malayalam cinema:
trapped between the past and the future


baburaj, rajmohan



The sad state of contemporary Malayalam Cinema becomes more evident while viewing them as part of our International Film Festival. Among the cinematic gems of World Cinema that provoke our senses, our cinema, in its near dead state, resembles mere ugly stones. The superficiality that has become the very face of our cinema is indeed very repulsive. But, when our cinema pundits theorise that this very superficiality makes our cinema extraordinary, the downfall of our cinema completes.

Cinema is often considered as the youngest of all art forms. But no other art form could have been defined and re-defined so many times within such a short period as cinema. Each new definition of the form, the language and the very purpose of cinema contradicted the earlier one. But one would be compelled to accept that most of the greatest works of cinema that survived the test of time, were creations that surpassed and even rejected all such theories and definitions. It can also be noticed that most of these films instead of dwelling upon the exterior of the social issues of the time of its creation, probed deep into the core of these issues, making them relevant for all times. The act of defining good cinema, good art and placing them in narrow compartments would be nothing more than mere absurdity. Only a free minded individual can create a good work of art and the art thus created would definitely break-free from these compartments.


Slow Paced Cinema, Fast Paced Cinema….

Malayalam Cinema once had occupied the centre stage of Indian Cinema with some its noticeable films. At the time when the ‘Indian New Wave’ films- the face of Indian serious cinema- nose-dived to superficial story telling on social issues, Malayalam Parallel Cinema with its extraordinary form and content shook the cinematic sensibilities of our viewers and to an extent its presence was felt in our society in general. Probably due to an overdose of academism, discussions on serious cinema reduced to mere discussions on its form and the very face of Malayalam ‘Parallel’ Cinema reduced to its slow paced narrative and irrelevant contents, thus forcing away the general public from serious cinema. Now, some of our filmmakers and academicians have come up with a magic formula to save the ailing slow paced Malayalam Parallel Cinema [‘Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly’ – Cinema Special, June 1, 2008]. They postulate that fast paced cinema based upon contemporary topics is the need of the time. But sadly, films coming out of this school of thinking disappoint us with its characteristic superficiality and their shallow images of contemporary social issues.

Contemporary World Cinema

Should we believe that the sad state of Indian cinema is the reflection of contemporary World Cinema as a whole? Such an argument becomes un-agreeable when we closely watch contemporary World Cinema. Renowned filmmakers like Alexander Sokurov (Russia), Bela Tarr (Hungary), Theo Angelopoulos (Greece) and Lars von Trier (Denmark) continues as strong presence in World Cinema with their films of immense depth. Extraordinary works from our own neighbourhood, Iran, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and Korea continues to create stir in World Cinema arena. If one observe these films, it would become clear that the idea of defining good cinema based on its pace and form alone is meaningless. Slow paced films like Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is it There?, Alexander Sokurov’s Mother & Son and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady are all considered the shining stars of contemporary World Cinema.

Gus van Sant’s Elephant, based on a contemporary social issue, which adapted an innovative form had won the coveted ‘Palme d’Or’ at the Cannes. Even while having all these qualities the film fails to communicate anything beyond the skin depth of the issue it handled. Indeed, such films might have some relevance for a short period, but would be forgotten within a short time. But the films from Iran and South Asia, which took the centre stage of World Cinema becomes different probably due to the depth in which they handled their topics. This may be the reason why the film from directors like Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Iran), Tsai ming Liang (Taiwan), Kim ki Duk (S.Korea) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand) stands out in the crowd of contemporary World Cinema. Their films reiterates that the art of cinema which survives the test of time is born out of deep probes and meditation into the core of human and social issues but not from creating superficial images of the world we live in. The fact that the outcome of ‘Dogme 95’ was limited to some great films from a single director, Lars von Trier, once again establishes that any kind of cinematic trends and formulas becomes irrelevant in the process of an artist’s journey in search of the truth beyond the mundane.

The Problems of Contemporary Malayalam Cinema

The present discussions on the aesthetics of cinema in Kerala probably may be a reverberation of some aesthetics theories sprouted in the West. But it’s quite natural to have apprehensions about this new theory, considering the superficial nature characteristic to most of the films coming out of this school of thought. The discovery that the concept of slow paced films attributed to our parallel cinema is the sole reason for its failure and suggesting the magic formula of making fast paced films as the solution for this problem is nothing but over-simplifying the real problems of contemporary Malayalam Cinema. In fact these films doesn’t attempt anything beyond recreating the popular media images of present day social issues churned out by our newspapers and television. At a place where people suffer from acute media addiction, at the time when news reaches people even before it happens, it is felt that it would be a futile effort if a filmmaker too takes up the task of taking information about social issues to the people. It is ridiculous to see these filmmakers acting as preachers and advising the general public. It would be appropriate to quote Abbas Kiarostami : “If I want to deliver messages, I would rather be a postman”.

The new trend in Malayalam Parallel Cinema seems to have no relevance beyond replacing with a new formula for content, form etc. in place of the failed old formula. If we closely observe contemporary World Cinema it would become clear that it is not the pace of the film but the strength and depth of the content supported by an appropriate form that makes a good film. Such films come out as result of explorations of an artist deep into the core of social and human issues. This may come as a result of cultural vibrancy of a society. Perhaps the lack of this may be one of the reasons for the poor state of contemporary Malayalam Cinema.

The real problem with our cinema is that the present day filmmakers are unable to take forward our cinema, which had shown its presence in the World Cinema arena in the past. The crisis of Malayalam Cinema is that the new age directors are getting more and more engulfed in superficial narrations of social issues.

The sad condition of contemporary Malayalam Cinema may not be solely due to the low standards of our film viewer as normally claimed by our filmmakers, but it may be also due to the inability of our filmmakers to reach the standards of our film viewers. To substantiate this viewpoint the superior level of readership of Malayalam literature can be pointed out. It can be seen that readers from both old and new generation still exist in plenty for our literature, which had undergone drastic changes by abandoning the superficiality of social dramas to adapt innovative forms and contents. Probably a good amount of these readers may form the quality viewers of our Parallel Cinema!


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