Malayalam films have, from their very inception, sought to distinguish themselves from the films in other Indian languages. Significantly, the very first Malayalam film, JC Daniel’s Vigathakumaran (1928), was a ‘social’ that spoke about contemporary social issues, unlike the ‘mythologicals’ that were in vogue which utilised a new technology to reflect tradition and mythology. Even currently when the pandemic and lockdown restrictions have affected film industries across the country, Malayalam filmmakers have been the first ones to quickly adapt and put out works that reflect the concerns and anxieties of the present.
The relatively small-scale nature of the Malayalam film industry, which is yet to be dominated by big studio productions, and flexibility have resulted in the recent films grabbing eyeballs across India and abroad for what has come to be called ‘Covid films’. However, the reality is that the industry has been crippled by the pandemic. Accumulated losses since the beginning of the lockdown restrictions in March 2020 amount to over Rs. 900 crore, with nearly 60 films awaiting releases, which are being shelved.
With films stalled, restrictions on shooting and rising expenses for the same in the state, filmmakers are being forced to shift to other locations; this has resulted into the technicians in the state being badly affected. The films that are getting made and even winning acclaim are also being shot in a minimalist manner by small film crews. The Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA), which has over 9200 members in the state, counts as many as 3000 of them being in a desperate financial situation. The body, which was able to provide some financial assistance to them during the first wave of the pandemic, is now pushing for an aid package from the state government.
A New OTT Platform for Kearala
It is at this juncture that the Kerala government has mooted plans to enter into the online content streaming space. The Minister for Cultural Affairs Saji Cherian announced on July 2 that the state government would be starting an over-the-top (OTT) platform for screening new films.
Speaking to Newsclick, Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC) Chairman Shaji N Karun said that discussions were ongoing with legal experts and technical consultants and that KSFDC is confident of having an OTT platform of its own by November this year. The platform would provide a space for lower budget films without them having to worry about viability. The films will first be screened in cinemas and then run on the platform, he said. KSFDC runs an exhibition network of cinemas in different districts across the state.
Although a few Malayalam films have managed to win over an international audience through corporate OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, they have only purchased just over a dozen films that ensured big revenue over the past one year. A slew of smaller OTT platforms from the state have now started streaming films but cannot assure the same audience. With the state-run Kerala Fibre Optic Network (KFON) project that will provide free internet access to the public set to begin its service soon, the decision of the state government comes at an appropriate time.
Revamped Production Studio
The state-run Chithranjali Studio under KSFDC is also being revamped. Formed in the 1980s and modelled on the lines of Moscow Film Studio, this studio is a public sector production unit in Thiruvallam in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram. A Rs 150 crore worth project that is ongoing seeks to transform this unit. The work will be finished by the end of 2022, according to Shaji N Karun, and will equip the studio with modern equipment and pre/post production facilities of international standard. These are expected to transform the studio into one of the best production centres in India. Along with providing support to smaller films, the studio will give filmmakers high quality production facilities and remote production possibilities at a lower expense and will succeed in bringing more films to Kerala, said Karun.
The state government has also allowed shooting of film projects to resume and issued strict standard operating procedures (SOPs) to ensure safety. They will require prior clearances and the shooting location will be made into a bio-bubble with restrictions for entry and exit.
Arjunlal, a recent graduate from National Institute of Design, whose debut film Randu Rahasyangal is slated to release late next month, welcomed the government’s move. The decision of the government taking into consideration the plight of the industry and the workers involved in it has provided him confidence to go ahead and plan the shoot for his next film, he said.
Meanwhile, FEFKA and the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), a body that represents film actors, have approached the state government and appealed for an aid package for the industry to help them tide over the current crisis.