Who Owns Cinema? : The story of the unparalleled holy triumvirate of Malayalam cinema 

 film screen

The simplest form of a question, addressed by indefinite horde communities from hitherto. The reply always varied spatially and temporally. ‘A FILM BY’, a hackneyed yet modish way to address a cinema by the film makers, is a lesser film maker ideology, suggests Nasruddin Shah, a prominent mainstream actor of the era. A complete filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin, never used this term, adds the former. A breakthrough to this custom was initiated by director Renjith in his 2001 movie ‘ravanaprabu’ where he addressed the cinema to be a collective effort of his crew. A cinema belonging to the actors is extremely habitual to the multitude with the perpetual increase in the commercial facet. While the primary revolutionizing idea develops a collective identity behind the screen, Australian film maker Philip Noyce criticizes this as he believes the cinema belongs to the multitude and not to a community of personally expert individuals. A film represents a spatial and temporal signification of a specific culture.

A possessive trademark of owning the cinema established by Frank Copra, a technical perspective to cinema, with mechanical visibility triumphed from the 20th century and pervading in the Malayalam cinema industry for the past 40 years. This proprietorial craving fed by the fame and power led the directors to create cinema and possess it as an art of the elitist. Ralph Rosenblum, a prominent editor of his time, critics the incessant urge of the filmmakers to own the cinema through his autobiography “when shooting stops, cutting begins”. He comments on the directors for their swollen sense of self importance. He estimates the 1940s as the era of directors, prior to the era of producers and actors. The Malayalam reel until the last decade, was a sequestrate of the upper class, upper caste intelligentsias’, and exclusive unstated patrimony of few, with mammoth quantum of nepotism added. Thus Malayalam cinema till the last decade was a property of the directors and they had no shame in claiming the same.

This decade marked the invasion of social media and inception of regional cinema to the world and vice versa. Embarked with the aversion in the idea of which a filmmaker is, this decade had a significant influence in the cinema being a part of the quotidian human activity, necessarily a necessity. ‘If you can drive a car, you can make a film’ a phrase that was a sine qua non to the 1995 British cinema community, was much quintessential for the Malayalam regional film industry in the late 10s. Foremost American director of his time, Andrew Sarris, the broaching of Auteur theory puts forward the idea of the significant contribution of American directors to the film industry, and sabotage the germane of other cast and crew. The intellectual database in the filmmaking, creating the film a sense of the educated masses and restricting the creation and perpetuation of cinema to penetrate into the lower strata of a society by these elitist thinkers held on for a long time until the subversion of the neo realistic wave affected the Italian and French cinema. Reinforcing this idea of the ‘director hero’ was yet another Malayalam movie, “Ugayananu Tharam”(2005), with a pinch of reality, the movies reinstates the director as the real and only hero and the one who owns the cinema.

Every art form in a certain degree is elitist, cinema being a prime apex of it. The accessibility of cinema in a multitude varied greatly over time. Malayalam reel was open for the higher class caste until the 2000s, in the pre globalization era. The pattern getting averted by the border scope beyond the theatres, the following decade imbued cinema into the educated middle class. This backstabbed the progression the Malayalam cinema induced social reality. An era of reinforcing caste, class and patriarchy with mainstream Malayalam regional cinema, all with superstars protagonist instigating male chauvinism and fortifying the caste system. The mammoth moguls of the era, Mammootty and Mohanlal accelerated this phenomenon with cinemas like Aram Thampuan(1997), Nasrani(2007), Devasuram(1993), Ravana Prabhu(2001), Madabami(2008), Sethuramiyer CBI(1988-2005) series and many more in the list. To a middle class this was appealing in a pronounced degree and instigated them in the process of Sanskritisation indirectly. The star value of the commercial aspect of cinema had an upsurge, the glorification of the hero into a superhero with a next door relatable culture fading away, Malayalam cinema reached its commercialization apex. The directors motivated efflux of incentive to invest on the star. The archetypal stereotype cast indulging prominent actors and actresses framed the beauty standards of the decade. The fair skinned 6 feet tall Aryan race character as the alpha male protagonist and the shy slender fair skinned vulnerable actress were considered as the winning formula. The multi faceted cinema also provides the intriguing concept of the upper caste moguls preferred the upper caste, class landlord characters. The portrayal of the Malayali women bifurcated into the good obeying one and the evil educated self empowered women, a paradoxical saviour syndrome of patriarchy.

The representation and portrayal of lower caste men and women into mere comic characters with no or less importance in the story line, casted just as the uneducated and subordinate to the protagonist. The portrayal of lower caste and class women over the time was indignation with a shady nature. Exploiting their sexuality, these women were the side tracks of the upper-class men. The representation of the intersectional between classes, caste and gender was explicitly denoted in these films. Gender spectrum is an Avant Garde in the Malayalam cinema industry, with no or wrong interpretation of this sensitive concept. Movies in the past like Deshadana Kilikal karayar illa(1986) and the journey(2004) were received with a skeptical note and were more affiliated to fantasy than reality.

This socio political milieu has instigated a monologue in the production and portrayal of cinema to appeal to the master, mainstream, homophobic, cis men. Thus through which the cinema, a commercial end product owned by the producer, the director, and the hero. The last decade eviscerates these lacunae to a great extent. The economical consumption pattern of Malayali multitude had averted with the cinema infiltrating the lesser known strata of a horde community. The introduction of social media, YouTube, and other online platforms to free access to cinema has proliferated the incentive of the producer to invest in the cinema that narrates the downtrodden story. With the theater hit of Kammatipaddam(2016), Unda(2019), Traffic(2010), Moothon(2019) and Angamaly Dairies(2015), it’s quite evident that the receptivity of the Malayali multitude has accelerated profoundly in the recent decade.

The age-old conundrum of to whom the cinema as a product actually belongs to can be approached in umpteen ways. Although there being those many penetration points, one definitive argument clears the air to a great extent. However radical, morose or predictable genres a film belongs to, the matter of question ultimately circles down to the holy triumvirate. The holy triumvirate of the Director, the Producer and the socially revered Hero. Content, presentation and waxing of the ‘art’ that is cinema all fade into obscurity. Taking the cynical example of Lucifer(2019), one identifies how this trifecta effect amplifies the influence and image of cinema. Prithviraj being the progressive tycoon he is and Mohanlal being an undeniable King of the industry, what Lucifer lacks in conceptual clarity or presentational acuity is accounted for by the hazy smog of how the far-sighted director and the ‘complete actor’ belong to another artistically fuelled universe altogether. Thus, the viewers’ subjective interpretations are marred and tailored by vague perceptions of grandeur and artistic hegemony of the maker over the viewer. Therefore the argument is further morphed into a question of if objective interpretation actually exists. And if it does, how long do it take to surface in a lagoon of dominating alligators?

‘Aami’(2019) is a specimen one can take as a deviant here. Expected nodes of patriarchy drip in the feminist recollection of Kamala Surayya’s lived life with the fictitious character mapping itself displaying fear of the objective lens. But, what percolates deeper is the idea that it was not the Manju Warrier formula that worked, but the plot. So what happened to the triumvirate? How did it lose vigour? Or is it the case that society is confused in choosing between Surayya and Warrier? Or is it an indicator of the obsoleteness of the terminologies of commercial and alternate cinema? Talk about dilution of institutional framework.

Of course, symbiosis of the entire crew is what modern cinematic industry preaches and stands for. So they say. If that is the case, why does an Avengers Movie, lately ones which have brought philosophy in ways unchecked before to the audience, never reach the podium of a best picture Academy Award? Patronage and appreciation works in very subtle and implicit ways. So isn’t Downey Jr enough a hero? Is not one, but two Russo brothers not enough to muster up award breeding fragrances? Thus subjectivity of perception is concluded to be too layered and coiled, that it doesn’t work like a statistical average calculation. The bespectacled, long kurta wearing man with his dark locks of hair and the typical middle class housewife at the end of the day have all been reduced to mere consumers. Consumers that adhere to the rules of demand and supply. How else can one explain the ‘trendsetting’ phenomenon? Which genre is suddenly a trend which one is not? Who is the new princess of the industry, who has timed out? Too many questions ask for many answers certainly.

Now looking at the disease of consumerism qualitatively, one surmises that organs of trade can never be of greater value than the commodity itself. The commodity is the god in the liberal market. But the irony remains that the sole agent that can change the entire nature of the product is the consumer. The producer runs a social laboratory, a feedback chain of sorts, which brings to him the ideal tweak required every now and then, which are eventually diagnosed as weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the consumer. Cinema, a product or a commodity? There is a difference. A big one. Whose product? Better, commodity from which factory? Laborers add value throughout the production process. Reviewers? Who are we if not suppliers of feedback to the reel mother ship! Where does the cinema hall owner stand here? Is he a responsible platform builder or a consumer breeder?

Slaves of the system, unite!

G Pridhvi Kanth is a MA student from TISS. He is also a Social Science graduate. He is broadly interested in neoliberalism, mass media and gender studies. E-mail Id: [email protected]



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