Two states in India have had a marvellous history of cinema. While Bengal catapulted the country to the world stage with men like Ritwick Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and even Rituparno Ghosh making scintillating, sensible and meaningful cinema, Kerala had its own masters, such as John Abraham, Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
With the passing away of Ghatak, Ray and Ghosh, and with Sen too old and too ill to step behind the camera, Bengal is now left with Dasgupta from the old brigade, though a younger helmer like Aditya Vikram Sengupta has been trying out something unique. His Labour of Love, which premiered at Venice in 2014, is a work sans dialogues. His Memories of My Mother -- in the script stage -- has been chosen by the Cannes Film Festival (May 2016) as one among 15 from the world over which is promising and will be presented for funding. This section is called Cinefondation Atelier.
However, Bengal seems still far away from its hey days in the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s.
The picture is different in Kerala. Though Abraham and Aravindan are long dead, and Gopalakrishnan makes a movie after a long interval (the last he made was about eight years ago, Four Women and A Climate for Crime), a fresh crop of directors has emerged. These men are doing some really good stuff. A lot of this is being remade in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. And these sell, and the reasons are obvious.
The current Malayalam cinema is strong on plot and novelty. Rajesh Pillai’s (who died recently and he was just about 45) Traffic was a story that one had never seen on the screen. It was all about a heart being taken from one place to another in rush hour traffic -- from Kochi to Palakkad -- and time here was of paramount importance. Otherwise, the organ would degenerate. Malayalam writers Bobby and Sanjay were inspired to pen this story when they saw a newspaper report about an organ being transported in the busy Chennai traffic.
Traffic was remade in Tamil as Chennaiyil Oru Naal, and in Kannada as Crazy Star. A Hindi version is in the offing.
We saw this also with Drishyam, Jeethu Joseph’s nail-biting crime drama of an uneducated cable television operator completely fooling the cops, having picked up the methodology from the films he keeps watching day in and day out.
Drishyam was made in Tamil as Papanasam with Kamal Hassan reprising Mohanlal’s part in the Malayalam original. The Hindi edition, also called Drishyam, had Ajay Devgn in the lead.
Recently, we saw in Tamil, Bangalore Naatkal -- remade from Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days -- a delightful movie about camaraderie among three cousins, who migrate to Bengaluru.
A couple of weeks ago, Jeethu Joseph’s Memories from Kerala was spun into Tamil and called Aarathu Sinam -- a creepy tale about a serial killer and a drunk policeman on the trail of the murders.
Earlier, Bobby and Sanjay’s How Old Are You with Manju Warrier playing a Malayalee wife was remade in Tamil, 36 Vayadhinile -- where actor Jyothika made a comeback of sorts.
Some years ago, director Siddique wrote and helmed Bodyguard -- three times -- in Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi.
The list is long, and it is now well proven that the cinema from Kerala lends itself to appeal in the neighbouring states -- and even in Hindi belt. As Bobby said in a recent interview, “we use emotion as a raw material, and it always works.”
But one must add here that Malayalam cinema seldom goes overboard with its melodramatic content, and invariably has strong stories to spin. As the late Ismail Merchant once told this writer, a good film must tell a good tale. And Malayalam cinema has been trrue to this.
Sadly, Bengali cinema -- whose Ray introduced India to the world screen through his Pather Panchali (screened at Cannes in 1956) -- is languishing today for want of novelty and daring directors who are willing to experiment. Sengupta is an exception, though.