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January 10, 2001


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'I love the films of the Sixties and Seventies'

Balachandra Menon It was in the Seventies that Balachandra Menon came into the Malayalam industry -- a whiff of fresh, funny, light-hearted air blowing into an industry that was stuck in the Prem Nazir rut at the time.

Menon wrote, directed, and acted in a succession of comedy-laced family dramas, creating in the process a signature all his own.

Interestingly, Menon's advent had an unlooked for side effect.

Till then, Malayalam movies revolved around the stars. Thus, you had a Nazir film, a Madhu film, a Sathyan film, a Jayan film.

But Menon, by putting the focus on the story, encouraged other young directors to forge their own cinematic paths -- and pretty soon, the Malayalam industry began to revolve around the director, each boasting his own unique signature.

Thus, we began to have Menon films, Padmarajan films, Bharatan films, George films....

The advent of television came as a roadblock to the likes of Menon. His core audience began increasingly to stay at home and watch family-oriented dramas and soaps on the small screen, and thus Menon's fare became passe.

He went into hibernation, emerging in 1998 with Samantharangal, which won a national award. In the same year, Menon was also named Best Actor, an honour he shared with Suresh Gopi.

Ask him about the Malayalam industry today, and Menon's anger comes to the fore. Shobha Warrier records, and reproduces, that angst....

I came into this industry in the mid-seventies. Those were the days of ravukal (nights). (After the phenomenal success of Avalude Ravukal, the IV Sasi film starring Seema, theatres were flooded with soft-porn films on the 'night' theme).

I can proudly say that I played a key role in taking Malayalam films from such ‘night films’ to family dramas. And in the process, I brought the family back into the theatres.

Again, it is not a good sign in an industry if films are known as an actor’s film. Actors and actresses are just one of the ingredients used by the filmmaker. A film is, ultimately, a director's vision.

When I came into the film world, we had only Nazir’s films or Sathyan’s films.

But when we began to make films, directors got recognition, films were known by the name of the director who made it. It was our film, our idea, our vision. Thus, the control also lay with the director. We decided everything, up to and including the budget.

And as a result, the director had a sense of responsibility and he made meaningful films on a meaningful budget.

Once the electronic medium became popular, however, the kind of family dramas we made became irrelevant. A sizeable chunk of our audience preferred to sit at home and watch television. The nature of the theatre-going public changed drastically.

The new breed of audiences looked for just one kind of story -- the story of a bastard!

From then on, the hero of Malayalam cinema went around asking everyone, 'who is my father?' Criminals, gangsters and underworld kings became the new heroes of Malayalam films. The only language that the hero knew was that of a gun.

It was then that Mohanlal entered -- and gained popularity as an action hero.

Where can you fit a family drama into that scenario? Have you seen the posters of today’s films? Have you seen a smile on the hero’s face? You will not -- because today's heroes believe only in anger and ferocious expressions.

The action film that took over from the family drama had no qualms in taking the hero from Kuttanad to Czechoslovakia to avenge his father's killing! And this was the start of the big-budget film. That trend continues -- what is happening to Mammootty’s new film, Dubai?

If you are looking for answers, then you have to think of this period as the start of a process of deterioration. Films were unrealistic, over-priced and, ultimately, financially unsuccessful.

The producer has learnt his lesson, and is now very aggressive. He wants his films to run, and to recover his investment.

But unfortunately, we have forgotten the basics of filmmaking -- how to invest money and how to get it back. They still believe that the presence of a superstar will bring back the money. But tell me, how many films of these superstars have become commercially successful?

Today, the industry revolves around the superstar. But the superstar is not, most of the time, commercially successful. And therefore, the industry is in trouble.

It is not just the producers and directors -- I believe even the press is responsible for the deterioration of our industry.

It is the press that stopped focussing on the story, and started hyping the stars, giving them their larger than life image. The press wanted to write about stars, not films. The press, thus, has played a major role in bringing down the standard of our films.

I remember when I first came into the industry, every film of mine had a new face. And I didn't have any problems -- the press supported my films, they publicised the films, they wrote about it, they put even new faces on their cover.

Today, the magazines do not do that -- they only carry photographs and articles on the superstars. And if there is no real superstar around, they create one with their own hype. And in the meantime, good cinema, good films, are forgotten.

Everyone has a responsibility. Even actors. A responsible actor should be able to stand up and say, I won't act in stupid films. But no one, today, has the courage to do that.

I know from experience that stars like Prem Nazir had a different mindset. For instance, if a film of Nazir's didn't do well, he would call the producer and give him dates, even act for free, to help him out. Today's actors have no such feelings, no concern for the producers and directors -- they are only interested in earning money.

I will say without any hesitation that I love the films of the Sixties and Seventies.

Then came the 'intellectual films' -- which ended up alienating the audiences altogether. With all due respect to the late Mr Aravindan, who was one of the leading practitioners of 'intellectual films', let me tell you that I couldn't digest a single one of the films he made.

I saw his film Esthappan recently on television, and thought it was a bad films. In fact, I would go further and say that these 'intellectual films' also contributed to the decline of our standards.

Look at it this way -- even in Kerala, where literacy levels are high, people stay away from theatres screening 'award-winning' films. Why? Don't we need to ask ourselves that?

In fact, the best example of what these films have done to the audience is my own Samantharangal. Because it won the national award, people thought it was a film meant for 'intellectuals' -- and stayed away.

When people had to chose between an out and out commercial film, like Mohanlal's recent Narasimham, and a class film like Shaji Karun's Vaanaprastham, they chose the former. Why?

It was not because Vaanaprastham was an 'intellectual film', in the sense of say an Aravindan film. Unfortunately, however, those 'intellectual' film-makers had given a tag on a certain kind of films and in the process, chased the audience away. That tag still sticks -- and therefore, good, class movies suffer.

A good film is a good film, period. It should hold not only in the time it is made, but at any point. Look at Chemmeen -- what a brilliant film that was!

Why is it relevant, why is it still talked about? Mind you, I wouldn't call it a director's film -- it was based on a superb novel, it had some brilliant performances and above all, it had a superb editor!

Overall, though, Chemmeen was a good film. It told a story and it told it well. And that is why Chemmeen, when it was recently re-released, was watched by the people of Kerala, decades after it was first made, by a generation that was not even born when the film was first released.

That is what good film-making is all about.


God's own films!
'Malayalam cinema's definitely growing'
'Pain drives all great creations'
'It's the filmmaker's duty to entertain'
'The films I consider bad win awards!'
'Today we have only copycats'
'Cinema is both art and industry'
'We have a long way to go'
'You don't see emotion these days'

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