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January 24, 2001


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Sleaze time, folks!

R Ayyappan

January 1, 2000

Millennium Stars The first day of the year falsely hyped as the millennium year. A mega Malayalam movie with a pompous title Millennium Stars is relased on this mega Saturday.

An increasingly indifferent audience was lured. To their dismay, they found it too garish and the countdown began.

Millennium Stars bombed and with it a whopping (by Malayalam industry standards) one and a half crore rupees.

The disaster was portentious. All that was simmering within the industry all through the 1990s was about to culminate in one fatal explosion in 2000.

January 26, 2000

Republic Day. Malayalam cinema's biggest ever grosser Narasimham is released.

A Shaji Kailas potboiler, starring Mohanlal, so outrageously chauvinistic that 72% of those surveyed by a film magazine said they felt uncomfortable with the film.

Its massive success cast a gigantic shadow that devoured the entire Malayalam film industry. Well almost. "The Narasimham hangover is terrifically strong and it has, at least for the moment, killed the prospects of good films. I don't see any other reason for the failure of well made female-oriented films like Mazha and Madhuranombarakkattu," observes Arun of The New Indian Express.

Irony struck fast. The film eclipsed the supernova himself. For the first time in his career, Mohanlal found himself thoroughly overshadowed. By a character played by himself. In Narasimham's mustachioed hero who goes about threatening opponents with steel fists and wacky oneliners, he met his own nemesis. All his subsequent films fell flat.

Narasimham The internationally acclaimed Vaanaprastham robbed his production company of a couple of crores. His family drama, Life Is Beautiful, with Malayalam cinema's trendsetter Fazil had a wretched run at the BO.

Then came the family-action-romance cocktail, Sraddha, with Malayalam cinema's most consistent hit maker, I V Sasi. Again, we saw the megastar pratfall. Even after his latest supernatural thriller Devadootan (The Heavenly Messenger), Kerala's most loved star is yet to achieve redemption.

Meanwhile, rival star Mammootty rode the Narasimham wave, pocketed a earful of front bench cheers and effectively buoyed a sagging mass appeal. His Valiyettan (Big Brother), again directed by Shaji Kailas, was yet another odious display of male chauvinism. Kerala went out of its way to encourage Narasimham's younger brother.

March 10, 2000

An insignificant Friday or so it seemed. Kinnarathumpikal (Lovelorn Dragonflies) -- a film made for a meagre Rs 12 lakhs by an hitherto unknown associate cinematographer R J Prasad is released. For the first time, Malayalees set their eyes on Shakeela. Her dreamy eyes, puffed-up flesh squeezed within a low cut blouse and her deep, deep cleavage.

To Shakeela's oomph, add that illegal porn 'bit' and Eureka! Producers had an effective formula to tackle the Narasimham menace. The Shakeela starrer raked in a mind boggling Rs 4 crore. A host of low budget films, made at Rs 20-25 lakh, followed, taking advantage of the subsidy package offered by the government owned Chitranjali studio. New sex bombs were activated. Theatres were on fire. Voyeurs hooted, grunted and yelled for an encore.

More than anyone, it was Shakeela herself who is the most surprised by the success. "Many people tell me that my figure is suited for an actress. And most of the e-mail I receive are requests to reduce flab," the temptress is unable to fathom the craze. "Probably my eyes did the trick," she rationalises.

Shakeela Overweight she is. But it was Shakeela and her low cut blousisters who did all the sha-la-la this year.

"Look at the audience profile. More and more of our ladies are rooting for televised soaps. This leaves theatres to the mercy of men, particularly youngsters. So it is only natural that films which cater to their egos and their raunchy fantasies click," reasons Prasad Laxman, editor of Vellinakshatram, a leading film weekly.

But then, Kerala had a readymade environment for two epidemics to strike at will -- bootlegging and pornography. It is just a question of manipulating the resource mix. The Narasimham factor forced R J Prasad to add more flesh and the present boom ensued.

It happened in 1989 when P Chandrakumar, a clean family entertainer, was offended by the highhandedness of stars. He cast an extra by the name Abhilasha in the role of Eve in his costumeless biblical Adipapam (First Sin). The film turned out to be God's own country's first superhit sin. Abhilasha the Eve became a rage and Chandrakumar the Lord of soft porn. And with a vengeance he proclaimed : "Abhilasha's thighs and Mammootty's face costs the same."

"The boom was fuelled by a lenient Madras Censor Board. When they were barred from censoring Malayalam films, they dried up," says Rajakrishnan, a noted film historian.

Now, like Mohanlal, Shakeela and Chandrakumar too seek redemption. Shakeela is fed up with her bimbo image. "After my pending projects, I would like to take up character roles. Even a five-minute aunty role will do." Unfortunately for her, her image is made.

Even after a decade, Chandrakumar finds deliverance too hard to come by. This was the man who had given Malayalees some excellent film like Asthamayam. "After Kinnarathumpikal, I was flooded with offers. But never will I direct such a film. Today, all my good films are forgotten. I want my name back."

But some of Kerala's biggest talents -- Padmarajan, Bharatan and I V Sasi -- made their names in the late Seventies with films having sex as its leitmotif. I V Sasi's Avalude Ravukal, Padmarajan-Bharatan duo's Rathinirvedam and Thakara are even today hailed as bold creative experiments.

Unfortunately the classics of the late Seventies were manipulated with "that illegal porn bit" to finagle moolah from outside the State. The exploitation went to ridiculous levels. "I still remember P A Bakker's classic, Kabaninadi Chuvannappol (When the Kabani River turned red) releasing in Pune as The Red Lips of Miss Kabani," reminisces V R Gopinath, an FTII alumni and a noted director.

Malayalam cinema became synonymous with sleaze.

Then, it was crass injustice. But today? It has definitely lost its creative standi.

September 13, 2000

Raakkilippattu A humid Friday that flattered to deceive. Hit maker Priyadarshan's much awaited Raakkilippattu is slated for release. The distributor despatches the prints to all major theatres in the State. But he is not prepared for a rude shock. The exhibitors organise and ban the film from playing in any theatres until the distributor paid up.

The collection of advance money from theatre owners even before the shooting has begun has been prevalent of late. The distributor bargains by pitting theatres against each other and in the process squeezes the maximum amount. The advance money or hafta, as a theatre owner puts it, for a superstar movie could be as high as Rs 15 lakh.

"Nowadays, people seem reluctant to come to theatres and it has become difficult to recover even the advance money from our meagre collection. The distributor promises to make up with his next movie and coolly pockets the advance money for his next venture from another theatre," Mohankumar, the manager of the Trivandrum Kripa theatre says, bitterly.

When the practise became insufferably rampant, the exhibitors organised and embargoed producers who owed them. A dozen or more top films were thus locked in the box and barred from attending office.

The theatre owners, however, were not going to leave their projectors spool-less and allowed the porns to make a killing. Of the 73 films released last year, 21 were of the sleaze variety and most of them had recoverd their cost. But among the remaining 51, there were only three hits and two just-about hits.

While A class theatres recorded a 40% fall in collection, B and C classes suffered an alarming 50-60% reduction.

Malayalam cinema is neck-deep in trouble.

Even as more and more films see red, the production cost rises in geometric progression. From a budget of Rs 50 to Rs 75 lakhs for a superstar movie in 1995, it has flared up to over Rs 3 crores today. Even a film with second level stars costs Rs one crore.

Superstar Mammootty is furious. "If stars charge exorbitant rates, don't pay them," he makes a point and continues. "Ninety per cent of my producers are yet to give me the money they promised. So it is not star charges but bad planning which is at the root."

Producers agree. "Lack of planning is what is hitting cinema hard. There is no proper script and directors splurge unnecessarily," says Suresh Kumar, owner of Revathy Kalamandir, under whose banner was released two major BO duds of 2000.

In the Seventies and Eighties, Malayalam cinema's biggest boon was the presence of "floating producers": Non-resident Keralites who happily invested their surplus money into the making of cinema. "These people never minded failure. It was the love of cinema that kept them going. But when the Gulf boom ended, the floaters vanished. And today, we have fly-by-night producers who are completely ignorant of the nitty-gritties of filmmaking," director V R Gopinath avers.

The enormity of the problem can be gauged from the fact that Malayalam cinema today has only one established banner -- Seven Arts. And they did not have a single release last year.

Why should they? Especially when they are busy producing a superhit television soap. Mammootty

December 21, 1998

A fatal attraction begins. The first episode of Kerala's first megahit televison megaserial, Sthree (Woman) is aired today.

Sthree became part of an average cable viewing Malayali's existence. So too were its successors Charulata, Jwalayayi, Thaali and others.

"We are not willing to sacrifice our half hour excitement for the confusion of a two-and-a-half hour cinema. It's not worth it. Unless cinema sheds its mediocrity, it cannot hope to attract the family audience," says Anup Varghese, a business Executive working for Ushus Tech in Technopark.

Cinemascopes had effectively lost their clientele to the unassuming 22 inches.

However, it is the omnipresence of the superstars that chafes many. The general secretary of Kerala Cine Exhibitors Association T P Vasu is irritated. "It is during the festival season that we get the maximum collection. But the stars appear on a deluge of special programmes on the various channels simultaneously with the release of their movies. The audience get to see their favourite stars on TV and our theatres run dry even during festival days."

It is not just the exhibitors. Distributors too are a disgusted lot. "It is the satellite and cable network that is harming cinema most. On an average 14 films are aired everyday through all the channels. Cinema should get some kind of a protection to overcome this."

When producers finally decided to put a ban on film actors of a certain standing working in the small screen, it was shot down by the stars. It was not a surprise. Superstar Mammootty's company, Megabytes, is presently producing the most popular TV soap, Jwalayayi.

"Like the producers, everyone has their business interests. It is ridiculous to say that the crisis in Malayalam cinema is precipitated by the channels. Plan movies well and things will be allright," repeats Mammooty, the chairman of CPM backed Kairali channel. Mohanlal is also a director board member.

January 10, 2001

On the tenth day of the true millennium year, a policy decision is made. From today onwards, 'A' rated movies will not be subsidised by Chitranjali studio.

As if that was what the crisis was all about. It is the 'bit' stupid. Something which should have been ideally left to the care of a low level babu at the corporation, municipal or taluk level. The real problem lies elsewhere. Listen to Fazil, Malayalam cinema's greatest showman. "There is no crisis in the film industry other than the fact that we are not producing good movies."

In parting:

When a leading film magazine came out with its annual round up, the three circles of 2000 had the faces of Mammootty, Mohanlal and Shakeela. No arguments. It was they who starred in Y2k's three biggest hits. The very same hits that kicked Malayalam cinema beyond the brink of disaster.

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