Posters of the films KL10 Pathu, Thallumala, and Puzhu
I was on my usual midnight meander through the various OTT platforms. At Sony Liv, I was struck by a Malayalam movie with an interesting name. A name that reminded me of the eternal Vaikom Muhammed Basheer. Katina Katoramee Andakadaham. (The Tough and Cruel Universe, to translate it miserably). The director’s name was Muhashin. Never heard of either the film or its maker. I regretted how uninformed I was about the NewGen Malayalam cinema despite my belief that I continued to be a serious student of films. However, I thought a director who dared to take a name connected to a Basheerian coinage would be interesting. Seeing Basil Joseph’s face as the protagonist was another draw, as I loved his performance in many recent movies and thought he was easily one of our best.
The best thing about watching movies on OTT is, as you all know, to quit whenever you want and return whenever you please. I’m sure all OTT buffs would have more half-watched stuff on their account than those you sat through till the end. But the film -KKA for short- did not make me go even for a pee break. It surpassed all my expectations. Haven’t seen many movies like this in recent times that excelled in every department of the work. Besides the flawless direction, KKA was perfect in its script, plot, narration, visualisation, acting, camera, editing, and music. Hard to believe that it was the debut film of the director.
It tells a gripping tale of how Covid, the gravest episode in humanity’s recent history, has turned upside down the lives, relations, dreams, and values of the ordinary folk in a seaside fishing village of Kerala. Thus it becomes an experiential document of numerous villages around the world caught in the vortex of the pandemic. Like every great work of art, it is simultaneously local as well as universal in its sensibility. It can indeed be counted as a humble contemporary Malayali contribution to the pantheon of creative works in history triggered by cataclysmic events like pandemics, wars, and other disasters. Another narrative track also chronicles Malayali youth’s evolution from their “Gulf-only dream” to an awareness of its underbelly and the gradual assumption of a new self-confidence to build their lives within their villages, despite all the persisting challenges.
The young Bachu or Bashiruddeen, belonging to a lower-middle-class family of Kallayi, struggles to make his dream of becoming a businessman. It’s Covid time, and he attempts trading in “pandemic goods'' like facemasks, etc., but he usually comes a cropper. Yet he keeps striving against the advice of his family and friends to go to Gulf to seek a job. Bachu insists he wouldn’t go because he has seen his father, who spent his entire life toiling in the desert lands, yet could barely keep his family from starvation. Bachu’s father, the family’s only stable earning member, suddenly dies in the Gulf of a heart attack, devastating the family. They get traumatised further by the enormous difficulties of getting the dead body airlifted due to the restrictions related to the pandemic. As the eldest son in the family, Bachu bears most of the brunt but finally manages to sail through the choppy days with grit and the support of his friends and others in the village.
As much as it is on the devastating pandemic, KKA is a story of ordinary people who held hands together firmly to help each other to fight and survive. Exactly as Kerala did in reality. Rising above graphic documentation of the predicament, it tells a human story through emotions and sensitivity. The film’s Basheerian name is intentional. Muhashin traverses the same path as the great author who explored life’s dark interiors with an unwavering sense of humour. Basil brilliantly personifies this sardonic spirit with his skills to essay humour and pathos with amazing ease. Much credit for the movie also goes to the writer Harshad PK, the brilliant scripter of Unda and Puzhu.
The understated politics that animate the film subtly and discreetly appear most relevant to our times. It is not party politics but the politics of love, unity, diversity, and equality at a time when religion, caste, and patriarchy poison even the most unlikely minds.
Now, let me indulge in some religious talk. A renaissance is distinctly visible among Kerala’s Muslim community, at least for a decade. It is powerfully present both in the economic and cultural spheres. Highly talented young men and women from the community have come to occupy the top lines of both academics and cinema. They populate the rows of Malayalam’s best actors, directors, camerapersons, editors, scripters, lyricists, etc. Most of them are friends and work together in various roles in their films. They have been passionate about the art form and grew up spending numerous nights and days at film festivals watching, debating, and finally attempting cinema. They are moving the headquarters of Malayalam’s new-gen cinema northward from Kochi. Or perhaps, they bring in pleasant decentralisation in the Malayalam industry.
Films like Kismat (Shanavas Bavakkutty, 2016), Sudani From Nigeria (Zakariya Muhammad, 2018), Halal Love Story (Zakariya Muhammed, 2020), Thallumala (Khalid Rahman, 2022) belong to this genre. Directors and scripters like Harshad PK (Unda 2019, Puzhu 2022, KKA 2023), Muhsin Parari (KL 10 Pathu, 2016, Virus 2019, Sudani, Tallumala), Ashraf Hamza (Tamasha, 2019, Bheemante Vazhi, 2021) producers Ashiq Usman (Tallumala), Naisam Salam (KKA) and many others are the harbingers of this new spring. Muhashin also joins this league after assisting Zakariya, Hamsa, and Rosshan Andrrews. Though this genre could be called the Malappuram New Wave, it does not mean all its members are from Malappuram or Muslims. Many artists and technicians who are neither from the district nor are Muslims indeed belong to this talented troop. More than its geographical connotation, Malappuram need be taken only as the metaphorical name of the new wave, and the sensibility and politics emanate from their works.
Remarkably, their works uniformly and aesthetically remind us of the need to stand united at a time when religious fundamentalism begets hatred of those from other communities. At the same time, it attempts to demolish the manufactured Good Muslim /Bad Muslim binary and the traditional stereotype Muslim of Malayalam cinema with his arappatta, kallimundu, vattathadi, and thoppi also talks in a distorted Eranadan tongue even if he is from Thiruvithamkoor! No othering nor exoticizing. They are as normal as anybody else, with both good and bad sides. These movies boldly call out the growing demons inside the Muslim community in the form of fundamentalism or misogyny. I heard that director Ashiq Abu criticised the “politics of identity cinema” that emerged from Malabar. But dismissing the possibilities of problematization from within religious identity would be shortsighted.
The sounds, smells, and symbols of Malappuram, Kannur, or Kasaragod are powerfully challenging Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi, which had been the capitals of Malayalam cinema. As Muhsin Parari, who pens lyrics in the name of Mu Ri, put it succinctly in an interview, “ I have two slogans to make. Maya is the synonym for Mazha and not a distortion. Secondly, Sama Gama and Sama Garima which stand for equality”.
This could be the leitmotif for the Malappuram New Wave, which celebrates Kerala’s inclusive and pluralistic ethos. That is the genuine Kerala Story and the fitting reply to the fekus.