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Kochi and Malayalam cinema: An eternal love story that is ageing like fine wine

Ever since the relocation of Malayalam cinema’s base from Kodambakkam to Kochi, the port city has been a key locale for numerous movies. Thanks to its composite nature, Kochi became home to many motion pictures and some iconic characters. Extracting the Queen of Arabian Sea from its cinema, here's the next in our 'city in the cinema' series.

Kochi in moviesKochi has been a key locale for numerous movies.

“There’s a proverb that goes ‘once you see Kochi, you will forget even your wife’. That’s probably why all the Dutch, Portuguese, Konkanis, etc. set out for this place. One can easily get a specimen of the world by keeping a camera above Kochi.” — CI George (Vijayaraghavan, Big B)

For years after its boom, Malayalam cinema was based in Kodambakkam, Chennai — the centre of the Tamil film industry known as Kollywood, a portmanteau of Kodambakkam and Hollywood. Just like their Tamil counterparts, most Malayalam superstars and technicians had their permanent residences in Madras before the industry shifted its base to Kochi.

Ever since this relocation, the port city has been a key locale for numerous movies. Though not all such works managed to capture the ethos of Kochi in its entirety, there are a good number of films that succeeded in doing so by serving unique slices of Ernakulam to the audience. Slices filled with stories, visuals, and cultures from across the city that are so similar, yet so different.

Kochi and multiculturalism

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Though Kerala is mostly known for its hill stations, backwaters, ecotourism destinations, and beaches, Kochi has made a name for itself with its multifaceted glory. Apart from its unique geographic features, one of the main reasons why Kochi, or Ernakulam district in general, became the cynosure of all eyes is because it’s a multiethnic society.

Historically, Kochi served as an important trading centre for a long time, following the arrival of the first European traders in the 16th century. During those days, Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, witnessed successive waves of migration by the Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese – mostly traders.

Though a good number of these migrants left the city later, a few settled here and their subsequent generations became a part of Kochi’s history, giving the port city a deep understanding of multiculturalism.

Hence, each locality in Kochi metropolitan area embodies distinctive characteristics, ranging from socio-political aspects to dialects, that might be completely different from the very place it shares a border with. The same can be found in the movies as well.

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As a result, it might seem quite difficult to understand the cultural features of the city from its movies since the nuances are very discrete. And, as the genre changes, these discrepancies become more evident. But, I guess, that’s the beauty of getting into the depths of such historical places via artworks. It’s kind of like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

Kochi becomes the vogue

For many years following the 1980s, considered the golden age of Malayalam cinema, the industry followed a pattern. Most filmmakers used rural areas as major locations because of their scenic beauty and also due to the acceptance that family dramas that unfold in rural Kerala received. However, the “locality” was completely irrelevant in these works and characters were given region-neutral languages, irrespective of which place the story was set in.

But, Jnanpith awardee and screenwriter MT Vasudevan Nair’s signature Valluvanadan accent slowly became popular and most filmmakers started adapting it. Writers like Lohithadas popularised the dialect further, which indeed led to the invisibilisation of cultural nuances, basically because most stories were about the upper caste and/or upper class. And, this love for elitism went on for quite some time.

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In the 2000s, around the time when Malayalis were ‘getting bored’ of the movies that celebrated the toxic masculinity of upper caste heroes who were portrayed as the ultimate saviours of their creed/clan, began a gradual shift. The first step in this process was the shift in locales from rural Kerala to its urban counterparts. And since Ernakulam was witnessing a development boom, filmmakers started betting on the port city.

However, during the initial days, most directors were keen only on exploring the unlawful activities in Kochi, which had by then become infamous for organised crime.

The City in Cinema: New Delhi | Mumbai | Chennai

If I am not wrong, A.K. Sajan can be considered the godfather of Kochi-based Malayalam crime/gangster thrillers. His Stop Violence (2002) was the first in line to explore criminal activities here. It also showed how cops and criminals work hand-in-glove for each other’s growth. However, apart from the occasional usage of the word Numma (a local way of saying ‘us’) by a few characters, the movie did not focus on the regional dialect at all and followed the same region-neutral language.

T. K. Rajeev Kumar’s crime thriller Ivar (2003) was the first movie that did some justice to the city. Unlike Stop Violence, Ivar incorporated better visuals of Kochi. Though the regional dialect was completely absent in this crime thriller too, it at least tried to explore different parts of Kochi. However, one who is familiar with Kochi could easily understand that most of these locales were touristy and that the makers did not put much effort into finding unexplored ones.

Chronologically speaking, Kamal’s Gramophone (2003) came out next. A simple romantic drama that received much acclaim for its entrancing songs, Gramophone was probably the first movie to give decent screen space to Cochin Jews, though their representation was a bit problematic. One of the oldest groups of Jews in India, the history of Cochin Jews is an integral part of Kochi’s history. Some of the major attractions of the port city are their synagogues. Gramophone also shed light on the lives of yesteryear local musicians who, despite having talent, couldn’t make big and ended up being impoverished.

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Ranjith’s Black (2004), starring Mammootty as Karikkamuri Shanmughan that went on to become an iconic character, was the next to cash in on the Kochi-based gangster genre. Black can be considered the first movie that began, though not flawlessly, incorporating the regional accent. It was also the first movie to capture unfamiliar visuals from different parts of the city, thanks to cinematographer Amal Neerad.

From Mammootty’s introduction and the following fight scene inside a market and the superhit Ambalakkara song set against the backdrop of a typical Kochi wedding eve to showing how guest workers in Kochi struggle to make both ends meet and how the powerful people use such labourers to escape the law, the movie brought to screen various shades of Kochi’s grey.

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Though it failed to receive any response from the audience, B. Unnikrishnan’s Smart City (2006) also discussed a similar topic – the nexus between politicians and criminals in the city. But a close look at the aforementioned works would show that none of these makers managed to uncover the various tinges in Kochi’s palette.

The April that changed the game

Two movies released within a gap of one week in April 2007 changed Malayalam cinema’s perception of the district/city and set the bar high for the flicks to come. Despite belonging to completely different genres – one being a crime thriller while the other a comedy-drama – Chotta Mumbai, starring Mohanlal, and Big B, starring Mammootty, captured the essence and spirit of Kochi and dished out some never-seen-before images of the city.

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From the visualisation of colonies in Fort Kochi and Mattanchery wherein those belonging to the lower middle class live, to the mafia network, the struggles of unemployed youngsters who turn to petty crimes for money, and the nuances of the local dialect, these two films set some standards for how ‘regional’ films should be.

While Big B was directed by Amal Neerad, Chotta Mumbai was by Anwar Rasheed. Probably because both of them were alumni of the historic Maharajas College, located in the heart of Ernakulam, they had a better understanding of the city and managed to portray the different tints of the city as (cinematically) honest as possible. It was these two flicks that set the ball rolling.

Representation of Kochi… in ‘new-generation’ films

After being stuck in a loop of age-old narrative techniques, the arrival of a group of youngsters, in the early 2010s, came as a breath of fresh air for Malayalam cinema.

Two of the earliest works that kicked off this trend were Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nayakan (2010) and Sameer Thahir’s Chaappa Kurishu (2011), which marked the debut of the two as directors. These movies dug out the underlying aesthetics of the urban agglomeration in a more natural way and popularised the unfathomed areas in Kochi.

Shot entirely with a Canon 7D DSLR camera, Chaappa Kurishu, an edge-of-the-seat chase-thriller, exquisitely captured the labyrinth-like alleys in the city and the lives of the urban youngsters.

Next came Lijo’s City of God (2011). With the help of a hyperlink narrative structure, this movie showed how those belonging to completely different socio-economic backgrounds crossed paths due to the cramped nature of the city and how their lives, albeit not being directly connected, influenced and affected that of the other. It also showed the lives of Tamil guest workers in the city, who constitute a considerably large population, and that of land sharks.

Released in 2012, Trivandrum Lodge depicted the story of a group of people living in an age-old cottage located adjacent to the Vembanadu lake. This VK Prakash film introduced the audience to a Mattancherry that was completely new to those belonging to other parts of the state. Without the usual visuals of streets filled with antique shops on both sides, Trivandrum Lodge picturised a Kochi that was far away from the heart of the city.

…in romantic dramas

Three romantic dramas set in various parts of the city shed a spotlight on the idyllic features of Kochi. Blessy’s Pranayam (2011), about a love triangle among three elderly persons, beautifully used the scenic beauty of Kochi to visualise the depth of the romance.

Meanwhile, Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi (2017) was more about the run-of-the-mills parts of the city that are familiar to almost all Ernakulamkaar. Those who have had romantic relationships while living in the city could relate to the beauty of these places – from roadside tea shops that stay open till late at night, and small joints that sell grilled chicken and shawarmas, to AC low-floor buses and the never-ending footpaths; these all add to the charm of the city.

The sumptuous cinematography, colour tone, and Rex Vijayan’s music made it mystical.

For a lot of people who live in other parts of Kerala and have only been to Kochi occasionally, Rajeev Ravi’s Annayum Rasoolum (2013) was an ultimate tour of the city. About a star-crossed romance between a Muslim taxi driver and a Latin Christian saleswoman, both from conservative working-class families, Annayum Rasoolum left the audience awe-struck with its unusual making style, visuals, detailing, and proper usage of dialects. Shot in Fort Kochi, Mattancherry, and Vypin, located along the backwaters, the movie captured the soul of the city in its entirety.

Both indoor and outdoor scenes in this movie were completely different from anything that the audience had seen till then. While these visuals were alien to non-residents, they were like straight from next door for Ernakulamkaar. In fact, the importance given to a ferry, which connects the Vypin Islands with the mainland, underlined the brilliance of the movie since the day-to-day lives of hundreds of natives depend on the timings of this ferry.

Also, who can forget Shahabaz Aman’s rendition of the evergreen song “Kayalinarike Kodikalparathi”, penned by Meppalli Balan and originally sung by Mehboob, that described the history and geography of Kochi.

All in all, Malayalees received a modern-day classic when master cinematographer Rajeev Ravi donned the director’s hat for the first time.

…in dramas and comedy-dramas

These movies mostly revolved around the bromance among youngsters. From their daily affairs and explorations to leisure activities and struggles with life, these movies limned the lives of young adults and youths.

Jean Paul Lal’s Honey Bee (2013), a [semi] stoner film, was an out-and-out Ernakulam flick. From the first scene itself, the audiences are assured that they are being taken for a fun-entertaining ride along Kochi and adjacent areas, and the makers kept their word. A major reason why the movie became popular was due to the cent per cent usage of the local accent. Not even a single character was given a region-neutral dialect. The makers also banked on the speech style of youths in Kochi wherein they use an English word now and then.

Nadirsha’s comedy-drama Amar Akbar Anthony (2015) also followed the same pattern and relied on the lives of lower-middle-class youngsters whose wallets go empty soon after their salaries get credited.

Actor-turned-director Soubin Shahir’s Parava (2017) was one of the biggest hits of that year and for all the right reasons. Without using any of the usual comedy elements associated with youths, Parava elegantly illustrated the lives of teens and adults in the city. From the love for cricket, pigeon taming, and kite-flying to regional cuisine – Parava leveraged everything intrinsic to the city, which helped the audience get a feeling of ‘being at home’.

…in gangster/crime thriller movies

Though we already discussed several crime thrillers, two flicks that require a separate subhead are LJP’s Angamaly Diaries (2017) and Amal Neerad’s Bheeshma Parvam (2022).

Especially since LJP and Neerad had already become mavens in capturing Ernakulam, these movies were leaps and bounds better than their previous works, especially in terms of technical perfection.

Unlike its predecessors, Angamaly Diaries was set in a town located almost 45 km away from the heart of the city. Considered the Malayalam equivalent of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Angamaly Diaries was about the gang wars in a town with a population of just about 35,000 people.

Regardless of glorifying toxic masculinity, the movie became a touchstone for regional films. In its running time of over two hours, the film, not even once, moved away from being a film about the town. Going the extra mile, the film also encompassed real-life factors like the contribution of the pork business to the town’s economy, the mafias ruling the markets, their love for food, and so on.

Set in the ‘80s Kochi, Bheeshma Parvam delineated the period in a pitch-perfect manner. From props and costumes to sets and mannerisms, the makers managed to get almost everything right. While Bheeshma Parvam was a lollapalooza for the late millennials and Gen Zs, taking them to a period that they had only heard of, it was a nostalgia ride for the boomers and Gen Xs.

From the outskirts

Two of the most celebrated contemporary classics in Malayalam cinema – LJP’s Ee.Ma.Yau (2018) and Madhu C. Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights (2019) – were both set in two places located on the far-ends of Kochi. Albeit completely devoid of all characteristics of the heartland, these areas too carry certain quirks of the city.

A tragicomedy filled with dark humour, Ee.Ma.Yau was set in Chellanam, a coastal village in Ernakulam with a significant fishermen population. Revolving around the death and funeral of an elderly man belonging to the Latin Catholic community, the movie was loaded with characters that personified almost all human emotions and traits.

With raw visuals and attention to minute details, the makers turned Chellanam into an omnipresent character; more like a mute and helpless spectator to everything unfolding around it.

Overall, the movie was a journey across a village on which a palpable gloom has descended. As the film progressed, the makers took the audience to the depths of the village and showed the crude traits of the people.

Set in the fishing village of Kumbalangi in Kochi, Kumbalangi Nights centred on the lives of four brothers belonging to a dysfunctional family. Just like Ee.Ma.Yau, the makers of this flick too ensured to provide utmost importance to the place that the movie was set in. From toxic masculinity and familial misogyny to the nonsensical assignment of gender roles and how seemingly functional families look from the inside – the movie addressed almost everything that happens around us, which we conveniently turn a blind eye to. The village of Kumbalangi also appears as a (figurative) pivotal character, showing how the age-old narrative and notion of “rural areas are virtuous” is a farce and that people are abhorrent in general.

What was Kochi built on?

Saving the best for last, maestro Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatipaadam (2016) was not just a cinematic masterpiece but it also documented Kochi’s history. Careful with the word history here. The movie did not talk about the ancient history of the port city or how historical events helped in shaping today’s Kochi. The movie focused on the transformation of Kochi into Ernakulam city and how ‘certain’ people were displaced, and dispossessed of lands and properties for the growth of the city.

And with no doubt, one can assume that caste played an important role in this dispossession. Just like every other city, Kochi too, as Kammatipaadam tried to establish, was built on the ruins of those who were forcibly evicted from their homeland. Those who the people-in-power found to be courageous enough to stand in their way were tamed by providing ‘employment’. What kind of jobs? They were turned into henchmen. Since hunger was their foremost worry, the Dalits took up whatever jobs that ‘came their way’ (to be more precise, the only jobs that were offered to them) which would help them find daily bread.

Kammatipaadam vehemently portrayed the roles played by caste, class, and power in the urbanisation of Kochi.

As the story unfolded over decades, Kammatipaadam radiantly showed the growth and expansion of Kochi and how real estate and other mafias built the Ernakulam that one can see today.

The list does not end here… There are several other movies like Martin Prakkat’s Charlie (2015) and Alphonse Puthren’s Premam (2015) that used various parts of the city adequately. However, since I feel these movies failed to do complete justice to the locales, I am not adding them here – though the readers are free to debate this notion.

Now that Rajeev Ravi is coming with his latest flick – Thuramukham – a period drama, apparently based on labourers, unions, and peasant movements, film buffs can undoubtedly assume that they would get to see a fresh shade of the port city, which never fails to entertain the masses.

First published on: 29-09-2022 at 08:09:14 am
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