The early 1980s in the Malayalam industry were a time when the filmmakers from the 1970s and the kinds of stories they wanted to convey were becoming outdated. A lot of them did not work on the big screen; the audiences had evolved by then and were expecting something more than dramatic actors and mundane stories. They expected better-written screenplays, and comedies that would make sense instead of just senseless slapstick humor. In came the new generation of directors of the 1980s: K.G. George, Bharathan, and P. Padmarajan. These directors not only changed the way films were made but also changed the kinds of stories that needed to be told and pushed the boundaries of cinema.
P.Padmarajan, of all the three filmmakers, tops the list because the kind of cinema he wrote and directed changed the course of how Malayalam cinema was looked at. Many of his films were considered bold for that time. The current generation of cinema-going audiences considers P. Padmarajan to be a pioneer who delivered stories that were way ahead of their time. Padmarajan began as a short story writer and wrote plenty of them, only to be adapted onto the big screen by himself. It is enough to say that only he could do justice to the stories he wrote. He explored various mature subjects which were hardly touched upon by any of the directors of that decade or the decades before that.
Case in point: “Kallan Pavithran” (Pavithran, the thief, 1981), written and directed by himself, showcases the lowly life of a thief, Pavithran, who unexpectedly discovers wealth that is not his. Through this film, Padmarajan throws light on how people from the lower strata are easily manipulated into doing deeds that are against the law of the land. Padmarajan was probably the only director in the Malayalam cinema sphere who experimented with stories of people from different strata. His films were not just critically acclaimed; many of the films in his filmography were commercially successful as well.
“Koodevide (1983),” starring Mammootty, Suhasini, and Rahman in his debut film, is a tale of jealousy gone wrong. A mature story of a man in a long-term relationship goes haywire because jealousy takes over him once he starts suspecting his fiancé of having an affair with her young student. “Koodevide” became a monstrous success for the story it portrayed and the performances delivered by the actors. One of his films, which was not only critically acclaimed but a commercial success as well. What made Padmarajan’s films different from the usual stock of cinema is the treatment of the story.
Padmarajan’s films always had a coming-of-age element to them. “Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal” (Vineyards for us to dwell, 1986) and “Deshadanakkili Karayarilla” (Migratory birds don’t cry, 1986) are two such films released in the same year that define what relationships are supposed to be. Be it a relationship between a girlfriend and her boyfriend, or the relationship two female friends share. Both the stories have one element in common: love, which the characters have for each other.
In “Namukku Parkkan,” starring Mohanlal and Shari, Mohanlal, as Solomon, goes out of his way to rescue Shari as Sofi from her abusive household. There is no savior complex attached to Solomon’s character as Sofi’s character is also very strong and decides to finally stand up to her abusive stepfather and leave her old life behind to start a new life with Solomon. This film showcased love in its rawest and most intimate form. The love that Solomon shares with Shari is intense and transcendent. While “Nammukku Parakkan” was about everlasting love, “Deshadanakkili Karayarilla” is considered one of the first Malayalam films that had hints of queer love attached to it. Two very close friends, Nirmala and Sally, decide to escape from their boarding school just to exact revenge on one of their teachers. While they end up in trouble after trouble, they eventually depend on each other to cover up and formulate lies, assuming new identities in the city. Soon, the story reveals that one of them is quite possessive of the other, hinting at whether the bond they share is just out of friendship or love. Padmarajan masterfully showcases the friendship the girls share without titillating the audience. Mind you; this film was released in the last 80s when the concept of queer love stories was nonexistent.
Padmarajan was also one of the few directors who did not shy away from discussing sex in his films. Making the audience accept the fact that sex is part of our daily lives. His films “Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil” (In the village that wears a warrior’s belt, 1986) and “Thoovanathumbikal” (Dragonflies in the spraying rain, 1987) explicitly spoke about sex and sex workers, and how normalized the practice of prostitution is in India. Padmarajan, as a writer of these two films, did not judge any of the characters who are prostitutes.”Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil” has an ancestral home turned into a brothel, while the madam of the brothel is not shamed for her profession but is considered a powerful figure in the village the film is set in.
“Thoovanathumbikal,” starring Mohanlal, Parvathy, and Sumalatha, has Mohanlal as Jayakrishnan falling in love with two women, Clara and Radha, at two different points in his life. They are both different personalities but have one thing in common: they are strong-willed women who want to live life on their terms. Padmarajan beautifully writes about Radha and Clara’s characters in this film, who are adamant about what they want from their lives. Clara is a prostitute by choice and decides to lead her own life without involving Jayakrishnan. Clara, again, here strictly from a writing point of view, is shown as an independent, self-assured woman who wants to live her life on her terms. This film is a beautiful tale of platonic as well as physical relationships that the leads share.
“Season” (1989) and “Aparan” (1988) by the same director are some of his off-beat films. Aparan, starring Jayaram, is a tale of mistaken identity, while Season starring Mohanlal, is a tale of a drug deal at Kovalam beach gone wrong.
The films of Padmarajan relied heavily on strong screenplays, out-of-the-box stories, and brilliant performances by the actors. The direction just follows the story without hampering it. The camerawork in Padmarajan’s films used to be simple as the storytelling and screenplay took center stage, followed by an ensemble cast of terrific actors. This genius of a filmmaker directed 18 films in his lifetime; all of them are now considered classics, a template for storytellers and directors ever since who wanted to deliver different stories to the audience.
P. Padmarajan has been a major influence on most of the directors of the 1990s and for the current generation too. Be it Sathyan Anthikad, Kamal, Sibi Malayil, Aashiq Abu, Dileesh Pothan, or writers like Murali Gopi and Shyam Pushkaran. P. Padmarajan was one of the key directors that formed a norm of producing realistic cinema and set the stage for the future generation.