Iruppam Veedu Sasidharan or I.V. Sasi, the Malayalam film director who died on Tuesday aged 69, directed over 150 films in a career that spanned four decades, two-thirds of which ran for over a hundred days in theatres. Sasi trained to be a painter, but turned out to be the biggest maker of hits that Malayalam cinema has seen. He had the uncanny ability to relate to audiences and knew how to tell a story well. He took risks with story, artists, budgets — and mostly got it right. Among the untested actors he launched as heroes and heroines were Mammootty, Mohanlal and Sridevi.
When Malayalam cinema of the 1970s preferred family tear-jerkers, Sasi ventured to tell the story of a prostitute. Avalude Ravukal (Her Nights), with its suggestive posters, was a daring film and a runaway hit. It gained infamy, though unfairly, as a trend-setter of soft-porn films: Sasi counted Avalude Ravukal among his best films. Subaltern Kerala found its voice in Sasi’s films that captured the life and rhythm of the underclass against the broad canvas of a society in the throes of change. One of his big hits, Angadi (Market), told the story of the Kozhikode market. Similarly, 1921 was a period film about the Malabar rebellion. In between, he collaborated with well-known writer, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, to make films that sensitively portrayed middle-class lives. His last big hit, Devasuram, gave a second wind to Mohanlal’s career.
Sasi was a product of the 1970s, a breakthrough decade for Kerala. This was a time when Kerala woke up from the idealist slumber of the previous two decades to a crisis-ridden economy and society. The post-Independence youth had started to question the failures of Nehru’s India, the working class had turned restive, Naxalbari was finding its echo, and a new modernism was challenging the norms in literature, cinema and other art forms. Sasi’s films captured a slice of this change — they had a politics that revealed the rumble in the underbelly of Kerala society and its suppressed violence.