Padmarajan-The Man Who Painted Malayalam Movies In Shades Of Grey

Padmarajan-The Man Who Painted Malayalam Movies In Shades Of Grey

  • 23 May 2016
  • Fathima AbdulKader
  • Features

Padmarajan- novelist, short story writer, screenplay writer, and director - he was a man who wore many hats. Whatever he worked on, he has left behind a legacy which has not been replicated till today. There is a saying that it is impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice- Padmarajan was that lightning. Making anarchistic politically incorrect movies about people who are living in the fringes of society was not something that just anyone can do, and managing to do this while still making these movies commercially viable is not an easy task.

Malayalam movies have always been separated into two categories, the pure commercial movies and the so called art movies. Padmarajan, and up to an extent Bharathan, was responsible for treading the middle ground between these categories. They created movies which were commercially viable but still had artistic merit. During the 80s, Padmarajan covered themes which are still considered taboo - Lesbianism, extra marital affairs, Ageism, Prostitution, rape, paedophilia, and incest are just a few of the topics he examined. Topics such as these still are considered to be too scandalous for the mass audience, themes which people would not enjoy.


But the success of Padmarajan as a movie maker was because he was able to blend these themes into very accessible movies. Although every nation and every state has their individual notions, a country as a whole has underlying commonalities. What demarcates Indians especially Malayalees, are that we do not like seeing items on the periphery of our civilization brought to light. But just like it is everywhere, these things on the fringes of society exist and often the best of us refuse to acknowledge its existence.


The Malayalee audience feels content with the boy meets girl story, but love and relationships are always much more complex than what is shown on the screen. Padmarajan has been able to capture the complexities of human relations in all its glory- unrequited love, unconditional love, jealousy and lust- have been portrayed across his movies. But the negative emotions are not relegated to just the negative characters but are shown across various characters including the protagonists.  


Padmarajan has been the purveyor of bringing these disparate themes to the popular mass across differing genres. Along with his bold scripts, one thing which helped his movies is the fact that none of the actors in his movies, like Mohan Lal and Mammootty had not reached their superstar zenith. Hence Padmarajan had the freedom to mould the actors to be the characters instead of becoming caricatures coloured by their off screen persona or by their various character legacies.


Another feat of Padmarajan is how well his movies have aged. Most movies, irrespective of language or genre feel dated after just five years. However Padmarajan movies and their themes managed to transcend time in its relevance. One of the finest example of this could be his movie Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil (1986) in which the protagonists who travel to a brothel ends up becoming embroiled in a communal riot caused by two leaders competing on deflowering the virginity of a young girl. If the previous sentence was the elevator pitch of the script, the movie would not have been created even in current times. But the power of Padmarajan was not just in making these movies, but making it successful as well.

The characters in his movies had perfect characterizations and felt real. Whether it was a romantic movie or a mystery thriller the characters felt so real that they might as well be people we see. None of the characters were superhuman nor were their situations, they were real people with real problems. But one of the saddest parts of his legacy was that when he passed away, other than the few movies made by Bharathan, Malayalam movies never regained this uptick in quality. But it can be said that there have been better movies made during the last few years emerging out of the so called “Next Gen” movies. But after a few quality offerings, even this trickled down to one or two good movies a year.

But there still have not been the paradigm shift like the one Padmarajan brought into the industry. This might be due to the comfortable risk-averse status quo that us Malayalees love so much and true experimentation might be difficult to stomach. There have been a few movies recently which, while still conforming to the movie industry, has made good movies like those of the likes of “Maheshinte Prathikaram” and “Action Hero Biju. But even they are not as bold and path breaking as Padmarajan movies are. Maybe, just maybe one movie which came close to capturing that pure anarchic spirit was “Leela”.

But even then an industry that could boast of having paid witness to movies such as those by Padmarajan should have taken quantum leaps in the last three decades. Like a snake eating its own tail we have relegated our movies to family friendly affairs like those made during the sixties, adapted to the modern context. While these movies manage to be entertaining, we still lack boldness in dealing with subjects people are not comfortable with, an attempt to shine light on those stories that need to be told, those stories that makes Malayalees squirm in their seats, and those which they are content to ignore. It is as if the golden age of cinema when Padmarajan thrived was captured in a bubble, untouchable, unattainable and maybe, forgotten.

Here is hoping that lightning does strike twice and we are able to capture it! 

Words By: Manaf Abdul and Fathima Abdul Kader
Images: Various Sources


If you have a favorite Padmarajan movie or have any insight to this topic, feel free to comment or mail us at [email protected] or message on our FB page. If you are interested in world movies watch our events page for updates of screenings in Kochi.

*The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of

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