Why Malayalam cinema speaks in English

It’s really funny — all the five Malayalam films released in Kerala today have English titles: Celluloid, Cowboy, Houseful, Black Butterfly and Breaking News!

Along with a breed of young and irreverent film-writers and directors, who have been credited with a genre of “new generation cinema”, this is a trend that marks contemporary Malayalam films.

The alien language, however, indicates nothing — it has both good and bad films, and hits and flops. Many of them are utterly unwatchable too.

The English titles are predictable for the so-called “new generation” films.

The English titles are predictable for the so-called “new generation” films.

For a language, that has an impeccable record of high quality native literature and cinema, the obsession with strange titles appears weird and beggars common sense. The names of some of the biggest hits in 2012 went like this: Ordinary, Spirit, Diamond Necklace, Ustad Hotel, Run Baby Run, Husbands in Goa, Molly Aunty Rocks and My Boss. And the flops: Spanish Masaala, Naughty Professor, Snake and Ladder, Masters, Outsider, Friday and so on.

Veteran film journalist and industry-tracker Sreedhar Pillai feels that this year the number of English titles will go up to 60 percent from about half in 2012. A retired college professor in Kochi had a tough time convincing her visiting relative that the films that she had collected for her were indeed in Malayalam, and some of them were watchable.

What is happening to Malayalam cinema which was once well-known for its substance and international acclaim?

Confusion? Identity crisis? Demographic transition? Or mere superstition?

Or all the three?

The English titles are predictable for the so-called “new generation” films, which are largely lifts from overseas movies that are easily available on pirated DVDs. Since the ideas, frames and even lifestyles depicted are lifted, it’s natural to complete the theft with English titles.

It’s puzzling indeed that even some of the well-trained technicians, who make interesting and successful mainstream movies, have also fallen for English titles. For instance, Lal Jose, one of the top-shot directors in the state, made two movies in 2012 and both were titled in English: Spanish Masaala and Diamond Necklace. One was an unwatchable dud while, the other, a successful urban digital flick set in Dubai.

Another well-made and original movie by a promising director, Anwar Rasheed, that became a super hit also had an English title — Ustad Hotel. The lead actor of the movie had debuted earlier in the year with a film titled Second Show. The other superhits of the year included titles such as Ordinary, Run Baby Run, 22 Female Kottayam and so on.

Nobody knows why this obsession. One possible reason could be that the state’s film industry, both the young and the old, is trying to survive by following the “new generation” formula.

In the recent past, the state has seen a deluge of such DVD-inspired new directors that reminds one of Lagos in Nigeria.The possibility of shooting with digital cameras and minimum technical paraphernalia have democratised the medium and has led to a flood of the new breed. Gonzo style shooting, desktop post-production and digital distribution have further reduced costs and financial risks. The satellite TV market ensured that most of them got back at least three-fourth of their cost even if they are washed out in theatres.

Some of them have created instant careers for themselves with totally unoriginal films, which however appeared new and trendy to the state’s youth, who are coming to terms with shopping malls, branded food, multiplexes and flash-mobs. Some TV anchors have added to the cultural confusion by misleading them with a fake language that is neither Malayalam nor English, but capable of kindling their big city aspirations.

If one unpacks the “new generation cinema”, the most common ingredients are lifted plots, English titles, a new set of young actors, hybrid-language, new technicians, digital production and a host of ready-made special effects.

In an industry which otherwise was struggling with a success rate of barely 10 percent, the hit rate of the new generation was an inspiring business-model. While some of the old guard could successfully copy the new model, including their production values, overall cultural feel, attempted English dialogues and even the fake diction, many others ended up with bad imitations. However all of them succeeded in the most common element - English titles such as “I Love Me”.

In contrast, in the neighbouring Tamil Nadu, even the most flamboyant directors prefer Tamil titles because the government gives them tax-relief. A few years ago, there was indeed a tendency to title them in English to sound trendy, but perhaps sensing it early, the DMK government announced a tax-waiver. Even some of the ready-to-release films then had switched to Tamil names because the sop was substantial.

Perhaps Malayalam cinema will go through the same curve. But one wonders if an otherwise broke state government can afford to let go of the entertainment tax.

LIVE