Will coining a new phrase help India's parallel cinema steal some of the spotlight away from its flashy Bollywood cousin?
13 Jan 2010 - 3:14 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 12:55 PM

In the local south India media, a new word has well and truly taken hold: Mollywood ( a.k.a Kerala's Malayalam language cinema).

Of course the term is a sound bite. But it's certainly fun to use and it could just help the cinema's cause. When writing about Indian cinema it's easy to get caught up in the Bollywood tradition — the cinema that comes out of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) that is scripted with Hindi dialogue with the odd English word. It is that cinema which dominates the global hunger for Indian cinema, fed mainly by the ever-growing Indian diaspora. Those non-resident Indians (NRIs) know, however, that many states in India have their own cinema with rich and vibrant traditions and unique cinematic tropes.

While Bollywood is seen to be India's national cinema, Mollywood is one of India's regional cinemas otherwise known as 'parallel cinema', an alternative to the well-known 'masala' blockbusters (literally translates to 'spicy') from Mumbai. Parallel cinema was coined to discuss the breakthrough cinema of Satyajit Ray's Bengali masterpiece, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, pictured) in 1955 that won both the “Human Document” award and “OCIC Award - Special Mention” at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1956 along with numerous other international awards and nominations. Panther Panchali was the first of Ray's “Apu” trilogy that includes Aparajito (The Unvanquished) in 1956 and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959.

Mollywood, which began with the first Malayalam “talkie” Balan in 1938, has always been beloved by the Malayalam speaking community and it regularly screens in cinemas throughout the southern state of Kerala. However, according to an article in the local broadsheet, the Indian Express (see also the Express India) the cinema faces a “disastrous” future with only a small percentage of films reaping a profit. They quote Kerala Film Producers' Association president G. Suresh Kumar, who says the financial loss is “too big an amount for a small market like Kerala” to sustain. This is attributed to overblown budgets, production mismanagement and the extraordinary rise in salaries for Malayalam film stars.

The market for the cinema is indeed “boutique”. Mollywood most certainly doesn't often travel outside of the state. There are exceptions of course, mainly on the international film festival circuit, but crossover Malayalam hits are rare. Let's hope 2010 is a better year for the local industry. As India's Economic Times reports, this week the state “got its first digital post-production lab which will help the Malayalum film industry to reduce its cost substantially.”