Best Mollywood Films 2017: When stars took risks and experiments paid off
The Malayalam film industry a.k.a. Mollywood* has done itself proud in the year gone by. 2017 brought with it a stream of releases that conditioned viewers to expect the unexpected. A cancer diagnosis, a chain-snatching incident, gang wars in a small town – each of these themes was transformed into an inoffensively humorous full-length feature that defied cinematic conventions, as New Wave Malayalam filmmakers have been doing this past half decade or so.
Sadly, the worst of Malayalam cinema in 2017 scraped the bottom of the barrel and reached deep below it, with the horrifically misogynistic Chunkzz taking the cake, the bakery and the wheat field with it, and The Great Father going one worse with its distasteful swagger in a story of a serial child rapist. Fortunately, the best of Malayalam cinema in 2017 continued to raise the bar for Indian cinema across languages.
Here is a list of my favourites from among 2017’s Mollywood releases in theatres.
* (For a note about the use of the term Mollywood in this article, and the parameters on which this list is based, scroll to the bottom.)
BEST MOLLYWOOD FILMS:
Winner: Take Off
Editor Mahesh Narayanan made a confident directorial debut in 2017 with this film based on the true story of a group of Indian nurses holed up in a hospital in Tikrit in 2014, caught between Iraqi government forces and ISIS. Gender, religion, terrorism, diplomacy, mental health, poverty, unemployment, migration, violence – Take Off is packed with nuanced commentary on these and other issues, yet is far from being esoteric because it comes to us through the fictionalised story of one of the nurses, a highly relatable, incredibly tough woman called Sameera who is pregnant when her dire financial circumstances in Kerala drive her to accept a job in war-torn Iraq.
As is her wont, Malayalam cinema’s habitual shape shifter Parvathy (her adjective, not mine) loses herself to Sameera. Her faultless lead performance is bolstered by strong support from Kunchacko Boban, Fahadh Faasil and top-notch technical departments.
The beauty of Take Off was underlined by year-end with the Christmas release of the laughably unrealistic Hindi film Tiger Zinda Hai starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, inspired by the same episode in Tikrit. There is nothing like the sight of a well-muscled, well-oiled, shirtless Khan vanquishing ISIS fighters to appreciate Take Off’s maturity and low-key tone in a highly melodramatic real-life situation. As studies in understated realism go, Take Off is a double PhD.
First runner-up: Angamaly Diaries
Humour and bloodshed are a tricky combination, but director Lijo Jose Pellissery provides a smashing example of how to make the mix work in his Angamaly Diaries, a gritty saga of gang wars in Kerala’s Angamaly town. The film features 86 debutants delivering spot-on performances, delicious discussions on the local food, and chases to beat all bloodthirsty chases ever seen on screen.
My breath still stops at the memory of that final murderous scene with multiple characters running through a crowded street and houses and back on the street in the middle of a noisy church festival procession, all done in a seemingly endless 11-minute single take. The violence is unrelenting, so is the laughter, and miraculously enough, the blend does not jar, establishing Pellissery as one of the country’s foremost practitioners of black comedy.
Second runner-up: Udaharanam Sujatha
Phantom Praveen’s Udaharanam Sujatha (Example: Sujatha) is a remake of Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Hindi film Nil Battey Sannata and Tamil film Amma Kanakku, all three being the story of a housemaid who goes back to school to teach her school-going daughter an important life lesson. Class and gender dynamics are woven unobtrusively into an entertaining package that transitions smoothly and repeatedly from pathos to laughter and back.
Manju Warrier erases her naturally glamorous personality for the role, and breathes life into this quietly engaging cinematic reminder that we must never stop dreaming dreams for ourselves or assume that our journey has been pre-scripted and is therefore out of our hands.
Third runner-up: Kaadu Pookunna Neram
What happens when a potential oppressor wanders into the territory of the oppressed, and needs his possible victim’s help to escape? What happens when the captor becomes the captive? Dr Biju’s no-frills-attached Kaadu Pookunna Neram (When The Woods Bloom) raises these questions in the context of the equation between tribal communities and the state, through the story of a policeman and his colleagues who are sent deep into the jungles on assignment.
The cornerstone of Kaadu Pookunna Neram is that it couches its complex concerns in the simplest of terms, its pillars of strength are seemingly effortless yet captivating performances by Rima Kallingal and Indrans. M.J. Radhakrishnan’s unflashy cinematography effectively captures the apparent innocence of the magnificent forest landscape, and plays a crucial role in driving home the change in mood in that instant when the policeman (Indrajith Sukumaran) realises that he is now at the mercy of his prisoner. The moment comes as a jolt in this unexpectedly calm, temperate narrative about the inevitable conflict between humans who seek to control nature and those who see it as their friend.
Aashiq Abu’s epic tale of star-crossed lovers is a mood piece and an insightful take on friendship and romance. Its massive canvas and glossy production values lend it grandeur, yet it never loses sight of the intimate love story it tells.
The leads, newcomer Aishwarya Lekshmi and Tovino Thomas, are so endearing together, that it is impossible not to root for their characters individually and together. The two mark a sort of coming of age of coupledom in Malayalam cinema, with the woman and man being placed on a par in the relationship and with sex not being deemed a thunderous event, but a natural occurrence that does not merit drumbeats and bugle calls. Mayaanadhi (Mystic River) is also unique in the way it gives its heroine agency in every aspect of her life, does not gloss over her flaws yet has empathy for her, and portrays the man as being somewhat behind her in his views on relationships. The film looks spectacular but, more important, it is emotionally wrenching.
Mayaanadhi is the romance of the year gone by.
6: Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum
Trust director Dileesh Pothan to discover in a police station a microcosm of Kerala society and, in some ways, the world. Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Exhibits and the Eyewitness) spends much of its time cooped up in that setting, where a chain-thieving suspect played by Fahadh Faasil is being held, but it never feels claustrophobic. Despite its sense of humour, it never trivialises the underlying theme about our own role in the ‘system’ we constantly decry. And it sustains its realistic tone even through one of the best shot, best edited, best acted chase scenes you are ever likely to see on film.
Holding it all together are the fabulous quartet toplining the action: debutant Nimisha Sajayan, veterans Faasil, Suraj Venjaramoodu and Alencier Ley Lopez. Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is a rib tickler. It is also one of the most meaningful films to emerge from Mollywood in 2017.
7: Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela
A family’s struggle to cope with a beloved parent’s tryst with cancer becomes the unlikely setting for a comedy in writer-director Althaf Salim’s Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela (An Interval in the Land of Crabs). The film is funny yet never insensitive towards the patient or her illness. Rounding off this unique package is the sparkling chemistry among the actors playing the family members, including the cast’s star attraction Nivin Pauly – when we meet them in the film it feels like they have already spent a lifetime together.
The humour in this film is a clever ploy to distract viewers as we are drawn into its emotional wranglings, such that when that lump does arise in the throat and those teardrops do finally fall, they come as a total surprise. Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela is a richly rewarding examination of family and the fear of losing a loved one that hangs over all of us, even if we do not recognise or acknowledge it.
Prithviraj Sukumaran and debutant Durga Krishna embody yearning and pain in this story of a couple in love and separated by prejudice, her autocratic father and his interfering mother. He is a bright, adventurous, hearing-impaired young man in a Kerala town, the child of a Christian-Hindu marriage who dreams of building an airplane with his bare hands and having her by his side when he takes flight. She is a spirited youngster from a Hindu family that is financially better off than his, a student who is brave for her times yet hemmed in by the strictures placed on women in conservative societies.
Director Pradeep M. Nair’s Vimaanam is a lavishly shot, technically extravagant affair, that takes us back in time to the friendship of the couple’s youth, their romance and the cruelty that ultimately forced them apart. Nair’s achievement is that he makes their grief ours. Vimaanam is a poignant film that has left me with a niggling heartache that refuses to go away.
9: Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol
Family is again the fulcrum of Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol (When The Grapevines Sprout), a film about what happens in a home when a middle-aged patriarch takes his wife for granted as he deals with a mid-life crisis. Mohanlal and Meena are fine actors, and one of the particular joys of watching this film is that it marks the occasional break Lalettan takes from the sub-par projects he tends to favour these days. Unlike them, Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol is not loud or cringe-worthily sexist, nor is director Jibu Jacob painfully aware of the megastar presence he has managed to sign up.
The film no doubt operates within the patriarchal framework that commercial Mollywood tends to favour, yet it pushes the envelope within that restrictive space. This is a mellow, credible take on the pulls and pushes of family life, and a gentle reminder not to take our loved ones for granted.
Superstar Prithviraj Sukumaran in this film goes where most major Indian stars fear to tread: the horror genre. He and Priya Anand play a couple whose lives are cruelly disrupted when an ancient spirit enters their home in Ezra. Through the chills that the film offers, there is a larger point being made about forbidden love across the ages.
Indian directors rarely do spook flicks well, but debutant Jay K. manages to build up an air of intrigue and throws up genuine scares in Ezra without overdoing the clichés of the genre. The atmospherics in this film are first-rate, and the denouement deeply satisfying. The pleasure of watching a thriller is to have the bejeezus scared out of you. Ezra does that, and does it well.
This list has been drawn up based on the following parameters: the film under consideration should be a Mollywood production and it should have been released in theatres in the calendar year 2017. By Mollywood, I mean the Kerala-based industry that makes films primarily in Malayalam. There are those who think the nicknames Mollywood, Bollywood, Kollywood etc smack of condescension because they are derived from Hollywood and, in their opinion, thus imply that our cinema somehow ranks below the American film industry. I would like to clarify here that I disagree with them and that I use these terms purely for practical reasons, with no intent to be patronising.
The reason why I am making industry-wise “Best of 2017” lists rather than language-wise lists is because India’s film industries occasionally refuse to be bound by language. Tiyaan, for instance, despite being a Mollywood production, is a Malayalam-plus-Hindi film with additional dialogues in Sanskrit. Therefore, strictly speaking, a film such as Tiyaan could not be under consideration for a Best Malayalam Films compilation. On the other hand, it would be factually inaccurate to consider it for a Best Bollywood Films list, since it has not emerged from Bollywood i.e. the Mumbai-based industry that makes films primarily in Hindi.
This is not to suggest that language-wise lists could not or should not be made, but simply to inform readers of the parameters based on which the above list in particular has been made.
(A clarification to avoid confusion: Tiyaan has not made it to my pick of 2017’s Best Mollywood Films, I am simply using it as an example to illustrate a point here.)
Updated Date: Jan 08, 2018 11:52 AM