Shaji Kailas with Mohanlal | Mathrubhumi
A while ago, Mohanlal shared an announcement on his social media page about the rerelease of a remastered print of his 1995 film Spadikam early next year. Meanwhile Director Bhadran had already been dropping hints about the possibilities of a theatrical release of the remastered version owing to overwhelming public demand. He also expressed his joy of watching a remastered version of the famous ‘Ezhimala Poonchola’ song picturised on Mohanlal and Silk Smitha in the same film.
In recent years, Director Bhadran for some strange reason, has been pointedly appraising himself as a one-film wonder on social media. Most of his interviews never exist beyond his inarguably seminal work, Spadikam. That, coming from a director who has made 12 fairly watchable and diverse genre films between 1982 and 2005 is baffling. When a filmmaker like Bhadran keeps tom-tomming about his 27-year-old film and hasn’t made a film since 2005 (Udayon sank without a trace), it perhaps betrays two things—1) he is no longer confident about keeping up with the new Malayalam cinema 2) you are simply resting on your laurels.
Bhadran perhaps, like his contemporaries, realises that he has lost track of himself in the changing narrative, technical and political syntax of Malayalam cinema.
Director Sibi Malayil who was one of the key players in the 90s Malayalam cinema, never really recovered after his partnership with writer AK Lohitadas fell through. Their last collaboration was Sagaram Sakshi in 1994. Except for a watchable comedy family drama like Ishtam in 2001, he has shown a steady decline in his craft, incapable of gauging the audience’s shifting tastes. If Amrutham touched airily on Hindu-Muslim equanimity in the backdrop of a redundant family drama, Flash with Mohanlal in the forefront, circled around a large patriarchal family and their bizarre conflicts with superstition and mental illness, Alice in Wonderland had a brother anchoring a mentally ill sister who falls in love with a magician, while Violin was a sloppily made love story. There were stereotypical characters trapped inside tardy and regressive narratives producing bad performances. It's indeed shocking to witness a director, who is known for mining some of the finest performances in Malayalam cinema, struggling with his actors like Mohanlal, Parvathy, Nitya Menen or Asif Ali.
In Kamal’s last film, Pranaya Meenukalude Kadal, it was appalling to sit through his clumsy attempts to please a new generation with his old tricks in an outdated narrative strewn with hackneyed characters tempered by awful writing. At a time stalking and consent shown in cinema are being viewed through a political lens, Kamal has a hero who stalks the heroine feverishly like a puppy, and forcefully kisses her against her consent. In Aami, he desperately tries to present a sanitized version of the fiery novelist Madhavikutty and refuses to explore the woman behind the controversial writer and thinker. He also employs every possible “period” tropes available in Malayalam cinema. From the stagey frames, costumes, dialogues that sound like they were borrowed from a drama script, amateurish make-up to actors who look very cognizant about their surroundings, he reduces the film into a lazily made and written tele-soap.
When it comes to Priyadarshan, his Malayalam films post the “Bollywoodisation” held traces of the Hindi film adulteration—glamorous Bombay heroines who mostly looked out of place, lavish milieus, starry item dances and tepid comedy. It was there when he remade his own Hindi film into Malayalam (Amayum Muyalum) or attempted a ghastly spin off of Manichithrathazhu with Geetanjali, which in turn was an inspired remake of Tamil film, Charulatha. And his latest misadventure, Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham while being technically proficient suffered from poor writing, staging and performances.
Joshiy after a row of horrid films (Lokpal, Salaam Kashmir, Avatharam, Laila O Laila) though did attempt to reclaim his form with Porinju Mariyam Jose, which was ironically safely placed in the 80s. But a cliched narrative, old-school filmmaking and the remnants of his earlier successful potboilers turned out to be its undoing. Everything just seemed too familiar, including the characters, conflicts and the treatment. While his latest Pappan headlining Suresh Gopi has so many needless plot points that get convoluted and tedious as it unravels to the point that one loses focus very early in this murder mystery. Even a veteran like Joshiy is unable to rescue it beyond a point.
One of the areas where new-gen directors in Malayalam cinema score over their veteran counterparts is in how they use their supporting actors or even walk-in roles. The veterans rarely give space for characters beyond their main leads to make a deeper impression. And women are usually relegated to traditional caregiver roles, while men always take centrestage. One also gets the feeling these filmmakers are unable to think beyond their own rigid belief systems and bridge that ever-expanding generation gap.
But perhaps no other filmmaker among that lot is as far removed from the current reality as Siddique. One half of the director duo (Siddique-Lal) who revolutioned situational comedy in Malayalam cinema, crams forced humour in his last hapless outing with Mohanlal called Big Brother. Of course he did show an alarming tendency to fall back on a narrative pattern that is stale and archaic in Ladies and Gentlemen. The backstory in Big Brother seems even redundant for a mega serial, so does the production values. The writing and making are tiresome and the sub characters have been reduced to Mohanlal’s cronies. He even thought he could get away with the absurdity of roping Siddique as a Mangalore Shetty and Arbaaz Khan as a Malayalee cop. More so when some of our talented younger filmmakers are hell-bent on maintaining authenticity and nuance in their narratives. Interestingly Siddique instead of accepting his bad product continued to play the victim and blamed “paid reviews” for the poor box office performance.
Post-2000, Sathyan Anthikad’s films have failed to rise beyond the mediocre, rehashing the formula faithfully, with neither his characters nor stories deepening beyond the peripheral. His last film Makal was no exception. Earlier Anthikad was known for his meaty and quirky sub-characters who weaved magic in just a scene or dialogue and then you have a film like Makal where so many characters walk in and out unnoticed. Anthikad’s obsession with patriarchy was evident in Bhagyadevatha, Innathe Chintha Vishayam, Rasathanthram, or Snehaveedu.
Fazil wisely went into hibernation after consecutively terrible films like Kaiyethum Doorathu, Vismayathumbathu, Moz and Cat and Living Together.
While writer-director Renji Panicker beat a hasty retreat after the colossal mess of a film called King and Commissioner and accepted that his writing no longer sells in the current scenario, Ranjith also slowed down, perhaps taking heart from the dismal show of his last two films (Drama and Puthan Panam).
Though Shaji Kailas’s big comeback, Kaduva was a commercial success, the film if you notice, was set back in time, perhaps acknowledging the director’s incapacity to create a world absorbing the nuances and politics of the current period. Shaji Kailas who left the scene when his much-feted alpha male narratives turned stale, recreates the familiar alpha male hero template in Kaduva. Everything is familiar, including the staging, formula, hero, antagonist, regressive politics, stereotypical women and foreseeable conflicts. The action set pieces are boringly staged and the fact that the film came at a time when the audience perhaps was looking for a welcome detour from realistic films might have worked in Kaduva’s favour.
Looks like Roshan Andrews is already on his way to joining the club if the recent backlash to his film Saturday Night is anything to go by. A willingness to learn, unlearn and evolve can be a solution. That or rest on their laurels. But then not even Mohanlal is able to dodge that "vintage" trap anymore.