The Malayalam film industry, with revenues of roughly Rs 1,200 crore per annum, was riding an accelerated growth curve in the last few years leading up to the pandemic, with around 150 movie releases per year. Though the pandemic has slowed its growth, the OTT boom has refueled the industry to a great extent, but not before movie theatres in the state lost nearly Rs 500 crore in revenue during the COVID-period.
A clutch of talented actors, writers and technicians seems to be weaving some magic in an industry known for completing a movie in 90-120 days, without compromising on its technical quality -- not to mention its superior story-telling capability.
The continuing rise of Prithviraj Sukumaran as an actor, director and producer has been a key feature of Malayalam cinema during this period. His directorial debut Lucifer has become one of the biggest grossers ever in Malayalam cinema, while his production vehicle Prithviraj Productions has four films on the floors. Over a 20-year-old career, he has acted in over 100 films.
In an exclusive interview, Prithviraj talks about what’s ticking for the Malayalam film industry, its immediate future, the medley of talent under its hood and the business opportunities in the national and international markets. Edited excerpts:
The Malayalam movie industry seems to have attracted national attention, after quite a while. What’s the secret sauce?
It’s a combination of a few things coming together. It started off with the circumstances which were inadvertently designed because of the pandemic. We had people across the world, across the country stuck at homes. People needed more content to devour. They were looking out for sources of engagement.
While the film industry across the country was stuck, Malayalam cinema found a way to restart and sustain. We came back to doing smaller, contained films that could be pulled off under COVID restrictions with a minimal crew. Streaming services like Amazon, Netflix and Hotstar were lapping up the content that we made, and it really helped that the content we made was of high quality.
We were always a content-driven industry, which never had fancy ideas of competing with other languages in terms of scale and budget. We have been blessed with great technicians traditionally, be it cinematographers, editors or production designers. It may be the case of them being trained to work under stringent and minimal infrastructure that made us experts at minimalism. All this put together, we became the centre of conversation among cinephiles across the country, in the last two years.
Actor Prithviraj Sukumaran in 'Kuruthi', which released on Amazon Prime Video in August 2021.
So, where do you see the Malayalam film industry going from here?
Once our content starts getting recognition and significance across the nation and we start breaking linguistic barriers with our content, I think the next step obviously would be us starting to export talent. I foresee that in the not-too-distant future; Malayalam technicians, story writers and even actors are going to get involved in movies in other languages. Some of us already are and it’s going to be great for us that, going forward, Malayalam cinema is something that film makers, actors and producers across the country will look out to. I also think that deep down, since we got national attention now, we also now want to make cinema that we know will appeal to people across the country.
We think that the next Lijo Jose Pellissery film or the next Dileesh Pothen film, you know, will be watched by a large cross-section of people across the country. We are aware of it now, and I think it helps that we are aware of it. But as much as we should be aware of it, I still think we should remember that we got there in the first place by doing what we are good at and hence keep doing it.
We are at an exciting cusp of discovering how the industry operates across the world, and once we have a better hang of it, we will also know how to travel with our films better.
Do you see this translating into the international arena as well?
If it is about having international attention to your cinema, then I think we are not far away from it. Very soon, we will see regional cinema from India and Hindi films on international streaming services. Soon there’ll be a great piece of cinema from India that premieres on HBO Max or Disney in the US. When you say international, people tend to associate it mostly with American films or Hollywood. How (much) bigger is Hollywood than Indian cinema? Now when I say Indian cinema, please don’t associate it with Bollywood. We are talking about all our industries put together. I don’t think that in terms of volume, Hollywood is in any way bigger than Indian cinema. In terms of sheer box office numbers, they churn out much bigger numbers, but in terms of viewership, I don’t think we are too far behind.
Malayalam movies have traditionally done well on the festival circuit globally. But now they are doing reasonably well in overseas markets commercially.
This is something that we are yet to fully explore. I can only speak for Malayalam cinema. There is a film called Lucifer that I happened to direct. Post-Lucifer, we are suddenly thinking, hang on, the UAE may be as big a market as Kerala; North America is a bigger market than the rest of India for the Malayalam movie industry. It is that one film that has made us aware of it. I think we are at an exciting cusp of discovering how the industry operates across the world, and once we have a better hang of it, we will also know how to travel with our films better.
As an actor and producer, you have experimented at both ends of the spectrum. You have had these big bang movie productions and you have also been part of movies that were made with shoe-string budgets. How do you see the commerce of Malayalam cinema going forward?
Something that has really changed the face of Malayalam cinema, especially in the last five years, is the OTT space. For the longest time, OTT rights or digital rights never existed for Malayalam cinema. Or else, it was always bundled with satellite rights. When a stakeholder bought the satellite rights to a film, the digital rights were automatically bundled with it. We as an industry did not know that it was a separate entity for which we could negotiate. Thanks to the entry of giants like Amazon Prime Video, this scene suddenly exploded and today you will not believe, the digital rights of Malayalam cinema is higher than the satellite rights of Malayalam cinema. That revenue stream has suddenly opened up and made us believe that we could dream much bigger.
Similarly, with the overseas market. Post-Lucifer, the overseas market of Malayalam cinema has grown 3-4 times, but unfortunately, the pandemic struck. If not for the pandemic, I think by 2022 Malayalam cinema’s overseas market would have been nearly 5-8 times bigger than pre-2010.
An A+ list, big-budget Malayalam film that used to sell anywhere between Rs 75 lakh to Rs 1 crore had reached a point where we started talking about selling it for Rs 10 crore, during the pre-pandemic stage. We were thinking that this is going to go through the roof, and that's when the pandemic struck.
We are probably at the tip of the iceberg as far as OTT is concerned. Chances are that the hybrid model of big screen and OTT is likely to be the future. How do you see OTT developing as a platform going forward as far as Malayalam cinema is concerned?
These OTT giants should start commissioning content, rather than just go out and buy finished films. The next natural step of evolution for these streaming services would be to first acquire content, own the IP and commission feature films.
Some of the most cutting edge film making technology and lighting technology are tried out in Malayalam before anyone else does.
The quality of scripting and production has been high in recent times, with the emergence of writers like Shyam Pushkaran and a string of new generation directors. Of course, Malayalam was always blessed with writers of the stature of Padmarajan, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Bharathan and Lohithadas, for example, but now there seems to be a proliferation of talent across every department.
I just think it’s a mixture of tradition and modernity. Traditionally, we have always been a small-knit industry. A normal Malayalam film will have 60-70 people on location. We make films as a small group. Once we start filming, we don’t stop until it’s over. It could last for 70-80 days. The whole team stays together and works. It becomes like a team effort in the truest sense of the word. That’s been the traditional mode of working in Malayalam cinema that we still hold on to. It’s not like once we start a film, we shoot for 10 days and we take a break and then the next month we regroup with a different set of people. It’s not like that with us. It’ll be the same team that works from Day 1 to last. It’s like brotherhood or sisterhood - a fraternity. What that culture has done is that it has adapted itself to the modern techniques of film-making.
You’ll be surprised that some of the most cutting-edge film-making technology and lighting technology are tried out in Malayalam before anyone else does. I think the first low-exposure camera from Red Gemini was used in a Malayalam film called 9; the first LED-lighting set-up from Aputure was used in a movie named Kuruthi. My point is that we are very much in tune with the latest film making technology and that, together with the traditional way of working, is a definite advantage for us.
Now, talking about yourself Prithvi, you have had a 20-year-old career so far. What do you think your next five to ten years in the industry will look like, as an actor, director and producer?
My hope is that I remain where I am today, even 10 years from now. By that I mean, today I’m in a place in the industry where if I like a script, me saying yes to it will facilitate everything else necessary. So, I hope that in 10 years or 20 years from now, I will still be in the same place. That is, if I like the script, then it’s going to be made. That’s a great place for an actor to be in. How my journey goes forward depends on how the Malayalam industry goes forward. I hope that the new-found attention for Malayalam cinema at the national level is just the beginning of a phenomenon. I just hope that we become this regional cinema that plays for the national audience. That’s what we should aim for.
How do you see the Malayalam movie industry panning out in the next five years, from a qualitative and commercial success perspective?
I think cinema in general is going to go into a bifurcated existence where there will be films made for personal viewing, mainly on OTT platforms, and a different set of movies made for community viewing, which will be theatrical releases for the big screen. I think that phenomenon will probably set-in first in Malayalam. We may be the first industry that officially understands that there are two types of industries that can co-exist. Even as a filmmaker, every time you find an interesting script, that will be the one major decision that you may have to make. What’s the best version of this film? Is it better suited for a personal viewing experience or is it better tailored for a theatrical release? It’s a question that most of us will have to address and answer at the very beginning of designing a project.
Creatively, the Malayalam film industry could be the first one to acknowledge that. Once we acknowledge that, I think the Malayalam industry’s business model is going to expand and widen, because what we have on our side is the extremely fast turn-around time. Unlike in Bollywood, where, once you commission a project, it is going to take one or two years, here you complete a film in 120 days. That will now start looking like a very attractive proposition for streaming services and investors. I’m hoping that once all this money starts coming in, we don’t lose touch with that side of our craft.