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The Malayalam film industry, based in the southern Indian state of Kerala, got off to a slow start in 1928, when its first film, Vikathakumaran, bankrupted its producer. The next film, Marthanda Varma, was an adaptation of a famous novel, and the release landed its makers in a legal battle over copyright issues. With such ominous precedents to overcome, it is no wonder that twenty years later, only six Malayalam films had been released. Happily, things took off from there, and Malayalam films entered a golden age that peaked in the 1960s, when the industry was nationally renowned for its professionalism, sophisticated direction, and technical virtuosity.

These qualities are still visible in one of its most prominent exports to Bollywood: cinematographer Santosh Sivan, whose brilliant eye ensorceled the audience in both Dil Se (1998) and his directorial debut, Asoka (2001). However, the industry itself is now struggling to live up to its former glory. The number of films released annually has dropped from 120 to 60 in the last three years. A series of high-profile flops and shrinking audiences have driven a quarter of Malayalam cinema halls to close. Many more are on the edge of bankruptcy.

   The main culprit for the industry's blues? The producers claim it's Malayalam television.

MammootyWith shrinking movie budgets -- actors' salaries included -- big stars have flocked to lucrative jobs on the small screen. In May 2002, the popularity of the TV shows drove film producers to call for a prohibition forbidding movie stars to act in teleserials. Kerala's two biggest male stars -- Mammooty and Mohanlal -- were actually told to stop working in films altogether unless they immediately stopped working in and producing television programs.

This demand caused a giant rift in the industry, which only widened when actor Dileep filed charges against producer Dinesh Panicker, alleging that two checks from the producer had bounced. In what seems a clear case of partisanship, the producers' strongholds -- the Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce, the Cine Distributors and Exhibitors Association, and the Film Producers Association -- responded by threatening to ban the actor from working in Malayalam film unless he apologized for filing the complaint and paid a hefty fine. Outraged fans and fellow actors banded together to offer unqualified support for Dileep.

The stand-off is an unfortunate blow to this already fragile industry. Producers have long complained that actors' salary demands are an insurmountable obstacle to the films' financial success; in turn, and particularly after the aforementioned fracas, the biggest stars are flocking to other southern film industries.

In particular, many have met with success in the wealthier Tamil industry, where their prices -- very affordable in comparison to those of established Tamil stars -- make them attractive alternatives.

Is there no future for Malayalam cinema? Several prominent Keralans are seeking ways to rejuvenate the industry. Chief priorities are the modernization of theaters, including the creation of multiplexes, and the implementation of advanced filmmaking technology. Other possibilities being discussed include efforts to use television as a vehicle for film promotion, as Bollywood has done through channels like Bollywood 4 U (B4U) and Star Television; improving the distribution and marketing of Malayalee films abroad, to tap the non-resident market; and the creation of a "privileged viewer" program which would reward regular movie-goers with perks like parking spaces, pre-ordering options, and separate ticket desks.

Of course, the most important aspect of this promised renaissance is the return to strong storytelling. Even die-hard fans have started to carp in recent years about the endless re-makes and cheap sensationalism which this once-great industry has resorted to. For an industry that at first glance seems but a minor player on the South Asian film scene, the number of national awards credited to Malayalam filmmakers suggests that Kerala has not only the desire, but the talent to make a renaissance come true.


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