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Last Updated Monday November 20 2017 10:59 AM IST

Is Mollywood reaping what they sowed?

B. Ashok
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Is Mollywood reaping what they sowed?

It’s no news that high-profile crimes often become fodder for movie scripts, and the tremendous public interest in such cases is used as a bait to pull in the crowds. But when such crimes take place in film industry's backyard, they tend to remain in the spotlight longer than usual.

Although Bollywood is known for its nexus with the underworld, its poorer cousin down south (read Mollywood) was devoid of the cancer of criminality in film production. Well, not anymore.

The interrogation of a leading Mollywood actor last week only points to the new house rules that govern the hyper-commercialized version 2.0. Cinema has also been a dynamic social animator in Kerala. The exponential growth of the market and production of Malayalam cinema, which has far crossed the carrying capacity offered by its native audience, is remarkable. For instance, there are more than 200 annual productions hitting the limited theater capacity in the state, thanks to in-film advertising, satellite and digital rights.

The average production cost of a Mollywood movie, often financed by an NRI, is less than Rs 10 crore. The movies hardly make a double digit profit even if it stays in the box office for more than a week. But these metrics have been challenged successfully by the big productions such as Pulimurukan (Rs 100 crore) and the upcoming hyper-ambitious Randammoozham (estimated at Rs 1,000 crore).

Perhaps it’s the Baahubali effect, the corporatization of production houses and big-budget movies are heralding a paradigm shift in Malayalam cinema. Although these films are crass movies from an artistic point of view – despitemany awards and recognition to its credit – they they have helped attracting a wider, pan-Indian audience.

The current woes of Malayalam filmdom arise from a strange mix of hyper commercialized no man’s land and a hero-centric production model even as guilds of producers, theater owners, actors, distributors, directors and technicians haggle for a piece of the pie at the box office.

Apparently, it’s the super heroes who command the cast and crew of movie, including the director-technician mix. The surplus of wannabe producers are spliced, mixed and brought together in any combination to arrive at the requisite capital. The leading female actors are also chosen by the hero-super star. As the dates of the superstar determine every other variable whilecobbling together an industrial version of the art, the stake of the others or for that matter, the cerebral aspect of the film (read screenplay), are of low priority.

As a money spinner, most super heroes treat a movie production as a personal fundraiser for their upcoming offshore stage performance or a new investment in their food products company or restaurant he has partnered for. Sometimes, the superhero even decides to act on leave for an offshore stage performance orthe launch of a commercial concern during the film’s shoot.

The sudden death of gifted comedian Kalabhavan Mani is a tragic story of a successful artist who swapped rags for riches over a career spanning just 10years. From his humble beginning as an autorickshaw driver, Mani amassed an estimated personal wealth of about Rs 300 crore. The fanfare he held close to his heart also benefited immensely from his charity. In the process, the friendships he blindly trusted alienated his relationships and alcoholismdeteriorated his health, resulting in an untimely death at the peak of his career. The family alleged foul play, which is presently being inquired into.

Similarly, the big money has been spoiling the creative bond between variousgroups in film production and the arguments while sharing the spoils havetriggered skirmishes between individuals and groups on payment issues. The last fight between theater owners and producers was settled only after afraction of the former entered into a resolution with the producers.

Huge personal wealth amassed by the actors has made monetary disputes the order of the day in film world. Opulence of vulgar proportions are often on display with actors turning into commercial endorsements and brand ambassadorship of questionable merchandise. This in turn leads to actors walking into sets with in-frame advertising to package specific promotions such as flats or properties, luxury cars, jewelry or even alcoholic beverages. The portrayal of alcoholism as a fashionable accessory in recent productions is no accident.

Keeping up with the changing trend in film world, Malayalam script writerstoo strayed into testosterone overdose with large-than-life masochistic male heroes with a propensity to abuse female characters. Almost all heroes lipped dialogues that threatened to molest even their love interests. So blatant was the on-screen subjugation of the lead ladies that actor Prithviraj had to regret doingsome of his characters and pledged not to sign films that have such scripts. Director Renjit was accused of repetitive glorification of the libidinous male assertion on the female self. Continuous abuse and subjugation of the female identity has undoubtedly contributed to the dangerous psyche that Malayali men acquired during the turn of the millennium. Cinema has since come to reap what they sowed.

As there is severe peer impact from many movies on adolescents and women dictating spending patterns, the adoption rates commanded by these promotionsare very high when compared to billboard advertising. This new remix of the erstwhile industry into a steroid-driven capital-commercial proposition has drawn in a new breed of enforcers who become the police of the nation of Malayalam cinema. What was an exception has slowly become the norm.

Underworlds in cinema are also byproducts of poor enforcement of normal civil–commercial contracting. The new-found enforcers, like the motorcyclethief-cum-production house driver who thought of making a quick buck by sexually attacking a woman actor, are a product of the murky unenforceable and sub-legal contracting the industry has been engaged in recently.

Benami property deals and undeclared wealth are offshoots of the criminality that has characterized Mollywood as a whole. The severe patriarchy and hegemony in the industry are also keen on choking the emergence of alternative voices, especially those of women actors and technicians. Theinvestigation into the alleged conspiracy behind the attack on the woman actoris sure to let many skeletons out of the closet.

A major reason behind the game of one-upmanship in the movie industry is that only six or seven actors can guarantee initial draw at the box office. New entrants like Tovino Thomas had to struggle to find his space and survive malicious media and online planted attacks. Enlarging the pie in this small industry obviously reduces the commanding prices and territory for thesesuperstars. It’s worth remembering how late actor Thilakan had denounced the ‘hidden agenda’ of the so-called superstars.

Another case worth studying is the slow death of experimental cinema in Mollywood, compared to the steady rise of new directors and themes in Tamil. The monopoly of the lesser talented ones systematically kill competition and ward off genuine talent entering the industry.

Criminality will have to be stamped out by agile investigators and prosecution. But the industry will also have to be cautious of its overall ambition and direction. Many super heroes are not pretty pictures to look at, given the legal tangles and criminal cases they have unwittingly wandered into.

At one level, realizing that they are primarily artists whose prime job is to enhance the aesthetic value of their art form might be the key. Without artistic achievements asserting its precedence over their pickle-making and marketing skills, the present downslide – artistic, ethical and moral – cannot be arrested.

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