* The newer actors are redefining the decades old big screen driven dual star system in the State

* “New OTT oriented Malayalam cinema is addressing a globalised modernity”

* “Engaging with the right set of people in a digital market is a tricky job. People have options”


C U Soon, Joji, Sara’s, Aanum Pennum, and Aarkariyam are among the OTT-oriented standout Malayalam movies that have streamed into the hearts of home-bound audiences in the recent months . Over a year ago, the film industry and the entertainment sector was brought to its knees by a rampaging virus. Even when the big film industries — Bollywood and the moneyed regional industries — were on a standstill mode, the much smaller Malayalam film industry perked up not only to respond to the pandemic in creative ways, but also to find an outlet for them on OTT platforms. In the bargain, it has discovered a clutch of actors who are not walking the formulaic routes laid out by the industry. The new platform and the newer actors are redefining the decades old big screen driven dual star system in the State.

The OTT stars are more independent artistes than industry professionals, thanks to the avenues opened out by the Internet. When they are not acting, one might catch them singing or rapping. Darshana Rajendran, who has had three OTT releases since last year, says: “I do not feel anything is tying me down; tomorrow it could be something completely different from what I am doing, and if it excites me, I will try my hand at it. I am not tied to platforms or forms, whether it is theatre or music.” Rajendran recalls how actor Fahadh Faasil introduced the concept behind C U Soon to her; a story told through mobile and laptop screens, and made within the pandemic constraints last year. Since it was an experimental venture, he wasn’t sure which platform would work for the film, and if none worked, he had said it might even be released on YouTube. “None of that was important to me,” Rajendran observes. “It did not matter to me where it was going to be. It’s always been about the process, work, and the team I am associating with that was more important,” she adds.

Strong women characters

The OTT films have also paved the way for a resurgence of strong women characters in the storyline. Take a look at the roles played by Rajendran, she is a witty, no-nonsense college student in Aanum Pennum , a confident lawyer in Irul , and an emotionally complex protagonist in C U Soon . She gives a lot of credit to the film-makers and actors for helping her bring out these nuanced characters. At the same time, she contextualises the present trend with that of the Malayalam film history in the ’80s: “The films of [directors] Padmarajan and Bharathan had female characters so layered and nuanced. I do not think we have reached that [stage] yet. A decade ago there was a lot of political incorrectness and problematic portrayals of women characters. But we, as makers and as an audience as a collective, are more aware and conscious now.”


New frontiers: Directors such as Mahesh Narayanan, who made a mark with their powerful scripts, have found ways to thrive in the middle of the pandemic


The directors who have made a mark with their powerful scripts have also found ways to thrive in the middle of the pandemic. Mahesh Narayanan, who won critical acclaim for Take Off, turned into a prolific film-maker during the pandemic. Last year, his C U Soon created a buzz among film buffs who were drawn to the novelty of its form. His directorial venture Malik , a mega-scale project originally slated for theatrical release, had an opening on the OTT space last month. “I, primarily, am a writer and a director. When I am writing a screenplay, I am not looking for an actor, even if it’s Fahadh ( Malik) , Parvathy ( Take Off) , or Darshana and Roshan Mathews in C U Soon . I do not have any figures in mind. I just write for my character. I believe in the screenplay I am writing.”

The film-makers have become experimental in theme and form. Joji, for instance, revolved around a minimal cast in a house. The film was dark, but the treatment, subtle and controlled. Muraleedharan Tharayil, a film scholar, observes, “The new OTT oriented Malayalam cinema is addressing a new globalised modernity. Subjects and landscapes are the new stars. There is also a self-conscious exoticisation of the Kerala landscape, though not exactly in the mode of calendar photography. Think of all those aerial shots of the plantations in Joji , the seascapes in the songs of Malik, and the overdone apartment interiors in Sara’s . But I do feel it’s a little early to generalise as many of the OTT releases were originally intended for the multiplexes.”

For an experimental audience

However, Narayanan’s team had made C U Soon exclusively for home-viewing experience, and films such as Irul or Joji benefit from the experiment-loving OTT audience. And the contemporary actors are game for exploring this new reality. “ C U Soon is about Anu, the girl I portrayed. If it was not for Fahadh, the film would not have taken off or the character would not have been the way it is. In Kerala, I have always felt it is mostly about the story and not so much about the hero. With Irul again, both these actors, Fahadh and Soubin Shahir, roped me in saying my character is the pivot of the film — the eye of the audience. They are happy to share space and the OTT realm is also letting it happen. There is space for that exploration,” says Rajendran.

With the advent of OTTs, the manner in which we consume visual content has changed. One can see the difference in treatments in Narayanan’s films, C U Soon and Malik — a film tailor-made for the big screen. The 13-minute long introduction shot without a cut in Malik is more suited for a languorous watch in the theatre than as an OTT film viewing experience.

While filming C U Soon , the makers considered all consumer devices, including phones and laptops, and their effects on the audience. Viewers of OTT space have less patience for content that does not engage. It’s like reading a book, says Narayanan. They have the luxury of choice and can skip right ahead to the climax or their favourite part if the film doesn’t hook them in the first 10 minutes. “The only thing that varies when you approach two different platforms, OTT and theatres, is the way you write the content. The screenplay differs. A lot of people feel that in digital space you get immense freedom in portraying characters. That’s true. But, engaging with the right set of people in a digital market is a tricky job. People have options. They have an interactive tool called the remote or the mouse.”

The two Ms

Where does the rise of OTT leave the two big stars of Malayalam cinema — Mammootty and Mohanlal? Can the iconic Ms, stars of the pre-OTT era, keep up with the new order? Muraleedharan is not very hopeful. “It is not because they are not talented but because they are irrecoverably trapped in their ‘star’ personae. Even if they wish, it won’t be easy for them to break free.”

However, the Mohanlal starrer Drishyam 2 was a huge OTT hit. Muraleedharan says it was for a reason. “ Drishyam2 was destined to be a hit because of the incredible success of part one and the curiosity it had generated. I am not sure if we could give all the credit to the star’s presence. Anyway, I feel that both the superstars of Malayalam are now past their prime and cannot fit in the new OTT wave unless they are ready to accept drastically different roles like Biju Menon playing a man over 70 years in Aarkariyam . Mammootty has not had a decent hit for a very long time. Most probably, they won’t be able to adapt to the new patterns. This may be a premature conclusion; we need to wait and see how things turn out.


Brave order: ‘Aarkariyam’, released on OTT, had Biju Menon stepping out of his comfort zone to portray a senior citizen


That does not necessarily mean the star system will not continue. The new viewing culture brings with it the trend of overnight sensations. New media spews out stars at a heady pace. “Just look at the girl who winked and became an overnight star. ‘Who is she?’ was the collective question across India. If her upcoming projects had great momentum, her reach would have gone to a different level,” Narayanan points out. Also performance reviews tend to still be quite star-centric. Apart from a couple of reviews, the initial write-ups on Malik , with an ensemble cast, stressed on the two leading stars’ performances. Muraleedharan rightly observes, “The pandemic and OTT platforms have certainly generated a new ‘Malayalam cinema’ and a new star system with Fahadh leading the brigade.”

Will the new OTT space create yet another star system, or will it re-envision a new film culture that prioritises the actor over the star? One has to wait and watch.

Parshathy J Nath is a theatre artiste and writer based in Thrissur