Such is the quality of Malayalam cinema that in the year-end race, it is safe to declare it the champion well in advance. The competition, in recent times, has always been for the second and third spots on the podium.
In the second year of the pandemic, the industry stood tall even as others only showed signs of welcoming fresh trends. They have a tough task to match the creativity and consistency of Mollywood.
Adapting to the pandemic was one of the biggest lessons learnt from the industry. Gems such as ‘Joji’, and ‘Aarkkariyam’ showed filmmaking with restrictions is a possible phenomenon.
The sheer amount of content creators from the state is astonishing. It helps that the industry doesn’t follow Bollywood’s factory-based method of producing films. Producers emphasise on the trust factor and self-aware directors collaborate with writers. Hence unique attempts such as ‘Nayattu’, ‘Sara’s’, ‘Kuruthi’, ‘Churuli’, ‘Chathur Mukham’, and ‘Kala’ indicate the value of exclusive writers.
The smartest writer was Jeethu Joseph, who aced the tricky job of making a compelling sequel to the cult classic ‘Drishyam’.
Fahadh Faasil’s versatility was on full display and the actor deserves the tag of the OTT star of the year. He made us uncomfortable with his dark portrayal of the titular character in ‘Joji’, Dileesh Pothan’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Fahadh then showed he is a master of method acting in Mahesh Narayanan’s Godfather-like gangster drama ‘Malik’.
The industry dared to explore themes less discussed. If the Ann Ben-starrer ‘Sara’s’ spurred debates on reproductive rights, ‘Nayattu’ and ‘Operation Java’ gave a fresh spin to popular ideas. Martin Prakkat’s tense thriller spoke of caste politics but it showed the police, the traditional hunters, being hunted for a crime. In the gripping ‘Operation Java’, the everyday lives of the cybercrime officers and the complicated cases bore equal importance.
The most-talked about Indian film was Jeo Baby’s ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’, which turned the food genre on its head and held a mirror up to the deep-seated patriarchy in society.
Even if biopics such as ‘Kurup’ and ‘Marakkar’ fell flat, the industry made a strong statement on helming ambitious projects with ‘Minnal Murali’. The enjoyable film tackles the superhero genre with simple humour and wacky ideas.
Don Palathara did wonders in the independent filmmaking zone. His one-take film ‘Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam’ was a superbly engaging and real take on relationships during lockdowns. His black and white project ‘Everything In Cinema’ addresses toxic masculinity with unconventional writing and the unique use of the camera.
After settling for mediocrity in 2020, Tamil cinema had an improved year. Caste was once again central to plots of films that won wide appreciation. ‘Mandela’ was a satire while ‘Karnan’, ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Madathy’ were hard-hitting.
It was encouraging to see a past master and an established director get back to form. Selvaraghavan was at his vintage self with the wacky and dark ‘Nenjam Marapathillai’ and Pa Ranjith pulled off an absorbing sports drama with ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’.
PS Vinothraj made a stunning debut with ‘Pebbles’, India’s official entry to the Oscars. The rural drama was a brutal and uncompromising take on poverty and patriarchy.
The big stars aren’t image-conscious anymore. Sivakarthikeyan played a straight-faced, boring yet honest hero in ‘Doctor’ and Silambarasan was more of a performer than a star in Venkat Prabhu’s thriller ‘Maanaadu’. Interestingly, an off-beat idea like black comedy and the time-loop concept, seen in the films respectively, struck a chord with the cine goers.
Not to forget, Vijay, the biggest of stars, collaborated with a new-generation director to taste success in ‘Master’.
The ever-loyal Telugu fans of ‘masala’ films ignored ordinary content to turn ‘Vakeel Saab’, ‘Uppenna’, ‘Krack’, ‘Akhanda’ and ‘Pushpa: The Rise’ into blockbusters. Shekhar Kammula’s highly-anticipated ‘Love Story’ was a mixed bag. The only mainstream film with substance was ‘Jati Ratnalu’.
One hopes that content-oriented, smaller gems such as ‘Cinema Bandi’ and ‘Skylab’ get the backing of the audience to bring balance in an industry that’s heavily lop-sided.