Covid-19 impact: Malayalam film industry in trouble

Covid-induced lockdowns have devastated the Malayalam film industry, with losses of over Rs 900 crore in 17 months

With losses of over Rs 900 crore, the Malayalam film industry is staring at its worst crisis ever. In the past 17 months, the smallest of the four South Indian film industries has faced one crisis after another, with a slew of films including possible blockbusters still lying unreleased.

The film exhibitors are also in crisis. Kerala has 620 theatres including 289 multiplexes which are now again closed after the second wave of Covid hit the state in May. During the first wave, the state government had shut theatres and banned film shoots from March 2020 to January 2021. While briefing the media on June 14, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan revealed that the state government is mulling the possibility of replacing the statewide lockdown with regional lockdown in areas where a high positivity rate is reported. Currently, the state has an average positivity rate of 11.3%.

Many big budget movies like the Mohanlal-Priyadarshan team's Marakkar-Arabikkadalinte Simham, the Fahad Faasil- Mahesh Narayanan team’s Malik, the Nivin Pauly-Rajeev Ravi venture Thuramugham, Prithviraj’s Kuruthi, the Prithviraj-Blessy team’s Aadujeevitham, ChembanVinod-Lijo Jose Pellissery’s science fiction horror Churuli and Dulqar Salman’s Kurupu (based on the life of murderer Sukumara Kurup) are waiting for release. Many of these films, with collective spends of about Rs 270 crore, have completed post-production and were scheduled for release in 2020-21.

“Uncertainty rules the film industry in Kerala as we have no idea when the theatres will open. In March, the theatres opened with 50 per cent attendance but two months later, they closed down after the current lockdown was announced on May 8. Around 60 films are waiting for release,” says M. Renjith, a film producer based in Thiruvananthapuram.

Covid had paralysed the Malayalam film industry which has an annual turnover of Rs 800 crore. The fallout put the industry in a tight spot as around 5,000 people directly and another 10,000 indirectly have been unemployed in the past 17 months.

The film industry was already in the doldrums even before Covid struck. According to an industry insider, a majority of the films produced in Malayalam are done in a haphazard manner. “Most of the films fail at the box office and incur heavy losses because the producers are unfamiliar with the intricacies of film making,” a production controller who wanted to remain anonymous told indiatoday.in. Of the 192 films released in 2019, only 23 films broke even and only seven of those, including Thanneer Mathan Dinangal, were box office hits.

“It’s hard times for the film industry. The artists, technicians and supporting staff are struggling to get by as they have been without work for many months. We have no idea when this will be over,” says director and actor Basil Joseph. The 31 year-old, an engineer by profession, has directed three well-appreciated films; his latest, Minnal Murali starring Tovino Thomas, is awaiting release.

“We make a film for a particular time and the delay in release may hurt its success. Most of the films which completed production were meant for theatres and not for OTT release,” he says. According to him, the state government should step in and design strategies to save the industry from disaster.

Award winning actor, scriptwriter and producer Chemban Vinod Jose has also appealed for a government-industry joint partnership to tide over the current challenges. “I have also been hit by the pandemic. I co-produced Churuli which is ready for release. We couldn’t release it due to the lockdown. I feel the time has come to float Kerala’s own OTT platform to release the films shelved during Covid. Kerala is the only state which has its own Kerala Fiber Optic Network (K-FON) which aims to provide free internet to 3 million poor families. So it will be ideal for the state government to float a platform jointly with stakeholders in the industry to release films. The initiative will be a great beginning and could help get the industry back on its feet,” says Chemban. The state government is hopeful that K-FON will be completed by October, but the possibility of an alternative OTT platform on it is still a long way away.

The pandemic has forced all the top stars, including Mammooty and Mohanlal, to remain at home for more than 300 days now. As for Covid, youth icon Tovino Thomas tested positive but has since recovered.

Meanwhile, the Mohanlal-headed Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) and the actor-cum-scriptwriter Renji Panicker-led Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) have approached the government about declaring an aid package for the industry and to support filmmaking in the state.

The dynamics of the Malayalam film industry is quite different from the other south Indian film Industries. Unlike films in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu where mega production houses and corporate-political backing are the norm, a majority of films produced in Mollywood are from small production houses or one-time NRI initiatives. They mostly vanish from production, especially if the first venture bombs at the box office.

OTT releases are a new experiment for Mollywood. The Mohanlal starrer Drishyam-2 collected Rs 25 crore from OTT and Rs 15 crore from satellite rights. Cyber-crime thriller Operation Jawa, directed by Tharun Moorthy released on Zee5, while the Fahad Faasil films, Joji and Irul, have had good success on OTT platforms.