Heading to the Oscars, a Kerala story of survival
2018 is different in form and scale from both the loud South Indian blockbusters such as RRR and the low-key Malayalam New Wave cinema
The selection of 2018 as India’s Oscar entry comes at a challenging moment for the Malayalam film industry. Director Jude Anthany Joseph’s tale of how the people of Kerala came together for each other during the floods that ravaged the state five years ago is not a sample of the subtle, slice-of-life storytelling for which Malayalam cinema is respected nationwide. It is more akin to a Hollywood-style disaster drama. Still, the Film Federation of India’s decision to enter 2018 in the race for the Best International Feature Oscar 2024 is a welcome nod to this film industry that for decades has been admired by film festival-goers across India, and in recent years, has grabbed the spotlight in mainstream arenas outside Kerala.
The road to 2018’s box-office success is worthy of its own documentary. The film had generated pre-release buzz over its huge ensemble cast including top-rung stars and its choice of theme in a country where commercial filmmakers usually avoid current events for fear of controversy. Then, a serendipitous turn of events – read: The Hindi film, The Kerala Story (TKS) releasing on the same date — gave 2018 a promotional push that no money can buy. TKS had already made news with its trailer falsely alleging that thousands of Malayali women have been cajoled and coerced to embrace Islam and ISIS, and its portrayal of Kerala as an Islamist terror hub. The ruling party at the Centre supported it, while the state government condemned it. Angry liberals in southern India found a rallying point in 2018 with its account of amity and courage among Malayalis, and they swamped social media with conversations describing 2018 as “The Real Kerala Story”. Viewers were also impressed by 2018’s scale and VFX which were unusual for the Malayalam industry, which operates on minuscule budgets compared to the Telugu, Tamil and Hindi industries. These factors drew people in droves to theatres, turning 2018 into Malayalam cinema’s biggest hit to date and one of 2023’s highest-grossing Indian films with reported collections of ₹200 crore worldwide.
Notwithstanding its earnings, 2018 is far from being the best or bravest film to come from Kerala in recent years. The director Jude’s own previous release, Sara’s (2021), in which he batted for a woman’s right to an abortion, was among the deluge of Malayalam films that reached OTTs from 2020 to 2022 during the pandemic and were embraced by non-Malayalam-speaking audiences and critics. As restrictions eased and footfalls gradually increased in theatres in 2022, Nna Thaan Case Kodu and Malayankunju garnered packed halls outside Kerala. Malayalam cinema’s raised profile with these films during the Covid-19 years had been a long time coming.
Up to the first decade of the 2000s, if you lived in north India, accessing cinema in Indian languages other than Hindi was a challenge. Conventional wisdom in the exhibition sector dictated that non-Hindi-speaking Indians were interested in Hindi cinema in addition to films in their respective mother tongues, and that the Hindi belt was interested only in Hindi. This meant that cinephiles keen to explore works in all languages were reliant on film festivals and Doordarshan. Malayalam cinema, meanwhile, had undergone dramatic transformations. The New Wave of the 1970s and 1980s, marked by naturalism and rootedness, had given way to the 1990-2010 phase dominated by larger-than-life, aggressively masculinist cinema.
In the early 2010s, cinema enthusiasts looking for a break from the decibels and clichés of the previous two decades came upon an emerging generation of filmmakers creating a more muted, middle-of-the-road, inexpensive cinema entrenched in Malayali culture. Bangalore Days (2014) and Premam (2015) were the first from this new New Wave to make a mark at the box-office outside South India. By the time Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016), Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), Angamaly Diaries (2017) and Kumbalangi Nights (2019) arrived, Malayalam cinema had become a national talking point with its attractive realism, boldness and ability to spot extraordinariness in mundanities. The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), for instance, was set entirely amidst the drudgery of a woman’s domestic chores, and from that everydayness, it delivered a stinging indictment of patriarchy while also critiquing the ban on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple.
It is important to distinguish between these Malayalam films and the south Indian quartet that became pan-India blockbusters in theatres while Hindi films struggled to get viewers in 2021-22: Pushpa: The Rise (Telugu), RRR (Telugu), KGF2 (Kannada) and Kantara (Kannada). First, unlike the Malayalam films under discussion, these four were big-budget extravaganzas that lionised their leading men and were released in multiple dubbed versions along with the original. Second, for an illustrative comparison of the economics involved, note that ₹6.5 crore was spent on Kumbalangi Nights and trade reports say it earned ₹39 crore, whereas Pushpa reportedly cost ₹200 crore and had collected ₹365 crore by the time it began streaming online. Interestingly, the Malayalam industry too churns out a fair share of noisy, machoistic films, but those have gone unnoticed beyond the state. 2018 falls at a midpoint between this loud commercial fare and the low-key cinema that Kerala is identified with.
2023 has been a year of reckoning, with theatres recalibrating themselves to the changes presumably wrought by Covid-19 on audience mindsets. Malayalam filmmakers are now torn between opposing pulls: On the one side is their reputation as creators of small, thoughtful entertainers, on the other side is the theory among exhibitors countrywide that people will now buy tickets only to witness flamboyance on screen. Even the box-office gains made by some Malayalam films in the past decade have not convinced theatre owners that the risk in picking up a big film is no less than the risk in picking up a small film since an audience is not guaranteed for either, whereas incessantly showcasing small films could serve to gradually further expand their theatrical viewership. 2018’s box-office collections and Oscar selection have thus come at a crucial juncture for the Malayalam industry as it determines its path in the post-pandemic era.
Anna MM Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. The views expressed are personal