A new brigade of writers and directors have won over the cynical Malayali audience. This new wave of Malayalam cinema experiments with simple but unusual themes, features actors rather than stars and refreshingly, the films are set in new locales. Much to the delight of North Keralites, who feel ignored by the Thiruvananthapuram-Kochi lobby and are ever ready to claim cultural superiority, filmdom has finally ventured northward.
Until recently, Malayalam films were mostly set in south or central Kerala. Now, many of the new films have an air of freshness from their Malabar setting. Notable among such movies released in the past year are Adaminte Makan Abu, which won four National Awards and was sent as India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards; Ustad Hotel, whose westernised version of a traditional Mappilappattu (sung during Muslim weddings by the bride's relatives to welcome the groom) had youngsters head-banging; and Thattathin Marayathu, a romance which within weeks of its release set a box office record. These films were both successful and different, but all of them suffered from a small, noticeable flaw.
In Adaminte Makan Abu, a poor, elderly Muslim couple in a village near Kozhikode were played by Salim Kumar and Zarina Wahab. Directed by Salim Ahamed, the film’s music, cinematography and Kumar's performance were stunning. The only sore note, which struck me right from the very beginning, was in the way they spoke their dialogues.
Kerala is a small state but has several distinguishable dialects. The Malayalam spoken in Thiruvanathapuram is poles apart from what you hear in Kannur, in the north. People from Ernakulam, Kottayam, Thrissur, Palakkad, Kozhikode and Kasargod speak so differently that it’s almost like another tongue.
Malayalam cinema has long overlooked this aspect. Its actors, irrespective of where the films are set, speak a textbookish Malayalam with a neutral accent. Even Hariharan’s Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha about the legendary Chekavar warriors of North Kerala, which won many national awards in 1989 and was written by MT Vasudevan Nair, had its lead actor (Mammootty) shunning the local accent. Often, Christian and Muslim characters speak an exaggerated and awkward dialect.
Venturing northward has compounded the problem of accents. In Malabar, everyone speaks with a twang. Words here are crunched into musical short form, turning many words onomatopoeic. The director of Adaminte Makan Abu, Ahamed is from Mattanur (near Kannur) and therefore must be familiar with the accent. He must have tried to get the cast to speak the way locals do and lead actor Salim Kumar came close. But most of the others failed miserably.
Ustad Hotel, written by Anjali Menon and directed by Anwar Rasheed, stars Dulquer Salmaan (Mammootty’s son) in the lead role and Thilakan, Siddique, and Nithya Menon in supporting roles. They have acted well, but messed up the accent. Salmaan can be forgiven since his character supposedly lived in the Gulf and studied in Switzerland. But the others have no such excuse. I enjoyed the film, loved its spunky and real characters, but the wrong pronunciation took away some of the pleasure. Ranjith Sankar’s Molly Aunty Rocks has the same problem. In comparison, Thattathin Marayathu, written and directed by Vineeth Sreenivasan from Thalassery, was better in the dialect department.
Cinephiles of south and central Kerala might be oblivious to it, but for those from the little places where the films are set, the flaws are pronounced. We like the movies, but we can't help wishing this niggling defect wouldn't keep us from losing ourselves in the world on the silver screen.