We are almost in the middle of 2012 and things have been good so far for Malayalam Cinema. The box office is resonating with back to back successes and the range of films seen so far has been good. On the one hand you have some really interesting films like Second Show, Ee Adutha Kalathu,22 Female Kottayam, Diamond Necklace etc and on the other hand you have the regular traditional films like Ordinary, Mayamohini,Grandmaster,Mallu Singh etc reaching out the audience. While I do hope that the trend continues for the rest of the year its also the right time to revisit some films in the recent past which probably triggered this recent time in a way.
In 2009 after a fairly satisfying Pazhassi Raja the next Malayalam movie that I was looking forward to was Kerala Cafe for a variety of reasons. For one the movie is an anthology of short films made by 10 different directors with separate cast and crew. The cast comprises of most of the well known names in Malayalam cinema and also has a fair number of younger actors as well. Also the directors are all part of the current new generation of filmmakers who have already made waves with their movies or have recently embarked on their cinematic journey. Holding all the strings together is Ranjith, the man referred to as the “chief architect” behind this project.
The movie basically is about 10 different short films, all of which have one common connection- “Kerala Cafe “, a railway cafeteria in one of the busy railway stations in Kerala. All the stories in some way or the other are connected to the café & finally they are bound together in the café itself in a very unassuming manner. So let me begin my journey of revisiting Kerala Café-
1.Nostalgia- Directed by M.Padmakumar, this short film is the first one in the series and it talks about a character (Dileep) who is an NRI in Dubai and is typically facing a conflict of thoughts. While in Dubai he is shown in a nostalgic mood while catching up with friends and talking about Kerala. But when he visits Kerala with his wife (Navya Nair) and kids his real sense of reasoning takes over. It is clear that he is there only to make money and doesn’t care for family or friends either. This is certainly not a great start to the movie primarily because there’s nothing too novel about the plot of this short film. Not a bad attempt but not something that certainly calls for your attention.
2.Island Express- Directed by Shankar Ramakrishnan, this one probably has the most number of characters and also the most number of stars (Prithviraj, Jaysurya, Rahman etc). Based on the gruesome Perumon Train tragedy of 1988, this one starts as a very hazy, disjointed and confusing film. But slowly as the missing links get filled you realize that there is certainly a charm to the whole short film. I liked the last scene in particular which was shot on a bridge.
3.Lalitham Hiranmayam- Directed by Shaji Kailash, this one talks about a man (Suresh Gopi) who is torn between his wife ( Jyothirmayi ) and his mistress ( Dhanya Mary Varghese ). Though the topic of infidelity is handled reasonably well, the sequence of events as they unfold and also the characterization makes it look very ordinary.
4.Mrityunjayam- Directed by Uday Ananthan, this one stands out from the rest of the short films – not because it’s the best of them all. But because it’s a horror film and doesn’t really fit into the construct of the anthology. Its all about a so called haunted house that’s under the care of a Tirumeni (who else but Thilakan) and one day a T.V crew arrives there headed by Fahadh Fasil to check out the place. It’s a kind of misfit in the movie- probably intended just to show some variety.
5.Happy Journey- Directed by Anjali Menon, this one certainly draws our attention due to the simple plot that’s well told and for the brilliance of Jagathy Sreekumar. Jagathy plays a middle aged insurance surveyor with a lecherous eye. During a bus journey from Ernakulam to Calicut he comes across an attractive young girl (Nithya Menon ) who frightens him by revealing that she’s a terrorist with a bomb on board the bus. With the suspense enhancing the interest levels, this one is a pleasure to watch.
6.Aviraamam- Directed by B.Unnikrishnan, this one talks about the effects of recession on a happy family. Siddique is an I.T entrepreneur and one day sends off his wife ( Shweta Menon ) and children for a vacation to his in- laws place. He doesn’t want to go with them since he knows that he’s very badly caught in a debt trap and can’t figure out a way to get away from it and so decides to do the inevitable. It’s a fairly ordinary story but thankfully the performances from both Siddique and Shweta elevate the proceedings considerably.
7.Off-season- Directed by Shyamaprasad, this one is the only light hearted story among the entire anthology. Suraj Venjaramoodu plays a tourist guide in Kovalam who one day meets a couple from Portugal. Thinking that this is his big ticket he showers attention on them only to know that they are penniless themselves . This short film helps in kind of bringing up some funny moments in an otherwise serious anthology of short films here.
8.Magal- Directed by Revathy is a serious social commentary on issues like poverty, adoption and prostitution all in a single short film. While most part of the film remains quite average the ending more than compensates, making it quite a heart touching short film.
9.Bridges- Directed by Anwar Rasheed, this is probably the best among the entire lot. It starts off as something hardly impressive- a boy in Fort Cochin has sneaked in a kitten at home which his father disapproves off. On the other hand there is a poor family somewhere in the rural hinterland not far away from Cochin. Here the husband and wife ( Salim Kumar and Kalpana ) keep squabbling over Salim’s old mother ( Shantha Devi ) who is almost blind and difficult to look after. Some stunning visuals by Suresh Rajan ( DOP ), brilliant performances and a very well executed closing shot makes this a treat to watch.
10.Puram Kazchakal- Directed by Lal Jose this is about a bus journey where Sreenivasan the narrator is traveling from Valparai to Chalakudy and in between there’s a mysterious man (Mammootty) who boards the bus and is perennially impatient and so is ridiculed by the others on board. While the narrator was busy lost in his thoughts about the girl whom he had lost, he is rudely shaken up when the reason behind Mammootty’s irritating behaviour unfolds in a brilliant manner. This one does great justice to the presence of powerhouses of talent like Mammootty and Sreenivasan.
The movie works overall to a reasonably extent not just because quite a few of the short films are indeed redeeming and well shot. Of course these short films, the cast and crew do help in the overall process, but there are a few other redeeming features seen in this project. To start with the entire team has believed in the concept of coming up with an interesting anthology of short films and they have managed to come up with something that meets the objective reasonably well.
It has also allowed some of the directors to experiment and do something away from what they have been doing conventionally. Like Anwar Rasheed who has made a mark by making blockbusters like Rajamanikam, Chota Mumbai and Annan Thampi has made something completely refreshing with his short film (Bridges) over here. Shaji Kailash is known again to make large than life movies like Commissioner, Narasimham, The King etc and this time he has chosen to make an emotional family subject. Shyama Prasad who is well known for his unusually different choice of subjects for his movies has tried his hand at making a very light hearted feel good short film over here.
The project has also allowed directors to focus on issues close to their heart (Revathy- Magal) or think out of the box (Shankar Ramakrishnan- Island Express). Also the movie has brought in a balance of both experienced artistes and those who are fairly new. As an experiment the movie certainly does put in a reasonably commendable show. It’s nice to see the work of so many talented actors and technicians being brought together on a common platform like this. I wish that there are more such attempts made in Malayalam Cinema. For those who are going to cry hoarse by asking why are we celebrating even some small attempts to make something decent- I just have this to say- Kerala Cafe is in no way a modern classic, but certainly an interesting experiment. And such experiments definitely need all the encouragement.
And of course before I conclude I would certainly like to congratulate Renjith in particular for conceiving the entire project and bringing on board the entire team to showcase Kerala Cafe in front of us.
Note- This post was originally written after the release of the film in 2009 but it has now been re-edited and published again.