2016 wasn’t a great year for Malayalam cinema. Like Tamil cinema, it had quite a few promising projects which either turned out average or disappointing. In 2016, Malayalam filmmakers played a safe game with family dramas. Of course, they are great, among other Indian filmmakers, when it comes to making restrained inter-generational dramas. But, even the critically-acclaimed Malayalam films of 2016 had some dull cinematic moments. These films missed vitality or distinct energy.
From, Kammatipaadam to Guppy, Malayalam films certainly entertained in 2016. Alas, they may not be remembered five years or a decade down the line.
Here’s my selection of 8 Malayalam films released this year that were slightly better than the rest:
8. Jacobinte Swargarajyam
Vineeth Srinivasan’s Jacob’s Kingdom of Heaven is a finely wrapped family drama that stays in the middle ground between good and bad. Unlike Tamil or Telugu family entertainers, Malayalam filmmakers show great restraint in handling dramatic situations. Srinivasan excels on that front.
Yet, there’s something unconvincing (the logical gaps are glaring) or lacking in the script. Jacobinte Swargarajyam depicts the crisis faced by a Malayali family based in Dubai. The family stands together through a string of unfortunate events. Director Srinivisan’s realization of the characters was fine. Nivin Pauly and Lakshmi Ramakrishnan give stand-out performances.
My main issue was the glorification of life in Dubai. I have no problem with a film celebrating capitalism through the perspective of hard-working individuals. But, this film is more of an unabashed idealization than a mere celebration.
Oppam (aka Together) brings back the great director-actor duo Priyadarshan-Mohanlal. But, to my dismay, Oppam turned out an overstretched, average thriller. The film showcases the cat-and-mouse game between a visually impaired protagonist (Jayaraman) and a psychopathic murderer.
The narrative reminded me of the above average Memories and the very average Grandmaster. The presence of a visually-impaired hero provides enough room for thrills. And, Mohanlal delivers an exceptional performance as usual. Considering Priyadarshan’s recent flops, Oppam is among his better directed films.
But, the script isn’t challenging or original, as Priyadarshan claimed it to be. I read that Kamal Haasan might do a Tamil remake. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen.
Kammatipaadam’s first few minutes are sublime. Even though the events that unfold in these moments are mundane, it has a good visual design (especially the ‘Para Para’ song). Still, the 3-hour crime/drama didn’t feel like the ‘complex, trendsetting’ Malayalam cinema. Rajeev Ravi’s film tracks the history of violence in and around Ernakulam, a city whose lush green fields are slowly replaced with high-rise buildings. This bloody history is told through the perspective of youngsters Krishnan and his childhood friend Ganga. Kammatipaadam is well made with a brilliant performance from Vinayakan (as Ganga). But, the film doesn’t have many invigorating moments.
The visuals look stylish. Yet there are only few occasions that really grab your attention. The film was hailed for being pro-Dalit, although I found the Dalit reference to be very trivial. The Dalit issue was better approached in the Tamil political drama Madras. All in all, Kammatipaadam is worth watching. But it isn’t a masterpiece or a trendsetter.
‘Lackluster’ is the word that springs to mind when you think of Sameer Thahir’s Kali (aka Rage). It’s a romance/thriller with Dulquer Salmaan playing an angry young man Siddarth. And Premam-fame Sai Pallavi plays Siddarth’s beloved wife Anjali. The first half is full of light-hearted romance (tracing Siddarth and Anjali’s love story). Thahir also sets up the young guy’s anger management issues, which play a big role in the second half. Salmaan and Sai Pallavi, the reasons I watched this film, are excellent in their roles.
But, Thahir doesn’t come close to the brilliance and energy of his previous film Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi.
After all the cranky elements in the first half, he does a lot better in the gritty second half. The atmospheric tension is well crafted. It all leads to a good, raging climax. It’s definitely worth watching, if you’re fans of the two central actors.
4. Action Hero Biju
Abrid Shine’s Action Hero Biju is an anti-Singam or anti-Saamy police drama. There are no punch lines. No extravagant action scenes. The story just deals with day-to-day events in the life of sub-inspector Biju Paulose. Some of the cases he encounters are so petty (and inherently funny) that they break the mainstream cinematic image of police inspectors. Action Hero Biju is not a refreshing or deconstructed take on the life of police officers. It does incorporate mainstream narrative elements and falters with an erratic tone. Yet, what I liked about the film is director Shine’s attempt to showcase the police as a fellow human being rather than a fantastic hero.
Thanks to Nivin Pauly’s phenomenal performance, the film worked for me. In fact, the film was well cast. Despite the episodic nature of the narrative, there was a charm in it. But that gradually faded in the second half.
Johnpaul George’s debut feature Guppy instantly fascinates with picturesque locations of colorful streets, immaculate shores, and vibrant neighborhood people. The story tracks 12-year-old street kid Guppy’s (sells fish) confrontations with an arrogant engineer Tejus Varkey. Once again, the flaw is in the script. The subplots are far too many, which stretch the narrative (150 minute runtime), testing our patience at times. Even the final payoffs don’t make up for the heavy nature of the script. George couldn’t shake off the cutesy quality that accompanies such underdog tales. The characters’ furious stance sometimes weren’t convincing and there were quite a few unimaginative dramatic moments.
Like other Malayalam films of the year, the actors immensely saved the faltering presentation.
Srinivasan, in the grandfather’s role, gives a captivating performance alongside child artists, led by Chethan’s Guppy. A decent entertainer, Guppy is dampened by a mediocre script.
2. Anuraga Karikkin Vellam
Khalid Rahman’s feel-good entertainer Anuraga Karikkin Vellam offers some good moments which force us to reflect on our lives. It’s the tale of a father, mother and a son with a cold-war like familial situation. The narrative observes the transformative phase experienced by the family. Biju Menon’s scene-stealing performance is the foremost reason to watch the film.
Rajisha Vijayan had a good scope to perform, unlike in roles usually offered to heroines. And, she delivers an energetic debut performance.
The script gives a tiring sit-com feeling, including a cliched romance. Yet, some of the observations of simple moments are well done. It has the distinct Malayalam brand of a positively infectious charm, hard to replicate by other industries in Indian cinema.
Rahman has good control over the visuals and tries his best to sustain the mood. Despite the cliches, I was satisfied with his sweet depiction of the middle-class family’s life.
1. Maheshinte Prathikaaram
Dileesh Pothan’s film opens in a bewitching location in Kerela. Idukki. The locale was a big draw for me to watch this family entertainer. So, ‘visually appealing’ might seem like a vanilla description. Maheshinte Prathikaram (aka The Revenge of Mahesh) is a bit unconventional revenge film with an unexpected dose of sweet humor. Fahadh Faasil elegantly plays Mahesh Bhavana, a photographer, who owns a small studio in the town. He is a naïve individual with no great talent. Couple of events alter Mahesh’s life. How he overcomes his life’s predicaments is the core of the narrative. Aparna Balamurali and Anusree give scintillating performances.
KL Antony and Soubin Shahir (fascinating comic timing) deserve a special mention. Pothan does a good job as a debut director. He nicely guides the narrative through comedy, romance and drama. The second half is remarkable and well balanced. Maheshinte Prathikaaram is not a perfect film. But it’s a good, sugary entertainer, that makes us await in anticipation for Pothan’s next film.
Where to Watch: Netflix
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’