I want to start by saying that I love Bollywood. Anyone who knows me knows that I can quote lines of most films by heart, I can and will sing the songs at random times, and I even learned Hindi just by watching the movies. However, I love the Malayalam film industry equally, if not more.
There are some masterpieces of cinema to be found in Bollywood. Films like Newton, The Lunchbox, and Andhadhun are beautifully made. Films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and Sholay are classics. But it’s undeniable that Bollywood has more than a few problems.
I love Bollywood, but it largely values profit over quality.
For one, the whole industry is disturbingly incestuous. Following the tragic death of Sushant Singh Rajput, debates around nepotism in Bollywood were sparked once again. Rajput was an outsider to the industry and he often spoke about the exclusive nature of Bollywood. If you weren’t born into Bollywood like others, you could never truly be a part of the industry.
In addition to the nepotistic tendencies of the industry, many argue that the quality of films are simply not up to par. I don’t agree with the belief that Bollywood is a “low art” because that’s a derogatory idea that ignores the complexities of many great movies. But I do believe that largely, Bollywood values profit over the quality of films. Bollywood pumps out movies at a rate unmatched by any other film industry in the world. Consequently, films are rushed, shoddily made, and filled with crowd-pleasing item songs and cheesy dialogues.
But while criticism against Bollywood mounts, an incredible world of cinema continues to thrive in regional India. Bollywood is not a catch-all word for any Indian movie. It’s specifically the film industry based in Bombay, now Mumbai.
India is one of the largest countries in the world, and one of the most diverse. Each region of India has their own film industry, dedicated to regional diversity and cultures. However, these regional films often fail to gain the same fame as Bollywood films of lower calibre. As a Malayali, I despise the fact that the Malayalam film industry has gone so unnoticed.
Malayalam films are often remade into other languages, including Hindi in Bollywood. More often than not, the remakes greatly fail to recreate the beauty of the originals.
For example, perhaps one of the most popular Malayalam films ever made is a horror-comedy called Manichitrathazhu. The film is about a young couple who moves into the husband’s ancestral home when the wife suddenly starts experiencing unexplained phenomena.
The film was remade into Hindi as Bhool Bhulaiyaa and received incredibly negative reviews from critics for failing to capture the essence of the original. It was, however, a huge commercial hit and after speaking to several of my non-Malayali friends, many fans of Bhool Bhulaiyaa don’t even know it’s a remake of a Malayalam film.
I despise the fact that the Malayalam film industry goes so unnoticed.
Similarly, Drishyam, a film about a family thrown into turmoil, was a huge hit in Kerala, becoming one of the highest-grossing Malayalam films ever. As someone who has seen the film around 15 times, I find it to be one of the best films I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s a masterclass in directing, acting, and screenwriting. The film was remade into several languages and was even the first Indian movie to be remade into Chinese.
Although the original Malayalam film made around one million dollars, the Hindi remake which by many accounts did not match up to the original, made around 17 times the profit.
Films like Drishyam and Manichitrathazhu may have gained the attention of Bollywood filmmakers, but they’re not outliers in the Malayalam film industry. Rather, they’re emblematic of it.
I’ve never had my heart broken like when I watched Ee. Ma. Yau., a film about a man from a poor family who tries to throw his father an extravagant Roman Catholic funeral. I’ve never seen such perfect acting as when I watched Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, a film about a man who steals a woman’s wedding necklace and the subsequent attempts to retrieve the jewelry. I’ve never seen such absurd genius as when I watched Jallikattu, a story about a bull that gets loose in a small village.
But most importantly, I’ve never seen an industry so dedicated to the plight of the common man.
Are Malayalam films perfect? Absolutely not. Many of them are just as ridiculous as Bollywood, and nepotism does still play a part in the industry – albeit much smaller. But the Malayalam film industry is largely committed to telling realistic, relatable, and beautiful narratives. In my eyes, these are films that could fight it out with the best Hollywood has to offer.
I’ve never seen an industry so dedicated to the plight of the common man.
Yet despite this, people continue to overlook these films in favor of increasingly unrealistic Bollywood films. Especially with the incredible success of Parasite, I believe that we ought to actively seek out films from different regions and cultures. There are so many cinematic gems throughout India that there’s really no reason to rely on Bollywood for our movie fix anymore.
Nowadays whenever I talk to my friends about Indian movies, I recommend as many Malayalam movies as I can to them. I’ve yet to disappoint anyone.
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