2018 was not particularly exciting for Malayalam cinema. As usual, there was a chunk of small films that won our hearts with ease whereas every single superstar vehicle tanked without a trace. While the superstars really need to examine the direction that their credibility is heading, the time is ripe for new-age filmmakers whom the state fondly calls ‘The New-Gen’ makers. Here are the 10 best Malayalam films from 2018, ranked in reverse order:
Malayalam cinema has seen quite a few films in the genre that Rafeek Ibrahim’s film belongs to – a gangster black comedy. Anyhow, thanks to the writers, the film packs in enough punch to make the journey worthwhile. Ibrahim’s film is essentially a zany road trip filled with plenty of humorous situations. There are times when we feel they are a little too manufactured but none of it matters in the larger scheme of things as Padayottam, for sure, knows the space it belongs to. Actors Dileesh Pothan, Biju Menon and Basil Joseph are smashing in their well-designed parts.
Indian cinema has taken us to a point that sports biopics have started to become nothing but exasperating drivels. Those with little surprises and textureless characters, these films seldom venture out of the classic genre design. Director Prajesh Sen’s Captain starring Jayasurya in the title role, anyhow, is an exception. One that brings the life of ex-Kerala football team captain VP Sathyan to the celluloid, the film delves into the player’s mental states with agility. Captain, for the records, is not a film that plays by the template, which is exactly what makes it worthy of a visit. Highly driven by Jayasurya’s deeply felt performance, director Sen packs in a lot of honesty in a film that could have easily been mundane.
If you have been a youth festival regular – either as a participant or a spectator – Abrid Shine’s Poomaram is going to be all things nostalgic. The film lets you derive the feel of a youth festival in the rawest of forms. This, at the same time, is the film’s advantage and the disadvantage. The storytelling style is a little heady and distinctly chaotic. It takes you a time to get used to it but if at all you do, the film will end up as an experience worth cherishing. Needless to the say, the music is spectacular and has been laced perfectly in the narrative.
7. Hey Jude
It is fascinating when cinema’s matinee idols dare portray individuals with imperfections. It can’t be denied how a block arises for the audience whether to take this lack of familiarity for real. We even wonder if they are going to turn the tables and become superhuman towards the last reel. Writer-director Shyamaprasad’s Hey Jude presents Kerala’s heartthrob Nivin Pauly as the socially awkward, number wiz Jude Rodriguez who is greatly enthralled by the marine life. And oh, he is petrified to step into an actual water body. He would rather own an aquarium worth 35 thousand grands. Ironic much?
As Hey Jude ends, one realizes how the film manages to maintain a smile on our faces from the first frame until the last. The lyrical material on papers resemble the best of European cinema and Shyamaprasad’s treatment – predictably – weans to those forms rather than toying with certain earthy textures that are increasingly finding favour in contemporary Malayalam cinema. Then again, a lot of it seems to be locked on the writing table itself. For the rest, who are we to complain as long as our major actor-stars attempt difficult parts and unconventional filmmaking formats? A vanilla climax can be excused in exchange, for sure.
A compelling character study of a retired policeman living an embittered life after separating from his wife (Athmiya) and the death of his only child, Director M.Padmakumar’s Joseph captivates in ways more than one. Featuring a gripping central performance by Joju George, the film is a smooth amalgam of a whodunit and an emotional tale of coming to terms with grief. A little too long for what it wants to say, the film is notably rich in subtexts and Padmakumar’s style of direction dwindles somewhere between being mainstream and daringly offbeat. It was particularly impressive to see how the writer (Shahi Kabir) and director design the bonding between Joseph and his ex-wife’s husband, Peter (Dileesh Pothan). Despite a heavy overflow of songs (lip-synced ones, too many) and the climactic segment being a little too hard to fathom, Joseph ends up as one of the best Malayalam feature films of the year.
Watch it for the atmosphere, a bunch of terrific performances and some clever writing with Padmakumar playing the perfect anchor to canvas each of them with panache.
5. Njan Prakashan
If Chris Hemsworth’s workout videos give me insane fitness goals, then I ought to appreciate Sathyan Anthikkad for filling me with ‘nanma‘ (goodness) like no other. A skill that’s ingrained in his might, even the least effective of his films come with that essential layer, besides a set of characters that are rooted in Kerala’s social syntax. Sometimes it does grate on your nerves but not in the ultra-sweet and mega-relatable Njan Prakashan penned by the master of slice-of-life cinema, Sreenivasan. In the film, Sreenivasan’s presence is grating as an actor and the narrator. The dizzying top angle shots are annoying and so are certain contrivances, mostly in the first half. Then again, there’s a lot to love in this charming formula film.
Fahadh Faasil, whom I consider to have the most expressive pair of eyes in Malayalam cinema, brings in the kind of freshness that Mohanlal and Jayaram once did in several iconic Sathyan-Sreenivasan films. No, this isn’t anything that Fahadh hasn’t done thus far in his enviable career. The character sketch is nearly the same as the actor’s own Carbon, that released early in 2018. Even the film deviates a little from our impression of a classic Sathyan Anthikkad film. However, it is the layer of somewhat constructed yet highly delectable everydayness and a certain crookedness (the central trait of the leading man) that the filmmaker brings in is a good enough ground for the actor to play with. And the result is a satiricil, realistic and gloriously entertaining film which ended 2018 on a high note for Malayalam cinema.
Director Venu’s Carbon starts off as a regular small-town drama where a loving Christian family imminently worries about their wayward son, Siby (Fahadh Faasil). This is the kind of network that’s always lived within the rules and seams of defined social concords. Middle class, yet sort of financially sufficient, Siby’s father (Spadikam George) is way too everyman to not relate to. Anyhow, the working class family never really schools their young son against pursuing what he desires. It is not as if they didn’t worry enough about him but probably they had a glimmer of hope in Siby’s extreme self-belief.
Carbon soon switches genre patterns and we get to see this terrific dream sequence that beautifully connects to the visual preceding it. Fahadh’s extraordinary acting chops and Venu’s studied material make sure to deliver a film that is relatable, involving and spine-chilling – all at once. Giving them perfect company is KU Mohanan’s cinematography which, for the records, is true to the grammar that Venu sets for the film. We never feel a sense of fatigue as Carbon takes severe turns leaving less scope for finite closures in many instances. The breathtaking lighting in the bungalow that is devoid of electricity is yet another win for Mohanan.
Koode. A film that welcomes back one of the most cerebral Indian filmmakers of our times – Anjali Menon – from a brief hiatus. Cerebral in her approach as a director rather than her thought process as a writer, Anjali’s stories are simple, sensitive and filled with tender moments. What sets her apart as a maker, however, is that innate ability to hit the brakes, at the right time. She is one director who does not let her suicidal leading lady embrace her man the moment he averts her from taking a drastic step. Neither does she allow a remorseful lover burst into copious tears as he reveals what he believes was a mistake. This mellowness in processing what they famously call melodrama is what Anjali Menon’s cinema keeps you glued, despite the absence of a good dose of populist ingredients.
Stunningly photographed by Littil Swayamp, Koode is filled with fine imagery and subtle metaphors making it nearly unsuitable for passive viewers. Be it with the hillside backdrop, the blue van, the affectionate pet Labrador, the still lake, the characters’ professions, the mysterious ways of the grandmother, Jenny’s poetry or her attempts to stay in sync with her peers – all of it cumulate to make what Koode becomes eventually. Here’s a film that doesn’t let you sit and weep. Instead, it fills you with a quiet sense of contentment and an innate familiarity. It is not a world that we ever witnessed in entirety. Still, somewhere out there, we have all lived tiny little parts like this one in our respective stories. Classic Anjali Menon, I say.
2. Sudani From Nigeria
Okay, I confess to having watched Sudani From Nigeria more than 25 times. (Thank you, Netflix for the luxury.) Such is the magnetic quality of the film. Having dodged it for a while assuming it to be one of those jaded sports drama features, Sudani From Nigeria surprised me to bits. Written and directed by debutant Zakariya Mohammed, the film is markedly original and also one that truly understands its milieu. When Nair (Unni Nair) pays a casual visit Jameela’s (Savithri Sridharan) home to meet the bedridden African player (Samuel Abiola Robinson), we see a local who had just walked past our yard. You sense genuine affection for Sudu (Robinson) when Beeyumma (Sarasa Balussery) waits restlessly for the wrist-watch to be delivered from Dubai. When Majeed finally comes of age with respect to his dislike for his step-father (the late KTC Abdullah), we got no choice but to shed a tear.
Even at the cost of making a colossally generalized statement, Keralites widely consider how the residents of Malabar (Northern Kerala) are far more loving and giving as opposed to those from elsewhere. Therefore, it always puzzled me when films portrayed mother characters in an unnaturally affectionate fashion. Sudani from Nigeria doesn’t do that, even if there exists the aforementioned stereotype/judgement to filter their emotions through. From what begins as an obligation, the mothers warm up to him over a period of time forming a convincing arc. So much so that it is a massive victory for new-age Malayalam cinema when you see the Muslim mothers travel to a pilgrim spot to offer prayers for the young Christian boy’s deceased grandparent. And oh, the frame captures the National Flag of India as well.
Lifelike or slice-of-life? I am not quite sure on which bracket to slot Lijo Jose Pellissery’s delicious black comedy Ee.Ma.Yau in. A story that takes place in a quaint Kerala beachside village, the plot runs around the death of an elderly gentleman. In a telling screenplay penned by veteran P.F. Mathews, the film is one that bares human emotions in the rawest of forms. With humour emerging from the unlikeliest of contexts, the film gives you plenty of reasons to chuckle but not without embracing the underlying melancholy. In what is the finest Malayalam feature film to have released in 2018, Ee. Ma. Yau is clever with beautiful textures and is performed with supreme flair by a set of actors that is comprised largely of non-professional actors. Let’s hail the Pellishery hegemony, shall we?
Ee.Ma.Yau is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.