My diary of malayalam cinema

As I write this post, I am reminded of Randy Pausch’s words from his book ‘The last lecture‘. He writes:

All of the things I loved were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child. My uniqueness came in the specifics of all those dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way.

It is true that our deepest motivations are rooted in our childhood fantasies. Malayalam cinema was a fantasy world I nurtured in my unconscious. Today, I see it slowly evolve into reality.

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My earliest association with malayalam cinema dates back to those childhood days when family friends gathered on holidays to watch movies rented out from the local video store. I vaguely remember a few suspense movies and thrillers we watched. ‘Moonam Mura‘ brilliantly captured the tense mood of a plot that involved the kidnapping of a minister and his fellow-travellers in a bus journey, and the subsequent intelligent rescue operations that eventually succeeded in rescuing the victims, albeit with a few casualties. Every moment in that movie was one of tense impatience and silent prayer for the safe return of the victims. The background music amplified this mood and in our minds, it transformed into a real situation we were living through, and not a movie we were watching.

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Mohanlal in 'Moonam mura'

It was with the advent of the cable TV network that I actually got hooked on to malayalam cinema. Comedy was my favourite genre then. I took time to develop the sensibility that was required to comprehend the humour in these movies. But once I tuned in to that, I was addicted to cinema. It slowly dawned on me that a good sense of humour demanded intelligence. That era of cable TV exposed me to a surplus of movies. I devoured them avidly and unconsciously developed a taste for good cinema. At that point in time, I was unaware of how deeply I was beginning to connect to malayalam cinema or of how it was shaping my perspective of life. In my mind, it was only a leisure pursuit that I loved. A pursuit for which I had no plans.

My earliest memory of falling in love with a malayalam movie that portrayed tragedy was when I stumbled upon Lenin Rajendran’sMazha‘. I was past my teens and I drew inspiration from the movie’s feminist perspective. Like I once wrote about the movie:

The essence of the movie is Bhadra’s personality – a woman who awakens us to the fact that as women living in contemporary Indian society, we are vulnerable to the currents of life – far more than men in this society. Our lives might lie at the mercy of our primary caretakers and the men we marry, but our minds belong solely to us. The movie highlights the fact that even within the rigid framework of this orthodox society, the mind is a free bird.

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Lenin Rajendran's 'Mazha' starring Biju Menon and Samyuktha Varma

Subsequent to watching Mazha, I started compiling CDs of malayalam films. When I moved abroad, I carried them with me. At all the times that I missed the warmth of my home country, I would watch these movies. On cold wintery days when I was indoors, these movies kept me company. It was on one such wintery night that I woke up with an inexplicable emotion, the background music of ‘Mukundetta Sumithra Villikkunnu‘ playing in my mind for no reason. A strange nostalgia gripped me and I got out of bed, took a paper and pen, and started writing. That was perhaps the first time I wrote something that qualified for more than just a diary entry. That was the first time I had felt overwhelmed enough to write not about me, but to explore in writing an emotion…a perception. Art to me, is that moment when something briefly stills and silences my mind. That one little moment when the infinity of a universe nestles into the finite realms of my mind. That one little moment when eternity settles into the span of a finite moment. I knew then that as long as I had these movies for company, I would never be lonely. For they speak to me. That was about 7 years ago. And that hasn’t changed to this day. Malayalam cinema is my eternal antidote to loneliness.

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Mohanlal and Ranjini in 'Mukundetta Sumithra Villikkunnu'

My dependence on malayalam cinema grew as life exposed me to more complicated circumstances. The realism in these movies enabled me to discover the true meaning in life. Through them, I saw life- a canvas of emotions painted by the human spirit against the backdrop of circumstances. I learnt to see the beauty in our stories of struggle and pain. I realized how adversity alone brings out the strength of the human spirit and endows beauty to this dynamic canvas of life. Malayalam cinema helped me build inroads into my own mind. It taught me resilience- the art of discovering the strength of one’s spirit, without compromising on one’s sensitivity. And thus, malayalam cinema laid the foundation for my study of life. It is therefore not strange that the insight I gained from malayalam cinema increased my insights into all domains of life- my career as a doctor, teacher and researcher, my social interactions with people from different walks of life and my journey as a writer. I learnt to see the invisible interconnections that exist between all forms of matter, particularly the delicate interconnections between people that bind them in invisible threads of interdependence, and thus construct the whole picture. I learnt that the soul was always in the whole picture, and never in its independent fragments. And the soul alone possessed beauty.

As the awareness of how cinema was influencing me dawned on me, I felt deeply indebted to it. For it taught me to rise above the mundane at all times. The last straw in this sequence was the awareness of the power of language, beautifully illustrated by Lohithadas. Lohithadas’s strength was the aesthetic richness of script. Conversations from his movies would play repeatedly in my mind and inspire me, for they were rich in essence.

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A.K.Lohithadas: The master story teller who created magic with his script

There is rarely a day in my life that transpires without some thought pertaining to malayalam cinema. For in every individual and in every circumstance that surrounds me, I see these movies. They unfold before me in real life, reinforcing the fact that true art is derived from life.

Today was a special day in my life.  This was perhaps the first time I attended an academic event pertaining to cinema. Cinema, to me, has always meant art in all its seriousness, and never idle entertainment.
Art mimics life. And as emotions and soulful characters disappear from the face of the Indian landscape, art loses its soul. A once-intellectual audience that absorbed an entire spectrum of emotional tones portrayed by cinema, raising the standards of cinema to a level where it encouraged out-of-the-box thinking, is now replaced by an audience that cannot differentiate between an authentic work of art and meaningless entertainment. Cinema today is more about ‘technique’ rather than content, and the young generation is hooked on to its technical possibility. Like director Kamal said in his talk, people are losing the ability to sit back and feel. The most important ingredient that goes into the making of good cinema is the ability to passionately feel and thus develop critical thinking; the skill and technique are secondary. The film maker’s primary responsibility is to do justice to the deeper purpose of his art, for only then will the film speak across time and place.
For me, it was heartening to be a part of an event where cinema was discussed in all its seriousness. Though there will never be a return to the past, such events instill hope.

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It is perhaps time to write about malayalam cinema…about how it set standards for art and for life…about how it contributed not merely to cinema, but to the cultural development of a land and its people.. A journey through its soul, capturing the essence of human life that reflects the delicate interplay between the human mind and the diversity of the circumstances it endures.

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3 thoughts on “My diary of malayalam cinema

  1. I think good cinema means different things to different people. For instance, for a daily wage labourer, good cinema is that which provides him with instant entertainment, transporting him to a world of fantasy, giving him momentary relief after a hard day’s work. He seeks from cinema what real life fails to offer him. ‘Meaningful cinema’ means little to ppl of this class 🙂 For the urban educated class, good cinema has a different meaning. This class fancies films that reflect the aspirations of the rising middle class, films that celebrate the ‘good life’. Often in these films, it is indeed the technique that matters more than the content. Then there is the ‘niche’ audience that seeks a deeper meaning in cinema. For this audience, good cinema is that which explores the intricacies of everyday life. For the Right, good cinema is one that promotes nationalist sentiments, for the Left it is what questions the status quo and celebrates the idea of a working class revolution. I think any definition of good cinema (or for that matter art itself) is shaped by factors both social and economic. And at the foundation of this definition lies the answer to a more fundamental question — what is the purpose of cinema?

    1. Uday, that was the beauty of malayalam cinema then. Whether it catered to the daily wage labourer or the urban educated or the middle class, it never compromised on the soul. And irrespective of our differences, the raw human being within each one of us has a few core characteristics that are universal. Thus cinema that depicted the struggles of the daily wage labourer was equally appealing to the urban educated because it connected to the raw human being in each one of us- the being united by happiness, pain, laughter and all the emotions that characterize human life. In fact, that was the beauty of Malayalam cinema. It removed these divides between us in the real world and taught that the emotions that characterize the stories of our struggle and survival are the same. Malayalam cinema was perhaps the only cinema that bridged the gap between art cinema and commercial cinema. They came out with ‘parallel cinema’ that realistically portrayed our lives on screen, without compromising on its artistic value. And that is the reason someone like me is able to relate to all these characters on the rural Kerala landscape despite growing up in entirely different circumstances. As for the young generation’s craze for technically good movies with no soul, it is merely a scenario of ignorance towards what is really good for their souls. Just like how we love junk food!

    2. Uday, I also wanted to add this here. Remember our discussion on how imagination must be used to create reality, and not to escape from it? Parallel cinema was based on this. It portrayed the unpleasant elements in all our lives, but brought to visibility the pockets of reality where hope, optimism, happiness and beauty lay. And it thus created a fantasy world for each one of us, irrespective of what our individidual background/status/struggles were. And this fantasy world was very much real. Thus, all those movies offered hope and raised humanitarian values. They made our pain bearable and taught us to see the beauty and worth in our individual stories. Also, they were never directed at our intellect; they targeted feeling. So as long as we could feel, we were transported to a an experience that relaxed and rejuvenated us, and yet fed the soul….unlike the instant gratification of unrealisticl fantasy worlds, which achieve nothing in the long run. Those movies raised humanitarian values as a whole.
      But it requires immense creativity to create cinema of that kind. And I am proud to say malayalam cinema makers had that ability. Cinema is the common man’s medium of art, and therefore has a greater responsibility to society than do books or other forms of art. If course, literature fuels cinema. But the cinema makers must connect to the common man, and yet communicate deeper messages in all their simplicity and aesthetics. And our filmmakers excelled in that ability! In fact, they groomed an audience from all sections of society that would not take anything below a certain standard! To this day, malayalam cinema from those times is spoken about passionately and many of us in this state keep those movies alive in our hearts. It is surprising that even the young generation seems to connect to it. Just that the flamboyance in their lives has begun to affect their tastes and perspectives.
      I could go on and on….but I will stop 🙂

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