So this week, another of the so-called ‘masters’ of Malayalam cinema found himself at the receiving end of filmgoer ire.
Apparently, director Lal Jose’s Spanish Masala has turned out to be a damp squib (though, as with anything in Kerala, the opinion is divided).
The reviewers, now dime a dozen especially with the advent of social media, are having a happy time ripping apart the credentials of Lal.
The unkindest cut among these views is that he is just another script-writer’s director. Give Lal a watertight script, and he can bring in some visual gloss, is their contention.
In the past one year, we saw several of the stalwart directors of Malayalam cinema, who have given some all-time hits, deliver one dud after another, proving how much they have been sucked into their own vortex of clichés. They warrant some pity for the main reason that these are the guys who helped Malayalam cinema to come out of the Sasikumar, Joshy, Baby, Sajan trap.
We have the new Padma Shri-coronate Priyadarshan, who unfailingly recycles himself, and in the process takes viewers for a hapless ride. How long can the man - who must be given due credit for ‘Malayalising’ Hollywood films - reinvent himself?
He lies in that puddle from where his pals Mohanlal and Mukesh, in their 50s and then some, must work their charm, often to little effect. Priyan has his crop of second-rung artists, a few pretty faces, some of those Mani Ratnam-style songs of yore, and there you go – the hotchpotch is ready for mass consumption.
Fazil’s fall from grace must be the hardest; if Priyadarshan can still bring in initials with his buffoonery called cinema, the man who gave us Mohanlal and fathered one of the finest and most underrated actors, Fahad, seriously challenges viewer patience and also courts box office disasters.
Fazil, for all practical purposes, can take some claim for having understood the pulse of the middle class Malayalis – well, that was way back in the 80s, unfortunately.
Much like Venu Nagavally who got the Trivandrum lifestyle to a perfect T, Fazil was a good observer of the follies of our middle class. The classic example is Sukumari asking Mohanlal in Nokkethatdoorathu Kannum Nattu – ‘Is it Abbaji?’ – to a rock music streaming up from his room.
Following Fazil in the ‘I have lost it’ game are our own Sathyan Anthikadu (whose films are so saccharine sweet they remind of Moral Science lessons) and Sibi Malayil. They are stuck in grooves of possible no-return.
Why do these directors fail so spectacularly? Unlike in Tamil cinema, the culture of directors being script-writers is still an alien concept, largely, in Malayalam cinema. If you take out geniuses like MT Vasudevan Nair and Padmarajan out of the picture, that is.
Perhaps, our film makers have been so spoiled by gifted writers like MT, Lohitadas and Sreenivasan that they never really realized their own skills slipping away. Not writing one’s films is no crime; in fact, it is largely the norm in Bollywood and Hollywood.
But we see directors in Hollywood and Bollywood, even when they depend on others’ scripts, maturing with time. There is that inevitable fatigue but they always attempt a further refinement of craft as wizards like Steven Spielberg prove, most recently, with the adventures of Tintin.
Or is it because we as a society have been fragmented and polarized into many different watertight compartments that no writer can really gauge the popular pulse and our directors cannot translate it on screen?
Or is it because Malayalam audiences have become too style-centric? So much that suddenly ad filmmakers, who come with their fanciful (and often ripped off) shots and so-called stylisations, are in demand.
VK Prakash, Ashiq Abu, Rajesh Pillai, Amal Neerad – well – their movies (or their marketing) are largely about stylization than real content. To give fair credit to the Malayali viewers, style alone seldom works, a lesson that Neerad must have learnt the hard way.
So would you expect these directors to take Malayalam film forward? I would grudgingly bet on them knowing fully well how little the shelf-life of their movies would be.
My strong wager would still be on the likes of Renjith, Shyamaprasad and Blessy(the latter, increasingly becoming a victim of self-indulgence).
I also wish a truly parallel movement that translated as the ‘multiplex’ culture in Bollywood takes roots in Malayalam cinema. There are green shoots galore, but most often, they fall into the ‘style over substance’ trap.
However, I would still hope that the war horses in the guise of Lal Jose, Sibi, Fazil and Sathyan, won’t fall down on the way.
After all, I would still watch some of their older movies again than endure the new breed of Malayalam films that glitters but is fake.
Spanish Masala image from Kottaka.com