Fifty years is a good period for any medium to find its place in a cultural context. Malayalam Cinema, undoubtedly, has been deeply rooted in the Kerala milieu and has become part of its pride, during the last half-century. Like in literature, the Malayalis have come to take the creative avenues opened up by the cinema, in all its seriousness. Whether it is down-to-earth commercial films or serious creative work, the Malayali is forced to gauge it through the aesthetic sense, which his cultural heritage has given him.
In fact, this explains the various trends in Malayalam films, which is characterising the Malayalam Cinema in its 50th year. Today, there are two clear-cut trends in the film scene of Kerala. One, which swears by the profit margin at any cost and the other, which struggles to get national and international attention through its creative and aesthetic excellence. Fortunately for Malayalam Cinema and also for the Indian Cinema, both the trends are almost equally strong. Outside Kerala too, Malayalam films are known for its "sexiness" as well as creative merits, reflecting both the two strong trends of film-making.
It is interesting to know how this clear-cut division has come about. The "sex wave" in the North Indian Cinemas was pioneered by the Malayalam films. The initial trend was that of a commercially unsuccessfuly Malayalam film getting sold to someone for a paltry sum for distribution outside Kerala territory. The distributor/exhibitor then interpolates the films with what the 'masses' are starved of and sells it in the theatres of a not-so-familiar milieu. This, of course, proved to be very successful and leading to a rash of all such Malayalam films, which even the Keralites did not have the "luck" to appreciate. All these happened in the late' seventies side by side, with the onslaught or the formula-ridden trash films.'
On the other hand, the strong Film Society Movement, combined with the equally strong literary traditions and socio-political awareness threw up large number of youngsters into the field of film-making. When Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan started their career in films, they were dealing with an audience whose basic aesthetic experience was that centuries' old sanskritised literature.
But today the same film-makers are being appreciated by an audience, which gets to see the best of world films through their film societies. So much so, both Adoor and Aravindan, the two names, which are synonymous with the best films of Kerala, do not have any problems with the box-office returns of their films. Aravindan's Chidambaram (1985) had fetched the distributor as much as Rs. 20 lakhs as profit within six months of its release in Kerala.
Even if one leaves aside the totally-committed creative film-makers like Adoor and Aravindan, the large number of middle-runners like Bharatan, Satyan Anthicad, Priyadarsan and Balachandra Menon, who ate basically a mix of the Film Institute graduates and film society products vie with each other to get into the category called the "Indian Panorama" section of the International Film Festival of India. In Kerala, if anybody in the film-making scene has to be taken seriously, he or she has to be a "Panorama" film-maker or a winner of the State or National awards. Entry into the Panorama, ensures the return of the investment through national television's "idiot-box", makes the film and film-maker a household name and raises the film-maker to the category of creative artist. Some even go to the extent of calling these films as made out of the "Panorama" formula.
If one looks at the creative film-making scene of Kerala, this seems to be the dominant trend today.
In fact, for the last many years, the Malayalam Cinema had shocked the IFFI audiences with its overwhelming presence in the "Panorama" section. So much so, this year the non-inclusion of two films by two serious film-makers into the "Panorama" section has created a serious controversy.
The strong literary base of the films has more or less declined though film-makers continue to make films based on short stories rather than on novels of eminent writers. This year itself two films, Rugmmini (1989) by K P Kumaran, based on Kamala Das's short story and Kadaltheerathu (1988) by Rajeev Nath based on O.V. Vijayan's story, have been completed and noted for their aesthetic merits. The predominant elements seems to be those of filmy situations and historic aspects. There were two films which got noted nationally this year in this category- Orethooval Pakshikal (Birds of the Same Feather) by Raveendran and 1921 by I.V. Sasi. While Raveendran's film is a marxist interpretation of the early trade union movement in the plantations of Malabar, Sasi has based his film on the great "Mappila (Moplah) Rebellion", the first great independence struggle of Kerala.