There are moments when you realise how overwhelmingly vast this simple thing called "Indian film industry" is. I've seen around 50 Tamil films and consider myself a fan of them, but those 50 films are not enough to cover any sort of range where I'd recognise all the key players - in those relative terms, I'm still very much a newbie. Hindi films are a ground which I've mastered walking on by now; I know stars both past and present and even though I've got gaps in my knowledge, I'm relatively well-versed by now.
To jump into Malayalam films, which I mostly know through the Hindi remakes, was not scary, though. I considered it more a great opportunity, and I am eternally grateful that I know somebody in my own home town who can borrow me some of her DVD's. Sadly, this friend (let's call her Stimpy by her online pseudonym) was still going through a move and didn't yet have her DVD collection in order, so I ended up taking home a rather random selection of Malayalam films, rather than just films she would've recommended.
So it happened that my first 'commercial' Malayalam film was Pinnilavu (1983), a family drama starring Mammootty as the wayward son of Madhu.
To see Mallu films' biggest star in his young, still fit-looking avatar, was quite interesting. However, I subsequently discovered that the Golden Age of Malayalam cinema only began in 1984 or so - clearly this film was not a classic, and it showed. The role Mammootty plays is rather simplistic. The son, Unni, enters medical school and starts hanging out with the wrong crowd, who use their money to get alcohol, lounge around reading dirty books and magazines, and playing cards. The father obviously disapproves of this, as does Unni's beloved, played by Poornima Jayaram. That's about the extent of the plot.
The problem I found with the film was precisely the simplicity of this central dilemma. The actions of Unni and the disapproval from his father are so downright understandable - they're not just your typical generational misunderstandings. Unni neglects his studies, rather than just having fun in the way that university students normally have fun amongst themselves, and behaves very disrespectfully in all accounts. The lack of greys here really does the story a disservice.
Mohanlal's role as the leader of this gang of young men living irresponsibly is smaller, and not too important; I suppose this was from his period of playing mostly negative characters. He gets to dance in a song sequence, with immoral drinking! Terrible!
There aren't too many songs in the film, but the first one is a legend in and of itself; it is the only song where Mammootty dances! And oh dear oh dear, what moves he possesses:
The elbow dance!
This is the gif you'll want to save, and savour. (You're welcome.)
This is perfection.
(Note: I do not post these to mock the man. He's obviously a popular actor well worth his reputation. I can understand why he chose not to dance in later movies .. and obviously most of the blame lies with the choreographer. Sometimes all dance, no matter how lacking in skill, can be enjoyable. So I absolutely cherish this number!)
Pinnilavu certainly ended up an underwhelming film experience, but of course, I'm going to keep watching Malayalam films. I want to see a decent amount - maybe something will catch my interest further than just this academic interest in discovering a regional industry, its tropes, styles and stories. I believe my taste is pretty similar to that of my friend's, so when I get to see some of her favourites, I'll probably know whether I am into Mallu films on the whole or whether Tamil remains my favourite Southie industry.
One thing I did notice was the relative smallness of this industry. It's clear that it's not big in terms of budgets or even story - Pinnilavu was a small story about family, no sweeping epic. The locations were also limited and seemed very ordinary, in a sense.
And yes, while Mammootty and Mohanlal do conform to the stereotype of Southie heroes being older and pudgy, unlike the handsome, often physically fit Hindi heroes, I am over this prejudice. In the end, what matters is the acting, and whether they impress me with that. Hopefully, in the future, they or other Malayalam actors do!
I'm not sure why I uploaded this screencap of a shirtless Mammootty but I suppose it's as good as any a note to end on.