In 2021, Malayalam cinema continued its dream run by producing the best of cinema to come out of India. Unlike Bollywood and the rest of the filmmaking industries, Mollywood is more open to experiments with some of its biggest stars and filmmakers raising the bar. While a bunch of biggies (One, Marakkar, Cold Case, The Priest) failed to impress, the hugely anticipated Kurup merely passed muster. Taking the center stage was a bunch of minimalist, high-on-concept films which went on to generate conversations across the country.
10. Chathur Mukham
Directors Ranjeet Kamala Sankar and Salil Menon’s Chathur Mukham opened up a brand new genre in Malayalam cinema – techno-horror. With Manju Warrier playing the protagonist addicted to social media, the film offers a fresh premises peppered with volumes of thrills. The sound design, in particular, is chilling whereas the performances of both the leads (Warrier, Sunny Wayne) positively ups the level of intrigue.
Mahesh Narayanan’s third directorial effort is a tremendously immersive experience. Its people possess individuality and they unanimously flaunt shades of grey, thereby preventing Malik from becoming an ordinary triumph-of-righteousness saga that drops a simplistic message on religious polarization.
Martin Prakkat’s Nayattu – despite its conscious attempt to whitewash Kerala police – still turned out a compelling fare. The emotions – often layered with deafening silences – do strike a chord. Joju George is astounding as ASI Maniyan whereas Kunchacko Boban and Nimisha Sajayan lend able support.
7. Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam
Featuring an all-rookie star cast, director Senna Hegde placed a mirror to amusing realities of rural Kerala. Set around the engagement of a young girl, the film beautifully links several cultural titbits and social vices, in a gripping narrative staged around incidents that take place in a span of two days.
Don Palathara’s film succeeds expectedly in nailing an experiment. There is a messaging connected to communication in modern relationships which is subtle and the whole thing culminates beautifully. While it does not possess the luxury of having an array of locations as seen in similar cinema experiments such as the Dogme 95, this solitary car journey sans cuts would undoubtedly ensure that you are not bored until the last running minute. There is also a love song in Sithara Krishnakumar’s eclectic voice which forms the delicious cherry on the cake.
5. Drishyam 2
To nobody’s surprise, what works in favour of Drishyam 2 and makes it a worthy sequel is the component of suspense. When Georgekutty takes charge of the situation, we are indirectly signalled to fasten our seatbelts. And boy, do they deliver. The last 30 minutes is bound to keep you on tenterhooks for the way it melds slices from the family’s life to a template of fiction. I was not convinced about Jeethu Joseph turning Georgekutty into a larger-than-life entity who is both a cherub and a sinner. He should still have remained a clever family man being rather than a know-all supervillain. I would prefer to see him casually hit back at Rani when she quotes her favourite proverb (‘Naadodumbol naduve odanam’ which translates to ‘when the world is running, run through the middle of it.’) with what is his formula of life – ‘Odunna pattikku oru muzham munpe’ (‘throw a stone ahead of a running dog to hit it.’).
Filmmaker Sanu John Varughese places a mirror on modern society in Aarkkariyam. His people are raw, complicated, and puzzled by their own morals. The slow-burn thriller transports us to a landscape and mind spaces that might be unfamiliar on the surface but never beneath its skin. Dipped in a sea of mystery and nostalgia, the film proves to be a fascinating directorial debut for Varughese, a proven cinematographer.
Dileesh Pothan’s film – despite deriving its core thought from Macbeth – is hardly about greed. As a result, at no point in the film does he come across as a ruthless person. Joji treats its leading man with boundless empathy and I could even draw a quick parallel to the much-discussed DC character Joker at various instances. Even in the most Fahadh Faasil-like threat that Joji makes to Jaison in the pre-climax, the narrative does not fizzle out of its confines. Joji takes every minute as it comes. His reflexes are instant and his actions are never a result of immaculate planning – unlike how an organized, rigid society would operate. Dileesh Pothan’s film, therefore, has a golden message to convey and our hearts go out to his hapless leading man – Joji.
As the film gets over, one (especially men) would wonder if all of it happens in every Kerala (or Indian) household. For a fact, the film presents a slightly exaggerated picture which might not be the case in all modern families today, but each of her dilemmas has appeared in fragments to women residing across the subcontinent. The climax, with a brave religious twist, gives us a major high with the woman taking a step by herself. But, hey, did the film’s men or the world around them change by her actions? Not one bit. This gut-wrenching portrayal of a grim reality is what makes Jeo Baby’s film revolutionary in every sense of the word. If this hugely discussed film wouldn’t kick start a renaissance of sorts in the way women are projected on the screen, nothing else would.
Minnal Murali is a thoroughly localized fare enriched with niceties and idiosyncrasies of the region it is set in. If the writers construct a fine emotional graph and a suitably dramatized hero’s journey, director Basil Joseph makes sure that his leading man never becomes a parody. Made on a limited budget, amid a visible lack of visual gimmickry, the film treads a tightrope and emerges victorious. If a Hollywood film of Spider-Man: No Way Home could mesmerize me with its immaculate confrontations designed entirely by a giant VFX crew, I felt the same zeal when Minnal Murali has a close-up face-off with his masquerader – if not more. Kerala’s homegrown superhero withdraws his plans to emigrate because his people need him. And we need filmmakers of Joseph’s caliber and wit who make cinema a true joyride like Minnal Murali.
Honorary Mention: Aashiq Abu’s short film ‘Rani’ in the anthology Aanum Pennum
Worst Malayalam Films: Irul, One
P.S.: Jan.e.man directed by Chidambaram was not watched at the time this list was compiled.