thief struggling to prove his innocence in court. Placed in Kasaragod, the film had some of the most entertaining characters of this year, particularly Magistrate played by PP Kunhikrishnan.
Then came Khalid Rahman’s Thallumala, an irreverent, chaotic musical set in North Kerala, starring Tovino Thomas and Kalyani Priyadarshan. In the film, romance and fights ran in a loop. The brilliantly choreographed dance set pieces were put together by a wafer-thin storyline. Let me confess that the film worked for me only during the revisit which happens rarely.
And there was Sree Dhanya Catering Service, an interesting effort by Jeo Baby that exposed the inadequacies of men and how women keep anchoring families silently, fighting all odds.
Two interesting films—Palthu Janwar and Sundari Gardens, were out, both helmed by debutants. If the former traced the coming-of-age story of a livestock officer, the latter had a fascinating female protagonist who subverted celluloid stereotypes.
Meanwhile, actor Sreenath Bhasi was under the scanner for verbally abusing a YouTube anchor. It led to social media discourses about media etiquette and the tussle between celebrities and media and where to draw the line.
Vinayan’s period drama Pathonpatham Nootandu, Kunchacko Boban’s multi-lingual thriller Ottu, Biju Menon’s Oru Thekkan Thallu Case all met with mixed reviews.
October witnessed spectacular highs and lows in Malayalam cinema. It started with a banger of an experimental film called Rorschach directed by Nisam Basheer headlining a terrific Mammootty, Grace Antony, Bindu Panicker and Sharafudeen.
Then there was the dark horse Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey once again with a terrific Basil Joseph (he had a superb run this year) and Darshana Rajendran that had a bride resorting to karate chops to uphold herself from a physically abusive spouse. The resounding success of the film was a clear indication that the audience was open to such enabling narratives.
A traditional tharavadu was the backdrop to untangle stories of exorcism and superstitions in Kumari, a technically efficient film directed by Nirmal Sahadev, starring Aishwarya Lekshmy and Shine Tom Chacko. But unfortunately, like Nirmal’s debut, this too failed to live up to the director’s lofty ambitions.
Mohanlal continued his bad run with, yet another cringe fest called Monster which had one of his worst performances in the last decade.
Perhaps it has something to do with the image she has always put out to the world, no one expected Anjali Menon to be so condescending towards the audience and critics. It wasn’t simply about the fact that she stressed the need to learn editing before sitting down to critique a film, but the way she articulated it was just not right with her face a mixture of scorn and amusement. Lest I forget, Roshan Andrews too chipped in with his two cents regarding film criticism and said we should learn from the people of Korea who never criticized their films.
And then Menon’s Wonder Women featuring a host of talented actors released directly on Sony Liv and ended up being a pretentious, tedious narrative around expectant mothers that could have worked better as a YouTube tutorial.
Mukundan Unni Associates was also one of the better films this year. Directed by debutant Abhinav Sunder Nayak, it had Vineeth Sreenivasan playing a ruthlessly ambitious lawyer who would steal, kill and destroy to have this way. Voiceover worked as a great narrative device, more so as it belonged to Vineeth who has a very apologetic voice timbre. And the guy was calmly vicious in here.
After a round of peek-a-boos, Alphonse Puthren’s Gold finally saw the light of day. But the five-year-old wait wasn’t quite worthwhile as Puthren reused a lot of his own tropes and characters that never really worked this time.
Despite all the hype around Saudi Vellakka, I found it rather underwhelming. The feel-good movie just seemed overfed, with characters hardly connected. And some of the casting choices were also questionable.
IFFK this year had its share of controversies with the delegates complaining about poor management and how they were unable to watch films despite booking in advance.
Lijo Jose-Mammootty’s film Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam premiered at the IFFK and won the audience poll award. IFFK Chairman director Ranjith was booed by delegates during the closing ceremony, but he was dismissive as usual.
One of the biggest announcements of this year had to be the collaboration of Mohanlal and Lijo Jose Pellisery. Mohanlal perhaps realised that he can no longer remain complacent and take his fans for granted. A lot of interesting films have been announced. Movie promotions have taken a 360-degree turn. OTT has helped Malayalam cinema find a pan-Indian audience. That also means writers and filmmakers need to rise up to the occasion and find better, quirkier, and edgier narratives and themes. Because the audiences are smarter, more informed, and more perceptive than ever before now. See you at the movies next year!