Article Malayalam

Special – The best of Malayalam cinema 2011-2020

The past decade saw Malayalam cinema grow from a regional powerhouse into something more pan-Indian.

Shriram Iyengar

The Malayalam film industry has always been at the vanguard of progressivism. From directors like Adoor Gopalakrishnan to stars like Mammootty and Mohanlal, the appeal of figures from the industry has rivalled the popularity of Kerala's backwaters.

The last decade, in particular, has seen Malayalam cinema shine as a platform for creative and brave artistes. From the sensitive storytelling of Anjali Menon to the powerful imagery of Lijo Jose Pellissery to the versatility of Fahadh Faasil, the industry has produced craftsmen and women who seem destined to take it to greater heights.

Following are the 10 most brilliant Malayalam films, in chronological order, that lit up the world of cinema in the decade gone by. Do let us know in the comments below what your list would be.

Traffic (2011)

The first year of the decade saw Rajesh Pillai direct a thriller that would typify the new age of Malayalam cinema. The layered, complex story about an entire state uniting to transport a heart for a transplant is a race against time. The exploration of individual nature in all its complexity, the sharp script and fabulous acting lend this film its raw and captivating strength.

The film marked the beginning of an explorative spirit among Malayalam filmmakers who found that commercial success could go with critical acclaim. The film was remade in Hindi and Tamil but not with the same success. But it was simply the first of many Malayalam films that were ripe for remaking.

Traffic is available on Disney+ Hotstar.

22 Female Kottayam (2012)

Aashiq Abu followed up his brilliant Salt ‘n’ Pepper (2011) with this searing revenge drama. A woman who is raped and oppressed finds it within herself to exact revenge. Dark and gritty, the film is a twist on the usual masculine revenge fantasy tropes. The film turns the usual idea of the submissive female heroine on its head and gives us the ruthless leading lady that is the need of the hour.

Abu’s direction is buttressed by two wonderful performers, Rima Kallingal and Fahadh Faasil.

22 Female Kottayam is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Drishyam (2013)

Easily a contender for 'most remade Malayalam film of the decade', Drishyam was a critical and commercial success like no other. A riveting murder mystery, it has the pace and sleight-of-hand that can only be described as Hitchcockian. For once, the audience is left rooting for the murderers instead of the cops.

Remade in four Indian languages — Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada — the film also went on to become the first Indian movie to be remade in Chinese (The Sheep Without A Shepherd, 2019). Now, that’s a twist in itself.

Drishyam is available on Disney+ Hotstar.

Bangalore Days (2014)

There could be better films on the list, but Bangalore Days was a film that defined a generation. It was the moment when the torch of Malayalam cinema was handed over to a new generation. Directed by Anjali Menon, the film featured Dulquer Salmaan, Nazriya Nazim, Nivin Pauly, Parvathy Thiruvothu and Fahadh Faasil. This was truly a new breed that was coming into its own, occupying the space that Mammootty and Mohanlal once ruled.

A relatable story about cousins growing up together as best friends and finding comfort as they grow distant because of their jobs, marriage and studies, Bangalore Days was representative of India as it once was. It also, for a change, portrayed Malayali youth as metropolitan and vibrant. This might not be Menon's best film, or her artistes' either, but it is certainly Malayalam cinema's answer to Dil Chahta Hai (2001).

Bangalore Days is available on Disney+ Hotstar.

Premam (2015)

'Cool' was redefined in 2015 with Alphonse Puthren’s Premam. This coming-of-age film became a cultural phenomenon with its new-age exploration of love. It narrates the simple love story of a boy-next-door with refreshing innocence, humour and warmth. Youngsters thronged theatres wearing the iconic combination of black shirt and mundu as the film exploded into pop culture. The phenomenon that was Premam went viral with the internet and suddenly Malayalam cinema was liberated from the grasp of cinephiles and lovers of regional cinema.

Premam holds significance for the millennial generation that craved a love story that would mirror its own coming-of-age experience. While Nivin Pauly’s popularity was a given, it was Sai Pallavi’s naturally beautiful, freckled Malar Miss who truly represented the film’s heart.

Premam is available on Disney+ Hotstar.

Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016)

The decade also belongs to one of the most unassuming leading men of Malayalam cinema — Fahadh Faasil. In Maheshinte Prathikaaram, he found the perfect part to showcase his expressive abilities. In Fahadh, director Dileesh Pothan had a charming leading man who was the garnish on this well-crafted and layered anti-revenge saga. With all the charm and crispness of a short story, the film draws you in and wins you over with its humour, empathy and refreshing life-affirming qualities.

The film won the National awards for Best Original Screenplay (Syam Pushkaran) and Best Feature Film in Malayalam.

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017)

While this spot could well have gone to Rajeev Ravi’s Kammati Paadam (2016), Dileesh Pothan’s film sneaked in by virtue of its simplicity. A short, bitter-sweet tale of a young couple dealing with a chain-snatching, it delves into colourful characters, complicated people and their very human traits. Sajeev Pazhoor’s impeccable writing and Dileesh’s ability to subtly execute a complex character study through a simple incident are inspired.

The film is a standout for some fantastic performances including Fahadh Faasil as the wily thief and Nimisha Sajayan as Sreeja. Nimisha’s natural presence and comfort in front of the camera marked her as a standout to watch out for.

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is available on Disney+ Hotstar.

Ee Ma Yau (2018)

Lijo Jose Pellissery was definitely the director of the decade, marking his rise with Angamaly Diaries (2017) and cementing his place in the public mind with Jallikattu (2019), India's official entry to the Oscars this year. Yet, it is sardonic, moving Ee Ma Yau that makes the cut as his best work, in our opinion. A deep meditation on life, death and faith, the film stands out as one of the all-time classics of Malayalam cinema and captures the quest of a son to give his father a grand funeral.

With Shyju Khalid’s camera acting as a peephole into life in a coastal village, Pellissery crafts a beautiful yet simple ode to death. The magic lies in the excellent writing, courtesy PF Matthews, that brings out the many facets of a funeral. The director’s ability to successfully juggle all these aspects while piecing together a fulfilling work of art is what sets him apart as a luminary among his peers.

Ee Ma Yau is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Kumbalangi Nights (2019)

Madhu C Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights is a film that has a lasting effect. No praise is too high for its deep introspection of patriarchy and the changing nature of love. In a rare moment of transformation, writer Syam Pushkaran overturned the concept of masculinity in Malayalam cinema and did so without kicking up dust. Unlike their on-screen predecessors, the women in the film no longer need men to complete their stories; rather, it is the men who seek to improve themselves to be worthy of the women.

The magic of a masterpiece lies in the ease with which disparate elements fit in seamlessly. In Kumbalangi Nights, cinematography, writing, acting and music function in such harmony that to remove or even alter one element could cause the entire edifice to come tumbling down.

Kumbalangi Nights is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2020)

Last year marked a peak for Malayalam cinema. From the surreal Trance to the emotional Varane Avashyamund to the adorable Halal Love Story, the troubled year produced some unexpected surprises. Among those surprises was the triumph of star-led hits. One of them was the late Sachy’s Ayyappanum Koshiyum. A simple tale of a clash of egos turns into a detailed study of privilege, toxicity and power play in society through two headstrong characters. With Prithviraj Sukumaran and Biju Menon in the lead, the film is elevated by a textured screenplay and sparkling dialogue.

With a profusion of remakes in multiple languages that are giving visibility to truly original filmmakers and artistes who are leaving new audiences spellbound by their storytelling prowess, Malayalam cinema is on the threshold of transcendence. Hopefully, the new decade marks the next stage of its evolution.

Ayyappanum Koshiyum is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Related topics

Year in review