25 Greatest Malayalam Movies of All Time
Ever since Malayalam cinema underwent a renaissance in the past decade- with the influx of new-age filmmakers creating some groundbreaking work, it has been unarguably the foremost film industry in India when measured by the quality of films produced. If the 2000s were the worst years for Malayalam movies, then the best era was definitely the 70s and 80s, which witnessed the rise of the New Wave and Middle cinema respectively.
To handpick 25 great Malayalam movies from an industry whose veteran filmmakers like Priyadarshan alone have made more than 60 Malayalam movies (many of which are classics), can create a conundrum for many Malayali cinephiles.
This list is an attempt to compile the best of mainstream and independent films that I’ve watched over the years. It is not ranked in any particular order; instead, I’ve clubbed the work of filmmakers who have more than one film featured here. Please note that many filmmakers have created several masterpieces but I’ve capped them to two per director. The idea is to include as many great filmmakers in this list and evoke interest in the readers to explore more of their work.
25. Kumbalangi Nights (2019)
Director: Madhu C. Narayanan
One of the finest mainstream films of the previous decade, Madhu Narayanan’s directorial debut ‘Kumbalangi Nights’ takes on social taboos along with challenging several stereotypes but never lets loose its grip on the entertainment quotient. So-called alpha males crying their heart out, bringing home the widow and baby of a deceased best friend, a mute brother falling in love with an American black woman – are all progressive themes for the middle-class milieu.
The stand-out scene that was widely appreciated in which Soubin Shahir’s character Saji seeks psychological help from a doctor, breaks the stigma associated with counseling. The highlight package of the film is Fahadh Faasil who delivers a terrific performance as the antagonist Shammi. Through this character, the writer Syam Pushkaran sketches a typical portrait of a patriarchal man who passes off his misogynist attitude and toxic masculinity under the pretext of family honor.
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24. Sudani from Nigeria (2018)
Director: Zakariya Mohammad
Another directorial debut, this National Award winner for Best Feature Film in Malayalam is one of the best feel-good movies of our time. It has a big heart and is bound to well up the eyes of even the most stoic personalities. The title refers to a star foreign player Samuel “Sudu” of Majeed’s (Soubin Shahir) football club, who meets with an accident and is made to rest at Majeed’s house while he recovers. Over time, Majeed and his mother develop a strong bond with Samuel as they share their personal life stories with each other. Even the neighbors and townsfolk become very fond of the good-natured foreigner who doesn’t speak their language.
‘Sudani from Nigeria’ reminds us that love and humanity can transcend barriers of language and nationality. It also successfully shatters the myth that foreigners who play for football clubs in India come from sound economic backgrounds. The reality in the case of many African footballers is in stark contrast to what most people assume. Many of them play in India with the hope of escaping their impoverished lives in their home countries.
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23. Munnariyippu (2014)
Multiple National Award-winning cinematographer Venu’s second directorial outing follows a young female journalist who sets out to write a biography on convict C. K. Raghavan (Mammootty) who professes that he never committed the crimes he is in prison for.
‘Munnariyippu’ is a multilayered film that deconstructs the narrative and discards certain conventions, making it an interesting visual experiment. What elevates the film’s level is Mammootty’s terrific performance and subdued mannerisms. He sheds off any trace of the superstar persona and methodically absorbs the character of Raghavan in totality.
The film doesn’t indulge in the crests and troughs of mainstream drama and adopts a very restrained and mature approach in its storytelling. The main contemplation that ‘Munnariyippu’ tries to delineate through Raghavan to the audience is that the interpretation of freedom or exemption is absolutely subjective in accordance with the individual in question. Viewers willing to participate in the narrative can expect to be rewarded.
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22. The Great Indian Kitchen (2021)
Director: Joe Baby
Arguably, one of the best Malayalam movies to come out in recent times, the sarcastically titled film serves a disgusting assortment of patriarchy, male chauvinism, hypocrisy, and makes the viewer slowly chew it by repeating the chores and ordeal of its female protagonist.
A must-watch for all moral custodians of society who have fixed notions about gender roles in a household. The film tells the story of a newlywed woman (Nimisha Sajayan) who struggles to be the submissive wife that her husband (Suraj Venjaramood) and his family expect her to be. Millions of housewives who drudge through household chores daily that have been normalized by society will realize the injustice women have been enduring for centuries while fulfilling their expected role of duty-bound housewives. If ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ can bring about a positive change in even one married family, the film would have done its job. That would be the greatest reward for the film.
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21. Jallikattu (2019)
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
India’s official submission to the Oscars, ‘Jallikattu’ stamps the authority of Lijo Jose Pellissery as one of the finest auteurs of our generation. The raw, pulsating energy of the film makes it a wild ride that draws out the inherent beastly nature coated underneath the mask of civilization.
An ingenious plot, a myriad of characters, and an eerie background score make ‘Jallikattu’ a modern-day classic. Lijo’s obsession with close-up shots of meat butchering and food preparation syncs with the barbaric theme of the film.
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Lijo is one of the most exciting directors of our time who can be trusted to experiment with form, treatment, and themes in every new venture. Except for ‘Double Barrel’, every film of Lijo ranges between good and very good. ‘Ee.Ma.Yau‘ and ‘Angamaly Diaries‘ are considered cult films in Kerala and with the phenomenal success of ‘Jallikattu’, there is a lot of expectation from Lijo’s next film ‘Churuli‘.
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20. Sexy Durga (2019)
Director: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is a current-generation filmmaker raising the bar of experimental cinema in Malayalam cinema. Ever since his debut feature film ‘Oraalppokkam’ in 2014, Sanal has been experimenting with the subject, narrative, and form with each film.
Sexy Durga is arguably his best work which became the first Indian film to win the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2017. The film’s plot is fairly simple but touches upon dark themes including domination, patriarchal attitudes, hypocrisy, etc.
During a nocturnal ride, a young woman and her lover come across a cross-section of Indian male society. What starts out as an attempt to escape descends into a journey through hell – from which no escape seems possible. Sanal has made some very fine films like ‘Ozhivudivasathe Kali’, ‘Unmadiyude Maranam‘, and ‘Chola’ that have received wide acclaim. He is one filmmaker from whom the audience can expect something unique and innovative in each film.
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19. Vadakkunokkiyantram (1989)
‘Vadakkunokkiyantram’ is one of the finest dark comedies in Indian cinema. Sreenivasan’s insightful observations on the male ego, insecurities, and inferiority complex shine through in his performance as well as direction.
As a jealous and suspicious husband, he keeps on doubting his wife as she is more beautiful and smarter than him. This eventually leads to marital discord and him undergoing treatment for his complexities. The film has aged very well and makes it frequently to many lists on the greatest Malayalam movies of all time.
It was remade in Tamil as ‘Dindigul Sarathy’, in Kannada as ‘Nanjangudu Nanjunda’, and in Hindi as ‘Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh‘. Sreenivasan’s other directorial venture ‘Chinthavishtaya Shyamala’ also stars him in the lead role, and is a brilliant black comedy on a lazy and irresponsible husband who neglects his family.
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18. Amma Ariyan (1986)
Director: John Abraham
Despite having made only four feature films due to his accidental death in 1987, the maverick John Abraham is considered one of the finest Malayalam filmmakers. And, ‘Amma Ariyan’ is unarguably his finest and most complex work.
Featured in BFI’s Top 10 Indian Films list, the story revolves around the incidents following the death of a young Naxalite, upon whose death his friends travel to the village where his mother lives to inform her of the death of her only son.
It is among the most experimental works of Indian cinema and continues to be discussed for its multi-layered narrative. Abraham was a gold medalist from FTII, and he began his career by assisting Mani Kaul on ‘Uski Roti‘. His ‘Cheriyanchante Kroorakrithyangal’ is also a fine film that critiques the feudal system and police atrocities. One must also take out time for his Tamil film ‘Agraharathil Kazuthai’ which is inspired by Robert Bresson’s ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’.
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17. Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016)
Director: Dileesh Pothan
This directorial debut of Dileesh Pothan is a “serious comedy” in Fahadh Fassil‘s own words who plays Mahesh in the film. While attempting to defuse a conflict between his friend and a group of youngsters, he is knocked down. Unable to fight back, an embarrassed Mahesh publicly vows that he will not wear his slippers again until he has avenged his humiliation.
Instead of relying on the usual mix of hate and anger for revenge, the writer Syam Pushkaran intelligently uses comedy to draw reactions from the characters and develop a gripping, funny screenplay (which won the National Award).
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‘Maheshinte Prathikaaram’ has gained a cult status over the years and has been remade into Tamil as ‘Nimir’ by Priyadarshan and into Telugu as ‘Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya’ by the ‘C/o Kancharapalem’ director Venkatesh Maha. In his second feature ‘Thondimuthalam Driksakshiyum’ and the third film ‘Joji’, Dileesh again teamed up with Fahadh to create some really good cinema. Both films are highly enjoyable and entail relevant social commentary as well.
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16. Nadodikkattu (1987)
Director: Sathyan Anthikad
Sathyan Anthikad is one of the most commercially successful Malayalam filmmakers who mastered the art of satirizing social issues and packaging them in entertaining capsules. The director-writer combination of Anthikad and Sreenivasan is responsible for some of the wittiest popular movies of Malayalam cinema.
‘Nadodikkatu’ stars Mohanlal and Sreenivasan in the lead roles as Ramdas and Vijayan. After losing their jobs in Kerala, they decide to migrate to Dubai to make their fortunes. However, they get deceived and end up in the neighboring Tamil Nadu where they are mistaken as two criminal investigators by a group of smugglers.
‘Nadodikkattu’ drew upon relevant social factors affecting Kerala of the 1980s such as widespread unemployment and poverty. Portraying the struggles of unemployed youths seeking jobs in the Middle East, this biting Malayalam satire takes a piercing look at the quirks and inferiority complexes of middle-class society. It is among the most popular Malayalam comedies of all time.
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15. Thalayana Manthram (1990)
Director: Sathyan Anthikad
‘Thalayana Manthram’ is another super-hit comedy from the Anthikad-Sreenivasan stable. The film focuses on the greedy, insecure, and jealous wife of Sreenivasan’s character, who cunningly creates a rift between her husband and his family.
She desires to lead a life of luxury beyond their means, leading to severe complications in their life. The film is packed with funny scenes and hilarious situations. Much of the humor is born out of the helplessness of Sreenivasan and the troubles that he encounters due to his wife’s demands.
Urvashi, who plays Sreenivasan’s wife, received a lot of acclaim for her performance as a greedy and shrewd lady. There are many more films by Sathyan Anthikad that deserve to be viewed, and among them, a few of my favorites are ‘Varavelpu’, ‘T. P. Balagopalan M. A.’, ‘Achuvinte Amma’.
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14. Kireedam (1989)
Director: Sibi Malayil
Sibi Malayil and his screenwriter A. K. Lohithadas have given Malayalam cinema some of its most commercially and critically successful films. ‘Kireedam’ is yet another masterclass in acting from Mohanlal who won the National Film Award – Special Mention “for portraying a young man’s agony and pain marvelously and in unique style”.
The film chronicles the life of a young man whose life turns upside down when he intervenes in a dispute to rescue his father (a cop) from a ruthless local outlaw. An inadvertent moment of rage and the series of unanticipated repercussions that follow it form the poignant focus of this Malayalam classic.
Sibi Malayil paints a solemn portrait of a distraught young man caught in the web of an intricate father-son dynamic, violence, and personal failings. ‘Kireedam’ was remade into six other languages – Telugu as ‘Rowdyism Nasinchali’ (1990), in Kannada as ‘Modada Mareyalli’ (1991), and in Hindi as ‘Gardish’ (1993).
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13. Thaniyavarthanam (1987)
Director: Sibi Malayil
This was the first film that kicked off the Malayil-Lohithadas partnership. The film discusses a variety of topics such as superstition and orthodoxy in rural Kerala, attitudes towards mental illness, the difference of attitudes between people of different generations, and the decline of once-proud Nair “joint families”.
Apart from the main storyline concerning Balan (Mammootty), the movie also makes a subtle sketch of the life of people in a “matriarchal” society. The uncle of Balan (played by Thilakan) enjoys so much influence in the family affairs that he becomes a catalyst to Balan’s slow but steady decline to lunacy.
It was Thilakan who had recommended Mammootty for the lead role. The writer-director duo has given the Malayalam film industry some of its acclaimed classics including ‘Dasharatham’ and ‘Bharatham’ for which Mohanlal bagged a Best Actor National Film Award. Forbes India included Mohanlal’s performance in the film on its list of “25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema”.
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12. Peruvazhiyambalam (1979)
Director: P. Padmarajan
P. Padmarajan was not only among the finest filmmakers from Kerala but also a highly accomplished author. Along with K. G. George and Bharathan, he is credited with founding a new school of filmmaking in Malayalam cinema in the 1980s. Along with his contemporaries, Padmarajan created groundbreaking films that were widely received while also being critically acclaimed.
He is known for his mastery in screenwriting. ‘Peruvazhiyambalam’ is based on his novel of the same name, and marks his directorial debut along with the acting debut of Ashokan who plays the central character, Raman.
The film is an incisive examination of how violence or totalitarianism works in our society; it deals with disturbing questions relating to masculinity and how people adore and dread it at the same time. The Hindu described the film as one of the finest films in Malayalam. It won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Malayalam and was included in IBN Live’s list of 100 greatest Indian films of all time. ‘Thinkalaazhcha Nalla Divasam’, ‘Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal’, and ‘Innale’ are also some fine films from the master.
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11. Thoovanathumbikal (1987)
Director: P. Padmarajan
The film is partly based on Padmarajan’s novel Udakappola. It revolves around Jayakrishnan (Mohanlal), who falls in love with two women; Radha (Parvathy), a distant relative of his, and Clara (Sumalatha), an escort in town.
The film is widely noted for its rich film score and songs, dialogues and characters, detailed screenplay, and Mohanlal’s and Sumalatha’s performance. Rain is a recurring theme and is portrayed almost as a character in the film. Set in Thrissur, the film displays the typical Malayali bachelor lifestyle in many scenes. One such scene where Mohanlal invites Ashokan for a lemonade drink and straight away gets into the city bar has now become an iconic call sign for a drink offer between Malayalis.
‘Thoovanathumbikal’ is considered, by many, to be the most romantic movie ever made in Malayalam cinema history. The film deals with the most intense human emotions of love and lust. Years after its release, the movie has turned into a cult classic, especially among the youth. In a 2013 online poll, IBN Live listed it as the 8th greatest Indian film of all time.
Watch/Stream Thoovanathumbikal Full Movies Online on Amazon Prime
10. Prayanam (1975)
Bharathan’s films were known for their realistic portrayal of rural life in Kerala. Melodrama and escapism were usually absent in his films. His background as a painter enabled him to create frames that were often credited for their visual beauty. Natural props and nature itself often became important characters in his films (like the railway track in ‘Palangal’, or the sea in ‘Amaram’).
Bharathan is one of the few Indian directors known to use an elaborate storyboard system for filming. He also often designed posters for his films. ‘Pranayam’ was written by P. Padmarajan and it marked the debut of both Bharathan as a director and Padmarajan as a screenwriter.
The film probes into the realities that existed within the Brahmin community of the day. Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair plays an elderly Brahmin priest married to a girl young enough to be his daughter. A lot is implicated and unsaid in the film. It is one of the personal favorites of the director.
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9. Vaishali (1988)
‘Vaishali’ is regarded as a modern-day masterpiece in Malayalam cinema. The film is an adaptation of a sub-story told by Vedavyasa to King Yudhishtira in the epic Mahabharatha. It is the story of Vaisali, a devadasi girl who was assigned the mission of seducing Rishyashrungan, the son of Maharshi Vibhandakan, and bringing him to Chambapuri to perform a mahayagam to bring rain.
Films like ‘Vaishali’ and ‘Amaram’ (where Bharathan collaborated with acclaimed cinematographer Madhu Ambat) set a new benchmark for cinematographic excellence in Malayalam and Indian Cinema. Several of Bharathan’s films are known for their bold portrayal of sexual themes. His films often defied social conventions and norms about man-woman relationships. ‘
Rathinirvedam’ was the sexual-coming-of-age story of the relationship between a teenager and an older woman while ‘Chamaram’ dealt with the tumultuous affair between a student and his college lecturer. ‘Kattathe Kilikkoodu’ and ‘Kaathodu Kaathoram’ also explore adulterous relationships and are worth one’s time.
Watch/Stream Vaishali Full Movie Online on Eros Now
8. Yavanika (1982)
Director: K. G. George
Known for his unconventional work, K. G. George is noted for his deep psychological analysis and character study of the human mind in his films. He made his directorial debut with ‘Swapnadanam’ (1975) and became a strong presence of the new cinema movement in Kerala that became active during the early 1970s.
‘Yavanika’ stands out as one of the most commercially successful, yet artistically superior films of the 1980s. In the form of a detective thriller, it explores the backstage drama of a traveling drama troop. The plot is structured around the search for an unpopular tabla player of the troupe who suddenly disappears.
The film is regarded as the finest mystery or investigative thriller ever made in Malayalam cinema. One of the greatest screenplays written in Malayalam cinema, and the performances of Bharat Gopi and Thilakan are phenomenal. It won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Film, Best Story, and Second Best Actor for Thilakan.
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7. Irakal (1985)
Director: K. G. George
‘Irakal’ is considered the first dark movie in Malayalam and one of the best works of K.G George. The film is an in-depth exploration of the psychology of violence and its theme in undertones depicted political conditions of the country during that time including The Emergency.
Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi are said to be symbolically presented by Thilakan and Ganesh respectively in the film, though George didn’t say it directly. Dileesh Pothan’s ‘Joji’ is said to have taken inspiration from the film with regard to theme.
The film won two Kerala State Film Awards—Second Best Film and Best Story. George has given Malayalam cinema many groundbreaking classics. ‘Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback‘ (1983), ‘Adaminte Vaariyellu’ (1983), and ‘Panchavadi Palam’ (1984) are some highly engaging films that should definitely be explored by cinephiles.
Watch/Stream Irakal Full Movie Online on Eros Now
6. Vanaprastham (1999)
Director: Shaji N. Karun
‘Vanaprastham’ is the crowning glory in Mohanlal’s acting career for which he won yet another National Award. His tragic performance is considered the pinnacle of acting by many. The film chronicles the life of a lower-caste Kathakali artist (Mohanlal) who receives great acclaim in his career but is burdened by repeated rejections and abandonment in his personal life.
Like most Shaji N. Karun films, this one too has pain written all over it. An Indo-French production, ‘Vanaprastham’ excels in every department of filmmaking. The cinematography is exceptional and the soul-stirring soundtrack by Zakir Hussain is truly world-class.
The film was Shaji’s third film to be screened at Cannes and is deservingly regarded as one of the finest Indian films. It won multiple National awards, and after the screening of the film, the Government of France conferred Shaji with the title Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
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5. Piravi (1989)
Director: Shaji N. Karun
After a glorious career as one of the finest cinematographers in India and giving Malayalam cinema some of its most poetic images, mostly in the films of G. Aravindan, Shaji decided to become a director. And boy, what a debut! ‘Piravi’ not only won the National Award for Best Feature Film but also won several awards at prestigious international film festivals including the Camera d’Or at Cannes.
The film is based on the life of professor T. V. Eachara Warrier, whose son, a student in Regional Engineering College, Calicut, was killed in police custody during the National Emergency Period of 1976. The grief of a father endlessly waiting for his son to return has been portrayed brilliantly by Premji who won the National Award for Best Actor.
Shaji’s films are filled with pathos and are as real as cinema can get. An uncompromising filmmaker who is among the best we’ve seen. His second film ‘Swaham’ (1994) was the last Indian film that competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
4. Pokkuveyil (1982)
Director: G. Aravindan
Govindan Aravindan is one of the finest filmmakers produced by India. Arguably, the country’s most poetic director, Aravindan’s films are revered for their visual lyricism and minimalism. A large portion of the credit goes to his cinematographer Shaji N. Karun for creating a transcendental world through his beautiful images.
In ‘Pokkuveyil’, both the artists are at their peak and have created a haunting masterpiece. It is a beautiful, melancholic work of art with some of the finest images of nature captured on film. The indefinability of the human mind is the theme of the film.
Aravindan recorded its audio first as a composition for the flute by Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and the sarod by Rajeev Taranath. The visuals were ‘composed’ according to musical notations without any script. The film won the Rajat Kamal for the second-best movie in the country for the year 1982. It was screened in several international film festivals, including Cannes.
Watch/Stream Pokkuveyil Full Movie Online on YouTube
3. Esthappan (1980)
Director: G. Aravindan
The film blends together the Biblical story of the deeds of Christ and the way society responded to him, with the life of Esthappan, whose life mystifies others. Esthappan is a fisherman, who lives in a seashore colony. His story unfolds through narrations by other fishermen about his miraculous acts. Through the contradictory statements of these people, a mystical figure of Esthappan unfolds.
Again, it’s the ethereal images of Shaji N. Karun that cast a spell on the viewer. Through the prophetic dialogues in the film and the theme of mysticism, Aravindan raises existential questions about life, death, and everything in between.
‘Esthappan’ won the Kerala State Film Awards for Best Film and Best Director. Readers of this list must do themselves a favor by watching Aravindan’s entire filmography if possible. He was an incomparable artist whose ingenuity was reflected in his strikingly beautiful mise en scenes.
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2. Anantaram (1987)
Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Regarded as the greatest living Indian filmmaker, Adoor Gopalakrishnan is the brightest jewel in the crown of Malayalam cinema. He pioneered the new wave in Kerala with his debut film ‘Swayamvaram’ in 1972. With several documentaries and 12 feature films to his credit, almost every film of his can find a place in this list.
‘Anantaram’ is arguably his best work. In fact, it is my favorite Indian film of all time. It stars Ashokan and Shobhana in the lead with Mammootty in an extended guest role. The film is structured like a monologue. It develops through a commentary by the protagonist about himself in the first person.
In an interview, Adoor said, “Anantaram is basically about perceptions. About a young, impressionable boy who lacks some sort of functioning. Though my life was not very familiar, I was searching for the familiar experience of growing up, struggling with life and relationships. What is in the frame and what is juxtaposed to it just outside the frame… or let us put it this way, it has to do with attuning to the reality just beyond perception. Actually, this is part of the daily experience though we don’t analyze it.”
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1. Vidheyan (1994)
Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
The film is a cinematic adaptation of the novel Bhaskara Pattelarum Ente Jeevithavum by Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia. Zacharia’s novella was inspired by a real-life character named Patela Shekhara Gowda alias Shiradi Shekhara. ‘Vidheyan’ explores the master-slave relationship in a South Karnataka setting and is a brilliant psychology study of the topic.
Mammootty and M. R. Gopakumar essay the lead roles of master and slave respectively. The performance of Mammootty is arguably the greatest portrayal of a villainous character in Indian cinema. The actor is terrifying and menacing as a ruthless landlord who does as he pleases and completely owns his slave.
Adoor masterfully examines the changing dynamics between the master and slave as the film progresses. The film won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Malayalam and the Best Actor Award for Mammootty. Adoor’s ‘Mathilukal, ‘Kodiyettam’, ‘Mukhamukham’, ‘Kathapurushan’, ‘Elippathayam’, are all brilliant films that are must-visits.
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