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Best Malayalam Films of 2020: A Clash of Male Egos, the Return of Shobana and a Screen-life Movie

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Outside Thiruvananthapuram’s famed Kalabhavan theatre is a washed-out poster of Tovino ThomasForensic, one of the last films that had a theatrical release in the state, reminding passersby of a dismal year without cinemas. A dismal year to make year-end movie lists.

The movie halls across the state pulled the shutters on March 11, two weeks before a nation-wide lockdown to contain Covid-19 began. They are yet to reopen and resume their business.

The year started with great promise. Anjaam Paathira, a crime-thriller directed by Midhun Manuel Thomas, released in January and went on to become a blockbuster. Sachy’s Ayyappanum Koshiyum, which used classic techniques of mass filmmaking repeated the success of Anjaam Paathira, garnering commercial and critical acclaim. Although Fahadh Faasil’s Trance, which came riding on a great hype, but bit the dust at the box-office, the actor’s performance earned praises.

As the industry is yet to warm up to exclusive digital premieres, only six movies released post-March. All except one ﹣Mahesh Narayanan’s C U Soon ﹣were met with lukewarm responses. Although it is yet uncertain if virtual releases would become a popular model of film distribution in the state in near future, its merits haven’t gone unnoticed. Debut director Mustafa’s Kappela was deemed a flop when it released in theatres in Kerala in March. However, when the film landed on Netflix, it instantly became a hit with the audience who appreciated the film’s naturalistic, low-key aesthetics and Anna Ben’s performance as the protagonist. The film, produced on a shoe-string budget, is now being remade in Telugu.

Here is a list of five best films out of the 47 Malayalam films that released in 2020 in theatres or virtually.

Ayyappanum Koshiyum

In 2019, director-writer Sachithanandan wrote Driving License, a comedy-drama starring Suraj Venjarammood and Prithviraj Sukumaran, where the central conflict arose from the bruised ego of a movie superstar who does everything in his capacity to destroy his rival, a lowly government officer. In his directorial, Ayyappanum Koshiyum, he takes the theme several notches up, placing the men’s conflict in a social context and adding more layers to the characterisations. Biju Menon plays Ayyappan, a police inspector in a police station in Attappadi tribal belt, who falls prey to a cruel revenge plan designed by Koshy, an ex-havildar, the son of a highland baron. The former sees in Koshy the reflection of the injustice heaped on his community by the feudal lords who came from the outside who exploited the land and its people. Koshy, desperate to prove his worth to his oppressive father, refuses to give in. A fantastic cast, dynamic yet impressively austere cinematography and compelling writing make Ayyappanum Koshiyum a film for ages.

C U Soon

Conceived before the pandemic and shot during the lockdown, C U Soon, a screen-life film set in UAE and Kochi, is the only Malayalam film to have found success after premiering on an OTT platform. Directed by Mahesh Narayanan and co-produced by and starring Fahadh Faasil, the film has its characters always restricted to the space around their computer, within the purview of their phone network, or under the radar of a surveillance device. Darshana Rajendran plays a young victim of human trafficking, held captive in a UAE apartment as a sex worker, and Fahadh Faasil plays an IT professional working in the field of cybersecurity. Despite the limitations imposed by the film’s visual style and the logical loopholes in the narrative, Mahesh Narayanan, who also handled the film’s editing and virtual cinematography, manages to engage the audience emotionally in the storytelling and identify with the characters’ situation.

Varane Avashyamundu

Excellent casting can do wonders. In Anoop Sathyan’s directorial debut Varane Aavashyamundu, the performance of a stellar cast﹣Shobana, Urvashi, Dulquer Salmaan, Suresh Gopi, Johnny Antony and Kalyani Priyadarshan﹣not only brings aboard immense charm but also cancels out the flimsiness of the film’s sit-com-like narrative. Centred on four characters in an apartment complex in Chennai, the film proceeds through delightful vignettes of routine life. Shobana plays a single mother who, in her fifties, begins a new career, finds love and fixes the blots in her relationship with her adult daughter. Anoop’s writing is witty and poised, dripping with memorable one-liners. The most memorable sequences in the film are where the lead characters recount their past. They are elegantly cut; drama is subtle and affecting.

Anjaam Paathira

Director Midhun Manuel Thomas’ crime-thriller is derivative and ridden with logical inconsistencies but there is no denying that it is a fascinating work for its technical finesse. At the centre of the film is a serial killer who carves his victims’ eyes and hearts out of their body to make a point. Cinematographer Khalid and composer Sushin Shyam create great atmospherics that elevates the cat and mouse chase between the killer and the city’s police force. They turn Kochi into a city of distress, devoid of humanity, ready to explode at the touch of a button. Kunchacko Boban plays criminologist Anwar Hussain, who doesn’t heroically solve the crime but becomes the sole witness to the truth that plays out in the film’s final moments. Kunchacko Boban takes his talent in underplaying to a new, interesting height in Anjaam Paathira. Hussain has a muted body-language and the face of a thinker.

Kappela

A young woman leaves her home in a mountain hamlet to meet her lover whom she has never met. At the end of the day, she returns home a changed person, disillusioned and with a new perspective about life. Kappela, directed by actor Mustafa, has Anna Ben, Roshan Mathew and Sreenath Bhasi playing the lead roles. The underlying message that the film sends across is cynical, that this is no world for the meek and the innocent. The woman at the centre of the film requires a male saviour. But the devices Mustafa uses to narrate this flawed and cliche-ridden story makes Kappela an interesting work. Jimshy Khalid’s low key cinematography and Anees Nadodi’s excellent art direction help him create a universally-relatable world to place this tale in. Anna Ben delivers a fine performance as Jessi, a timid girl living under the shadow of her strict Christian father.

 

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