Best Mollywood Films 2019: Kumbalangi Nights, Virus, Unda and more in perhaps the best year ever for God’s Own Cinema
This is a list of the best films in what has been a fabulous year for the film industry headquartered in Kerala.
Ever since I began compiling an annual list of Best Malayalam/Mollywood Films earlier this decade, I have received feedback from at least a couple of readers each year asking me to avoid the term “Mollywood”. I have addressed their recurring critique in a footnote to this list of best films in what has been a fabulous year for the film industry headquartered in Kerala.
BEST MOLLYWOOD FILMS:
1: Kumbalangi Nights
Patriarchy is self-destructive insanity in director Madhu C. Narayanan’s magical Kumbalangi Nights written by Syam Pushkaran. The story of four brothers who make peace with each other despite long-standing differences is the most entertaining sociology lesson on Kerala that you could ask for.
If you put a gun to my head, I still could not tell you what I love most about this film: the incredible cast or its incredible humour, the romance of Bonny and Nylah playing in the kavaru (sea sparkle) one night, Fahadh Faasil yelling out the self-affirming line, “Shammy hero aada! Hero!” or sweet, curly-haired Anna Ben as Babymol fantasising about Bobby with this sentence spoken in her sing-song accent accompanied by a signature Malayali head tilt, “Bobby and Baby – those names would look so good on a wedding card, would they not?” But wait, there is also the sensitivity with which mental health and therapy are portrayed, Sushin Shyam’s music, Shyju Khalid’s cinematography and... And... And…
This genre-defying film rightfully earned a pan-India audience in theatres, surmounting all the hurdles placed in the path of non-Hindi cinema by the exhibition sector’s biases and inefficiencies. Kumbalangi Nights is not just the best Malayalam film of 2019, it ranks among the best Indian films ever made.
Aashiq Abu’s Virus painstakingly chronicles Kerala’s encounter with the deadly Nipah last year. The successful containment of the outbreak had earned the state government accolades from global experts, but Abu does not confine his tribute to politicians and bureaucrats. Virus is a hosanna and a salaam to every seemingly minor cog in the wheel, every healthcare worker and ordinary citizen who stepped up in an emergency, every individual whose humanity helped curtail a tragedy.
Abu redefined the adjective “star-studded" when he convinced Parvathy, Revathy, Tovino Thomas, Kunchacko Boban, Rima Kallingal, Asif Ali, Joju George, Indrajith Sukumaran, Soubin Shahir and Sreenath Bhasi among others to join his film without a care for the size of their respective roles. The constellation of famous faces in big, small and even tiny parts in Virus serves to underline the crucialness of the numerous known and unknown soldiers in this real-life battle against a killer disease. As much a thrilling procedural as a life-affirming socio-political commentary, the film even finds time to subtly skewer Islamophobia and a troublemaking Central government.
Virus is like nothing we have seen before in Malayalam cinema or for that matter Indian cinema at large.
If “unique” did not have synonyms, it would be repeated throughout this write-up, because uniqueness is what Mollywood turned out month after month in 2019. In Jallikattu, the beast within men surfaced as an entire village gave chase to a buffalo gone berserk. Director Lijo Jose Pellissery blended the pounding of the animal’s hooves with the bloodcurdling yells of its human predators and every breath taken by every individual in the film to create an unprecedented percussion ensemble in one of the most striking cinematic indictments of patriarchy you could possibly (not) imagine.
If you grew up admiring Mammootty’s acting genius and then despaired as he began to favour a brand of loud, misogynistic, cliché-ridden Malayalam cinema, 2019 is a salve for your wounds. After a stunning performance in the heart-rending Tamil film Peranbu, acclaim for his work in Yatra (Telugu) and an endearing goofiness in the not-quite-as-bad-as-most-of-his-comedies-these-days Madhuraraja (Malayalam), Mammukka gave us Unda. In this Malayalam-Hindi film, he plays a senior policeman who is at sea when he is tasked with heading a Kerala Police squad on election duty in violence-torn regions of north India.
There are few greater pleasures in life than watching a superstar cede his star persona to a role. Khalidh Rahman’s Unda returned our old Mammukka to us, an artiste willing to be vulnerable on screen, reminding us of the best that he has been and still can be. It is also a beautiful film.
If Kumbalangi Nights had been the only positive thing that happened to him in 2019, this would still have been a wonderful year for debutant Mathew Thomas who played Kumbalangi’s little Franky. But young Mr Thomas learnt that when it rains great roles it often pours as he followed that up with Jaison from Thanneermathan Dinangal (Watermelon Days). Girish A.D.’s omana coming-of-age teen saga also featured Udaharanam Sujatha’s Anaswara Rajan as the friendly schoolmate Keerthy who Jaison falls for.
Beyond its innocent charm, Thanneermathan Dinangal is a telling comment on how, despite extreme gender segregation, a decent boy might rise above his social conditioning and behave around a girl he likes. With the song Jaathikkathottam (Nutmeg Groves) picturised on the two leads, the film also gets the distinction of finally giving the world a worthy rival to the wooing skills of strawberries and roses.
Despite being a centre of great cinema, Mollywood continues to have very few leading roles for women. Manu Ashokan’s Uyare gave Parvathy an opportunity to seal her position as one of this industry’s finest while playing an acid-attack survivor who does not succumb to depression and despair. Tovino Thomas gets to be the heroine’s loveable ally in this film, while Asif Ali turns out a career-defining performance as a man venting his insecurities on his girlfriend. Together they weave a story of optimism snatched from the jaws of tragedy.
Vinay Forrt offers a masterclass in acting while playing a Malayalam professor with a complex about his premature baldness in Thamaasha. When Forrt’s Sreenivasan meets an overweight young woman called Chinnu (played by newcomer Chinnu Chandni) he discovers true friendship along with his own deep-seated prejudices. Director Ashraf Hamza makes no bones about the message he means to send out, but he does so through a film so pleasant and understated that you may not even notice.
What Thanneermathan Dinangal is to Mathew Thomas, Helen is to Anna Ben: a fantastic second film for a youngster having an already fantastic year as a debutant from Kumbalangi Nights. Director Mathukutty Xavier’s Helen belongs to the survival thriller genre, and uses the tension in its frames to highlight multiple social prejudices. When a woman goes missing, how should the police react? Now guess how they react when she happens to be our heroine, a Christian woman with a Muslim boyfriend, a working woman with an irregular schedule that keeps her out of the house at hours that are deemed unacceptable by conservatives.
The big surprise of Helen is Aju Varghese playing a creepy policeman, a role and spot-on performance that are a sharp contrast to his track record as a comedian in both funny and crass films. Anna Ben, of course, is spotless as the titular heroine, and ends 2019 etched in the public consciousness as the admirable Helen we worry for as much as the equally admirable, fiery Babymol from Kumbalangi.
Kollywood, Tollywood and Bollywood operate with a fraction of the budgets available to Hollywood filmmakers. Mollywood has even less money than India’s Big Three, yet somehow this industry comes up with some of the best cinematography the country has to offer and in the case of Android Kunjappan Version 5.25, an impressive looking little robot. The machine is the Kunjappan of the title, a companion that a son builds for his father when circumstances force him to seek a job in another country leaving the old man behind in their home village.
The robot maybe the USP of Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval’s film, but is never a distraction from its core concerns about children who are committed to their parents but want a life of their own too and the challenges involved in care-giving for the elderly in India. Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 does something unusual for Indian cinema and the popular public discourse: it does not romanticise the parent-child relationship, it portrays a selfish parent, and it does not demonise a child for resenting that selfishness. Yet it gets us to like both men.
Topping the film’s many positives are solid performances by Suraj Venjaramoodu and Soubin Shahir as the Dad and son, along with the ever reliable Saiju Kurup and Arunachali newcomer Zirdo.
10: Driving Licence
Hell hath no fury like a fan scorned, as Prithviraj Sukumaran’s Hareendran discovers when he antagonises his die-hard devotee Kuruvilla played by Suraj Venjaramoodu. Hareendran is a superstar who wants a new driver’s licence, Kuruvilla is a motor vehicle inspector, and from their clash follows a rollercoaster ride through fan and media frenzy, star arrogance and a common person’s bruised ego. Both leading men never set a foot wrong in Lal Jr’s unexpectedly rewarding film that is part thriller, part social saga and all parts lots of fun.
Because 10 is too small a limit in such a fabulous year:
FOOTNOTE ABOUT THE TERM MOLLYWOOD:
Over the years, some readers have urged me to not use the word Mollywood for the Kerala-based primarily Malayalam language industry. I would like to discuss why I persist with it.
To those who say Mollywood is a derivative term subordinating the Malayalam film industry to Bollywood, I must point out that Mollywood is not derived from Bollywood. All the nicknames used by the press and public for India’s film industries – Mollywood, Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, Sandalwood and so on – are drawn from Hollywood. A reader once told me she has no problem with “Bollywood” but objects to “Mollywood”. This I cannot understand. Either you object to all these derivative labels or none at all. If you object to all, I completely get where you are coming from, but do note my reasons for continuing to use them at least for now.
First, “Bollywood” has served as great national and international branding for the Indian film industry headquartered in Mumbai that makes films mostly in Hindi, with very very occasional forays into Haryanvi, English and other languages. Whenever I speak to my counterparts in the foreign press, I find a majority of them are not even aware that India makes films other than the ones coming from Shah Rukh Khan’s city. While this is primarily due to the extreme pro-Hindi, pro-Bollywood bias of India’s own supposedly ‘national’ newspapers and TV channels based in Delhi and Mumbai that amplify Bollywood’s works while largely ignoring India’s other film industries, another factor is branding. The term “Bollywood” is catchy. As long as the ‘national’ media’s bias remains, my personal choice is to do everything in my power as an individual to give high visibility to films from India’s other industries, because like most cinephiles, I am keen that the films I love get as wide a national and global audience as possible.
Second, as Indian cinema evolves, these terms have become useful in another way. Unlike Bollywood cinema whose characters almost invariably speak Hindi and at a stretch, English but no other Indian language irrespective of which part of India or the world they are situated in, Mollywood has been adventurous with language. Increasingly, I am afraid, a certain section of Mollywood has also been treating Hindi as a signifier of coolth and using it even where it is not necessary or relevant – in the way English was once viewed by Bollywood – but that is a separate discussion. Back to the subject at hand, the 2017 film Tiyaan, which revolved around a community of Malayalis living in Uttar Pradesh, was – as it would be in real life – equal parts Malayalam and Hindi with even some Sanskrit dialogues included in the mix. In this year’s lovely Mammootty-starrer Unda, when a posse from the Kerala Police travelled on election duty to Hindi belt states, what we were given was a natural mix of Malayalam, Hindi and a few other tongues. To describe either of these as “Malayalam films” would be inaccurate. Mollywood therefore is also an expedient term. (This applies to Bollywood too on the rare occasions when the quest for authenticity has spurred a director to favour a language other than Hindi.)
With no disrespect then to those who disagree, I intend to use “Mollywood” as long as there is a far bigger worry than a derivative term, that worry being the ‘national’ media barely acknowledging this industry. But the day Mohanlal and Manju Warrier, Parvathy and Fahadh Faasil become household names across India the way the Khans, Kapoors, Kaifs and Chopras of Bollywood are, I plan to invest time and energy in coining an alternative term. I promise.
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