In my two previous posts on Malayalam New Wave cinema, I covered the movies I had watched at the beginning of the wave in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Pretty much all the movers and shakers of the Malayalam New Wave today had their first successes in those three years. So rather than continue a year-wise chronicle of 2014-18, I’d like to write about about how the filmmakers continued to evolve their stories and narrative styles after those early successes. And we’ll take a look at the people behind the scenes – producers, music composers, writers and cinematographers.
Evolution in themes and narrative styles
By and large, the New Wave films of 2011-13 were urban-centric (with the exception of Adaminte Makan Abu, Ustad Hotel and Manjadikuru). Initially, it was easy to categorize them as rom-coms/dramedies (Salt n’ Pepper, Bangalore Days, North 24 Kaadam), dramatic thrillers (Chaappa Kurish, Traffic, 22 Female Kottayam, Drishyam) or crime dramas (City of God, Mumbai Police). The characters in most of these films were worldly-wise millennials, comfortable with clubs and pubs, pre- and extra-marital sex. By 2014, the films had quickly evolved and were tougher to categorize. A number of films required very specifically created descriptions…
- Cinematographer turned director Amal Neerad’s ‘biblically-inspired period drama’ Iyobinte Pusthakam (The Book of Job) from 2014.
- Actor-turned-director Dileesh Pothan’s 2016 ‘revenge comedy’ Maheshinte Prathikaram.
- Johnpaul George’s fable-like 2016 drama Guppy, with an award-winning standout performance by child artiste Chethan Jayalal.
- Aashiq Abu’s ‘romance/drama/thriller/tragedy’ Mayaanadhi (strongly influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic Breathless), with an ending that rips your heart out.
- Lijo Jose Pellissery’s award-winning 2018 ‘funeral drama’ Ee. Ma. Yau., with its intense but semi-comical rain-soaked denouement.
- Newcomer Zakariya Mohammed’s feel-good ‘football-centric dramedy’ Sudani From Nigeria, also from 2018.
Even among ‘conventional’ crime thrillers, filmmakers have been pushing the envelope:
- Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by director Lijo Jose Pellissery and cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan towards the end of their hyper-kinetic 2017 crime drama Angamaly Diaries. The climactic scene is an extraordinary 10-minute-long continuous tracking shot featuring perhaps hundreds of extras; the camera follows a group of local gangsters celebrating a local church festival as the procession winds its way through their neighborhood. I rank this film as one of the best gangster films I’ve ever seen in any language, along with Gangs of Wasseypur.
- Likewise Tinu Pappachan’s prison drama Swathandriam Ardharathriyil (Freedom at Midnight) features an extraordinary, almost balletic prison fight sequence, shot in the rain and rendered in glorious slow-mo.
Producers and directors-turned-producers
The connective tissue behind these films are of course, the producers. Traffic, Chaappa Kurish, Ustad Hotel and How Old Are You? were produced by Listin Joseph, who was only 25 years old when Traffic and Chaappa Kurish were released! He must therefore be considered the ‘father’ of Malayalam New Wave. In subsequent years, it’s the directors, screenwriters and actors themselves who have taken charge of their destinies, having formed an informal collective, helping each other out, either officially as producers/screenwriters/supporting acting roles, or in some informal capacity, as evidenced by the “Thanks to …” credits that pop up at the start of their movies. This is very similar to the three famous Mexican directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu, who frequently produce each other’s films, or those by up-and-coming directors.
One can already see the first batch of New Wave directors creating directing opportunities for actors or second unit directors:
- Sameer Thahir has frequently been acknowledged for his support in the opening credits of films directed by Aashiq Abu, Rosshan Andrrews and Amal Neerad. He has recently taken the role of producer for the delightful 2018 sports-comedy Sudani From Nigeria for first time director Zakariya Mohammed.
- Anwar Rasheed, the director of Ustad Hotel co-produced Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days and was the producer of actor Soubin Shahir’s debut as a director and scriptwriter, Parava (2017).
- Dileesh Pothan started off as a supporting actor (and continues to act), then cut his teeth doing second unit directing for Aashiq Abu and finally got his big break as director in 2016 when Aashiq Abu produced his debut film, the critically acclaimed Maheshinte Prathikaram.
- Dileesh Pothan himself is now ‘paying it forward’ by producing this month’s new release Kumbalangi Nights, the debut film for Madhu C. Narayanan (previously the second unit director for Aashiq Abu’s films and Pothan’s own Maheshinte Prathikaram.
- Chemban Vinod Jose’s career as a character actor started with the New Wave films in 2011. In 2017, he got his big break as scriptwriter when his screenplay for Angamaly Diaries was brought to the big screen by powerhouse director Lijo Jose Pellissery.
- These two titans of crime dramas – Lijo Jose Pellissery and Chemban Vinod Jose – have then co-produced the 2018 prison-break action film Swathandriam Ardharathriyil for their second unit director Tinu Pappachan, as his debut directorial venture.
Cinematographers play a big role in shaping the look and feel of these films. They feature unusual camera angles, extraordinarily long tracking shots and a distinct cinema verite feel that is very different from the classical cinematography styles prevalent in Malayalam films previously. Shyju Khalid (Salt n’ Pepper, Traffic, 22 Female Kottayam, Maheshinte Prathikaram, Ee. Ma. Yau., Sudani From Nigeria and Kumbalangi Nights) and Gireesh Gangadharan (Neelakasham…, Guppy, Angamaly Diaries and Swathandriyam Ardharathriyil) are the two most prolific New Wave cinematographers. Sujith Vasudev’s work is notable in City of God and I loved the wide-angle lenses he used in Drishyam; it almost feels like he used a fisheye in some scenes to try and cram as much as possible of that gorgeous scenery in the frame.
The reason these films are good is because they are well written. Syam Pushkaran is perhaps the best known and most celebrated writer, having collaborated with Dileesh Nair on most of Aashiq Abu’s films from Salt n’ Pepper to Mayaanadhi. He has also written the screenplay for both the outstanding films directed by Dileesh Pothan. Chemban Vinod Jose made quite a splash with the screenplay for Angamaly Diaries. I am not sure if that’s a one-off effort based on his personal experiences growing up in Angamaly; I really hope that won’t be his last. Zakariya Mohammed wrote a wonderful script for his debut directorial effort Sudani from Nigeria, so I am looking forward to see what he comes up with next. Salim Ahmed of course, has written his own scripts for three of his four films released so far, as well as for his upcoming one And The Oscar Goes To….
Another common feature in many of these movies is the music, which is contemporary, usually rock-based. Rex Vijayan, the lead guitarist for Malayali rock band, Avial, has emerged as a leading composer for several Malayalam New Wave films. I love the music created for Ee. Ma. Yau. by Prashant Pillai, who has also composed for Lijo Jose Pellisserry’s other films City of God and Angamaly Diaries.
In my next (and final) post, I’ll focus on the actors and actresses who have been the faces of this New Wave over the past seven years.