Going by the figures released by the producers’ association, it wasn’t a great year for the Malayalam film industry. Over 190 Malayalam films released in theatres in Kerala in 2019, but just 23 films were able to recover their costs, says a Malayala Manorama report that cites sources from the association.
Among the many reasons that must have kept a movie-goer from going to cinemas are digital streaming platforms that bring the latest releases home within 90 days of a film’s theatrical release, and more importantly, the audience-friendliness of the movies.
Several films that released with massive hype, such as Nine, Irupathiyonnam Noottandu and Porinju Mariyam Jose, failed at the box office because the storytelling didn’t have the gratifying spark that they had promised.
Lucifer, actor Prithviraj’s ambitious directorial debut made on a budget of Rs.36 Crore, won over the fans, but there is no denying that it couldn’t match up to the style and genuineness of a smaller film, Thanneer Mathan Dinangal, a high-school drama featuring a horde of teenage actors. All that being said, there is no denying that 2019 was also a year of some exceptional cinema.
Here is a list of the six best Malayalam movies from 2019:
1. Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25
Ratheesh Balakrishnan’s debut directorial is a stunning off-kilter comedy that examines how our parents are coping in the era of globalisation and digital advancements. A young engineer, working for a Japanese company in Russia, brings an AI robot home to look after his septuagenarian father who lives in a village in northern Kerala. The old man, woody stubborn with a frown reserved for everything modern, detests the robot assistant at first, but grows close to it gradually. Suraj Venjarammood who has surpassed expectations with his acting chops, effortlessly juggles between big-budget films and small films, plays the old man with amazing aplomb.
This film, directed by Khalid Rahman, was one of the most politically vocal films in 2019. Centered on a group of Kerala policemen who go to Chhattisgarh’s strife-torn area to assist the state and central government on conducting general elections, the film raises a voice for the dispossessed and the displaced, who become collateral damage in a war that’s not theirs. Mammootty stars as a sub-inspector, the leader of the police team, who stands helpless in the face of danger, abandoned by the system that they are supposed to protect.
3. Thanneer Mathan Dinangal
This unlikely high-school drama replaces the typical bubbly moments with the dull reality of adolescence. The teenagers in this film, directed by Gireesh AD, are bogged down by the uninspiring educational system, the many complexes and fears they can’t get rid of, and harassment from teachers and other adults.
The protagonist, Jaison, is a quintessential loser – a middle-bencher who doesn’t excel in anything. Between him and his feelings for his classmate, a feisty and pretty Keerthi (Anaswara Rajan), stands his inferiority complex. Passive aggressive harassment from a newly-joined teacher, Ravi Padmanabhan (Vineeth Sreenivasan), pushes him to the edge of a mental breakdown. The film possesses a sharp sense of humour that is hard to achieve, and a slew of performances that sparkle with genuineness.
4. Kumbalangi Nights
Directed by Madhu C Narayanan and written by Shyam Pushkaran, this disarmingly romantic film is centered on four brothers who live in a door-less house on an islet in Kochi. The film is rich with details and imagery, and brilliantly subtle, elevated by fantastic performances by an ensemble cast that includes several newcomers.
The family in Kumbalangi Nights is fuelled and held together by a collective sense of loss and social alienation than by blood, as it is in Shoplifters (2018), Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Oscar-nominated drama. Fahadh Faasil‘s caricatural portrayal of an alpha male is one for the ages.
This film, directed by debutante Manu Ashokan, is powered by three performances, of Parvathy as a young woman whose ambitions couldn’t be burned by an acid attack that permanently distorts her face, of Asif Ali who brilliantly portrays the complex psyche of a toxic partner in a relationship, and of Siddique who plays a father who stands rock-solid beside his daughter even as the world turns against her. However, this isn’t a perfectly made film. There are pivotal scenes that are laughably flat, and instances where the characters take to sloganeering. Nevertheless, this film is a mighty achievement in narrating an unusual tale that explores the nuances of misogyny in our society.
Geethu Mohandas, in her second feature directorial, accomplished the task of bringing the subject of homosexuality to Kerala’s commercial movie space with two immensely popular mainstream film actors, Nivin Pauly and Roshan Mathews, playing the lovers. The romantic track, featured in a brief flashback portion, is the highlight of the film which begins and ends in Mumbai’s dark underbelly. The film, in spite of its many narrative inconsistencies, is an important work that pushes the boundaries of Malayalam mainstream cinema in the right direction.