I like art films. There was no other way. My first movie in a theatre was ‘Vaishali’, a Bharatan classic, in a theatre in Ernakulam which I sat though at the age of four without an inkling of what was going on. I only remember all the people in the movie dancing in the rain towards the end for some incomprehensible reason. Imagine a 4-year old watching a movie about a courtesan seducing a sage. I had no choice but to live up to a start to my movie watching career like that.
I know that it has become very uncool to like art movies. Every second blogger these days is writing about how he/she loves the masala films of Bolly/Kolly/Tolly wood, how it is better and more entertaining than the depressing art-house movies. It’s a far cry from the 80’s and 90’s when you were looked down upon if you professed a love for masala films. The in thing then was to comment on the movies of Ray and Kurosawa. It didn’t matter whether you actually saw their movies, but you had to know those names and more importantly, let others know that you knew.
That does not mean that I don’t like mainstream movies. I thoroughly enjoy movies like Chak De, for instance. All I expect from a movie is a little bit of intelligence to keep me engaged. Whether it is an art-house or Bollywood movie, as long as the director gives me that, I embrace the movie with all my heart. In spite of maintaining such low standards of acceptability, I find that very few movies manage to get my embrace. And more often than not, I’ve found that it’s the art movies that have given me something to think about.
Malayalis have been lucky in one respect – we’ve had higher than average number of intelligent movies and directors giving us intelligent movies compared to most other Indian languages. But we’ve been losing many of the good filmmakers and the standards of Malayalam movies have gone down drastically. While I’m happy to see that the quality of the Bollywood films have been steadily increasing (Lagaan, Swades, Rang De Basanti, Chak De, Munnabhai, etc.), the quality of the Malayalam movies have gone down.
The golden age of Malayalam films was the 80s and early 90s with directors like Bharatan, Padmarajan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, K G George, etc turning out movies of outstanding artistic quality. Most of these movies were special in that they were commercial successes too. Padmarajan, Aravindan and Bharatan are no more, all of them dying within the space of a few years, all of them in their prime – perhaps the biggest blow that Malayalam movie industry has had. Adoor is not exactly a prolific filmmaker, so he cannot fill the void left by them. Other directors who showed some promise before are making barely watchable movies nowadays.
My angst about the direction of Malayalam film industry reached new heights last time when I was in Kerala. I watched about 10 movies in the space of 10 days I was in Kerala. Their quality ranged from the absolutely unwatchable to the brilliant. Needless to say, the good movies were all made at least 10 years ago except for one (Kazhcha by Blessy who, interestingly, is Padmarajan’s protégé). Kadhaparayumbol, written by Srinivasan, was a good movie. But like many Srinivasan scripts, it ends up being too preachy. Flash was an absolute disaster. Who would have thought that a filmmaker like Sibi Malayil, who showed so much promise with his earlier films, would end up dishing out such wholesome crap?
Luckily, I was able to catch 4 Padmarajan movies during this time - Aparan, Kariyila Kaattupole, Thoovanathumbikal and Njan Gandharvan, which only served to emphasise what we are missing nowadays. It sounds so incredible when we think that 15 years back, if you dropped into any cinema at random, there was a more than high probability that the movie would be a great one. People had started taking good cinema for granted.
Whenever I see a Malayalam movie nowadays, it is not with any expectations of seeing something brilliant. It is more like doing my bit to keep the industry going so that some day, from some corner, a new filmmaker will arise and remind us of the movies that made us laugh, cry and, more importantly, think.