by Apoorva Verghese
Today’s India is one the fastest growing nations in terms of technology and business. But years of brutal British imperialism has undoubtedly left its mark in the form of economic difficulties and deep social divides. Yet one of the most pervasive influences of imperialism remains subtle and shrouded by state boundaries: cinematic culture. Bollywood is known far and wide as the largest film industry in the world, yet is also constantly criticized for its over the top effects and tacky, repetitive plotlines. But as criticism against Bollywood continues to grow, a whole new side of Indian film remains undiscovered by the rest of the world. Malayalam cinema has over the years developed a growing fanbase within its home state of Kerala, but is still relatively irrelevant throughout the rest of the country. It’s fairly small fan base, however, does not discredit its quality at all. Malayalam films are in fact praised for script, cinematography, acting, and deft direction skills; the very qualities Bollywood is so harshly criticized for. Thus, we have to wonder, within one country how can the idea and production of cinema differ so greatly and the answer dates back centuries. India’s bloody battle with imperialism left behind unintended consequences in the form of its most loved industry; film.
British imperialism left remarkable scars on the Indian community that continue to affect the country as a whole today. However, it’s undeniable that along with tangible, destructive effects, the British Raj left behind pervasive new thought that soon became embedded in the minds of any and all affected by imperialism. Glamour, beauty, and modernity. With these themes in mind, a newly freed India set out to mimic the country that once ruthlessly oppressed it. Whether it was intentional or not is unknown, but the effects of western materialism became clear, not only in urban development but also in film. Producers and directors got together to create films that featured people of unattainable beauty and tell stories of unattainable lives. Since its conception this has been Bollywood’s goal, to tell fairy tales while providing escape from a much darker reality.
However, over time this idea has progressed from sweet fairy tales to inane extravagance. Movies now survive on over the top special effects and distracting aesthetics. Actors, now more than ever, are chosen based on their looks rather than acting skills. In fact, someone who does not meet Bollywood’s steep cosmetic standards, stands little to no chance of making it. This ingrained idea that looks are linked to success has been one of heated debate in Bollywood, yet it’s clear that change is nowhere near. A Bollywood producer’s end goal isn’t critical acclaim; it’s really only box office success that rivals that of big budget Hollywood movies. And that intention right there, is where the paths of Bollywood and Malayalam cinema diverge.
Unlike Bollywood, the Malayalam film industry has consistently focused on creating relatable characters and simple yet captivating storylines. Top grossing Malayalam films focus on seemingly insignificant people and often pertain to striking social issues. Actors are chosen not for their looks, but their ability to relate to audiences whoever their character may be. Artists enter the industry not looking to make money, but because they possess true skills. In fact, the Malayalam film industry is not a bankable one especially when compared to that of Bollywood. Take a look at the leading stars of Bollywood as opposed to those of Malayalam film. Bollywood legend Shah Rukh Khan, who peaked in the early 90’s, has a net worth of $600 million and has acted in approximately 83 movies. While he continues to act today, critics and fans alike have expressed concern that his time has come to an end. Conversely, Malayali legend Mohanlal has a net worth of $33 million and has acted in about 200 films; over double that of Shah Rukh Khan’s for about 5% of the income. Unlike Khan, Mohanlal continues to be praised for his acting today and is revered as one of the greatest Indian actors to date. The biggest difference between the two however isn’t their net worth or their experience. Shah Rukh Khan has a six pack. Mohanlal has a pot belly.
Bollywood’s need for glamour becomes clear when comparing Bollywood remakes of Malayalam movies. Jeethu Joseph’s Drishyam, is one of the most successful Malayalam films of all time. It tells the story of Georgekutty, a fourth-grade dropout whose primary education can be credited to movies themselves. He works as a cable businessman and lives in a small home with his wife and 2 kids. The movie beautifully develops the story of an average family thrown into a terrible situation in a way that the common man can easily relate to. Perhaps the most skillfully executed part of the film is Mohanlal’s portrayal of Georgekutty, the protagonist. He’s arrogant and domineering yet intelligent and calculating. He’s undeniably flawed but at the same time incredible. Most importantly, his life is perfectly and utterly average. Shifting focus to the Nishikant Kamat Bollywood remake of the same name, the story’s the same but the characters are not and it makes all the difference. Bollywood superstar Ajay Devgn takes over the protagonist’s role, Vijay Salgaonkar. Like Georgekutty in the original film, Vijay is a fourth-grade dropout and runs a cable business. Unlike Georgekutty however, Vijay lives in a nice house in fanciful Goa with his supermodel esque wife -played by the much younger Shriya Saran- and two daughters. He’s kind hearted, humble, loving, and intelligent. He’s not flawed at all. Simply put he’s ideal, a trait the makers demanded expanding on throughout the film. Bollywood’s inability to show a flawed character, despite being handed a picture perfect model, is a prime example of their need to portray everything as idealistic and glamorous. Even the actors themselves show significant differences that reflect the overall attitude of each respective industry. Mohanlal makes calculated moves in everything he does. Every gesture and facial expression is done with the intention of developing his character. Devgn is just as calculating and careful. The difference is that Devgn doesn’t try to portray his character better, but himself. Bollywood is rooted in ideas of egoism and materialism. Malayalam film is rooted in substance and nothing else.
The overarching question remain: how can this difference be attributed to imperialism? If India was under British control, how is it that Bollywood and Kerala differ so greatly in cinema? The answer is simple: Kerala was never truly under British rule. In fact, during imperialism, the state didn’t even exist. The state of Kerala was created in 1956, nine years after Indian independence. Prior to this, the region now known as Kerala was made up of three kingdoms; Malabar, Kochi, and Travancore. During the reign of the British Raj, numerous attempts were made to gain control of these three kingdoms and were successful in a way but at the same time failed. Imperialists were successfully able to get Malabar under their control, but the kingdoms of Kochi and Travancore were never fully under British rule. Rather they entered into subsidiary alliances that allowed the presence of British officials but avoided total domination or oppression. Because of this, ideas of western superiority or Indian inferiority were never established in the area of Kerala. Malayalis never succumbed to ideas of glamour and modernity, but rather followed their own ideas that eventually lead them to become one of the most developed states in India. Kerala has become a champion of human rights in India, becoming one of the first states to acknowledge LGBTQ+ rights as well as reach 100% literacy rates. Kerala progressed forward because unlike neighboring states, they didn’t work to completely replicate the Western model of life. Instead they worked to integrate developing ideas of human rights with their own pre-existing community. They weren’t bogged down by the appeal of Western beauty, but were motivated by social acts to better the community. A motivation that shines through in their film industry.
Imperialism has quietly and continuously infiltrated the Indian community whether they’re conscious or not. Its effects have proven to have been some of the most devastating to Indian economy and society. Its aftermath has also subtly lingered across television screens as well. The British Raj’s centuries long domination over the Indian subcontinent forces people to wonder not only about the lives that film creates, but the lives that created film.