History of Malayalam Cinema starts with Vigathakumaran, a silent film released in 1928. The man behind Vigathakumaran was J.C.Daniel who produced, directed, wrote, photographed, edited and acted as the protagonist in the movie. J.C.Daniel established the first film studio in Kerala, The Travancore National Pictures in the year 1926. P. K. Rosy played the female lead of the film and she is considered to be the first heroine of Malayalam cinema. Vigathakumaran was exhibited at the Capitol Theatre in Trivandrum on 7th November, 1928. But the film flopped, as it faced opposition from certain orthodox groups in Kerala. The reason for their opposition is said to be the presence of women in the film, which was considered an act at par with prostitution, at that time in Kerala. Daniel suffered huge financial losses and his film career came to an end.
Marthanda Varma directed by V.V.Rao and released in 1933 was the second film. This silent movie was based on a novel of its namesake by C.V.Raman Pillai. Marthanda Varma had a cast consisting of Jaidev, A.V.P. Menon, Devika and Padmini to name but a few. But the producer of the film Sunder Raj failed to obtain the film rights of the book and the film was withdrawn from screenings.
The first talkie in Malayalam was Balan which came out in the year 1938. Balan was produced by T.R.Sundaram of Modern Theatres, Salem and was directed by S.Nottani. The film which had 23 songs featured artists like K.K.Aroor, Alleppey Vincent, K.Gopinath, A.B.Pius, C.O.N.Nambiar, M.K.Kamalam and K.N.Lakshmi. Balan, scripted by Muthukulam Raghavan Pillai told the story of two orphaned children oppressed by their stepmother. Balan was followed by Gnanambika (1940), also directed by S.Nottani and Prahlada (1941) directed by K.Subramaniam.
Until 1947 malayalam films were made almost exclusively by Tamil producers. This trend changed when P.J.Cherian made Nirmala in 1948. Vellinakshatram (1949) was the first movie to be made in Kerala and it took shape at the Udaya Studios at Alleppey. Udaya Studios was established by M.Kunchako and K.V.Koshy in 1947. The duo went on to produce box office hits like Nallathanka and Jeevithanauka. Jeevithanauka is considered to be the first superhit in the history of Malayalam cinema and its protagonist Thikkurissy Sukumaran Nair is widely accepted as the first superstar in Malayalam cinema.
In 1951, P.Subramaniam established Merryland Studios at Trivandrum. Merryland introduced actor Sathyan into Malayalam cinema through Athmasakhi in 1952. Malayalam cinema gained national attraction when Neelakuyil won President's silver medal in 1954. Neelakuyil is considered to be the first authentic Malayalam film. It was scripted by Uroob and directed by P.Bhaskaran-Ramu Kariat duo with Sathyan as the protagonist.
News Paper Boy (1955) was another notable film of the fifties which had elements of Italian neorealism (it told the story of the poverty striken family of a printing press employee). News Paper Boy directed by P. Ramdas was the product of a group of amateur college filmmakers. Other notable films of the fifties include Navalokam, Achan, Sneha Seema, Harishchandra, Rarichan Enna Pauran, Randidangazhi and Padatha Painkili.
Prominent actors of the fifties include Thikkurisi Sukumaran Nair, Sathyan, Prem Nazir, S.P.Pillai and Kottarakara Sreedharan Nair. Sathyan and Prem Nazir went on to become the superstars of Malayalam cinema. Leading actresses were Miss.Kumari, B.S.Saroja, Kumari Thankam, Padmini and Prema.
Malayalam films of the sixties were mostly based on the novels and short stories of Thakazhi, Kesavdev, Parappurath, Basheer, M.T.Vasudevan Nair, Thoppil Bhasi and others. The era of color films started in malayalam cinema in the sixties with Kandam Bacha Coat released in 1961. Chemmeen was a landmark film in the history of malayalam cinema and it won the President's Gold Medal for the Best Film in 1965. Chemmeen was directed by Ramu Kariat and was based on a novel of the same title by Thakazhi. Popular films of the decade include Unniyarcha, Mudiyanaya Puthran, Velu Thampi Dalava, Palattu Koman, Ninamaninja Kalpadukal, Bhargavi Nilayam, Murappennu, Kavyamela, Odayil Ninnu, Anweshichu Kandethiyilla, Adyapika, Kavalam Chundan, Iruttinte Athmavu and Thulabharam. Ramu Kariyatu, P.Bhaskaran, K.S.Sethumadhavan and Sasikumar were some of the popular directors of the decade. Actor Madhu entered the film world during the sixties and became a super star while actress Sharada won the National Film Award for Best Actress for her performance in Thulabharam.
The seventies witnessed the emergence of new wave trend in Malayalam cinema. Some of the best films in the history of Malayalam Cinema were released in the seventies. P.N.Menon's Olavum Theeravum (1970) with Madhu as the protagonist was a memorable piece of cinematic work. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Swayamvaram in 1972 and M.T.Vasudevan Nair's Nirmalyam in 1973 won the National Film Award for the Best Film. P.J.Antony became the first South Indian to win the National Film Award for the Best Actor for his performance in Nirmalyam, while Sharada won the National Film Award for the Best Actress(second time) for Swayamvaram.
Other notable works of the seventies in the avant-garde genre include G.Aravindan's Uttarayanam (1974), Kanchana Sita (1977), Thampu (1978), Kummatty (1979) and Esthappan(1979), John Abraham's Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (1972) and Cheriachante Krurakrithyangal (1979), K.G.George's Swapnadanam (1975), K. P. Kumaran's Adhithi (1974), Adoor's Kodiyettam, P.A.Bakkar's Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol (1975), Mani Muzhakkam (1977) and Chuvanna Vithukal (1977), K.R.Mohanan's Ashwathama (1978), G.S.Panicker's Ekaakini (1978) and C. Radhakrishnan's Agni (1978). Aravindan's Kanchana Sita and Thamp won the National Film Award for Best Direction in 1978 and 1979 respectively, while Kodiyettam fetched Gopi, the National Film Award for Best Actor in 1978. Bharatan's Prayanam, Guruvayur Kesavan, Rathinirvedham and Thakara and Padmarajan's Peruvazhiyampalam were other popular films of the decade.
Prominent heroes of the seventies were Prem Nazir, Madhu, Soman, Sukumaran and Jayan, the latter three attaining super stardom during this period. Leading heroines were Sharada, Sheela, Jaya Bharathi, Sree Vidya, Vijayasree and Rani Chandra. Supporting actors of the decade were Adoor Bhasi, Bahadur, Sankaradi, K.P.Ummar and Jose Prakash. Nazir and Sheela was the most popular pair, doing 107 films together as hero and heroine which is a world record.
The eighties witnessed the further blossoming of new wave in Malayalam cinema earning it National and International accolades. Notable films in this genre during the eighties were Adoor's Elippathayam (1981), Mukhamukham (1983), Anantharam (1987) and Mathilukal (1989), Aravindan's Pokkuveyil (1981), Chidambaram (1985) and Oridathu(1986), Sethumadhavan's Oppol (1980), John Abraham's Amma Ariyan (1986) and Shaji N Karun's Piravi (1988). Lenin Rajendran and T.V.Chandran also came out with some quality works in the eighties. Elippathayam won the British Film Institute award for Most Original and Imaginative film in 1982. Chidambaram won the National Film Award for the Best Feature Film in 1985, while Balan K Nair won the National Film Award for the Best Actor in 1981 for his performance in Oppol. Piravi was another land mark film in the new wave genre bagging the National Film Awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor(Premji) in 1989 and also several international awards.
Yet another stream of films called as "middle-stream-cinema" got well established in the eighties. This form of cinema was appreciated for their seamless intergration of the seriousness of parallel cinema and the popularity of mainstream cinema. Films belonging to this genre were mostly directed by K.G.George, Bharathan and Padmarajan. K.G.George made commercially successful films that were praised for their artistic qualities. Some of his movies in the eighties include Kolangal (1981), Yavanika (1982), Lekhayude Marnam: Oru Flashback (1983), Adaminte Variyellu (1983), Panchavadi Palam (1984), Irakal (1986) and Mattoral (1988). Bharatan's movies were well known for their aesthetic appreciation of nature and female body and he treated sexuality without falling into vulgarity. His widely appreciated movies in the eighties include Chamaram (1980), Marmaram (1982), Palangal (1982), Kattathe Kilikoodu (1983), Kathodu Kathoram (1985), Chilampu (1986), Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam (1987) and Vaishali (1988). Padmarajan entered Malayalam Cinema world as a script writer and later ventured into direction based on his own screenplays. His highly acclaimed works of the eighties include Oridaththoru Phayalvaan (1981), Novemberintaey Nashtam (1982), Koodevide (1983), Nammukku Paarkkaan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986), Thoovaanathumbikal (1987), Aparan (1988) and Moonnaampakkam (1988).
Commercial movies of the eighties had brilliant content dealing with social, political and cultural issues laced with action and creative comedy. The period from 1986-1990 is widely regarded as the golden age of malayalam cinema. Commercial films during this period narrowed the gap between parallel and mainstream cinema. Notable commercial films during the eighties include I.V.Sasi's Ee Naadu, Ahimsa, Aalkkoottathil Thaniye, 1921, Joshy's New Delhi, Nirakkootu, Sathyan Anthikad's T.P.Balagopalan M.A, Nadodikkatu, Kudumbapuranam, Fazil's Manjil Virinja Pookkal, Ente Mamattikkuttiyammakku, Nokkathaa Dhoorathu Kannum Nattu, Manivathoorile Aayiram Sivarathrikal, Kamal's Unnikale Oru KathaParayam, KakkothiKaavile Appoopan Thaadikal, Peruvannaapurathe Visheshangal, Sibi Malayil's Doore Doore Oru Koodu Koottam, Thaniyavartanam, Kireedam, Balachandra Menon's April 18, Karyam Nissaram, Priyadarshan's Poochakkoru Mookkuthi, Thalavattam, Vellanakalude Naadu, Chithram, Hariharan's Panchagni, Amrutham Gamaya, Nakhashthangal, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, Venu Nagavalli's Sughamodevi, Sarvakalasala, K Madhu's Irupatham Noottandu, Moonnam Mura, Oru CBI Diary Kurippu, Thampi Kannanthanam's Rajavinte Makan, Boomiyile Rajakkanmar, Dennis Joseph's Manu Uncle, Adharvam, Sreenivasan's Vadakkunokkiyantram and Siddique-Lal's Ramji Rao Speaking.
Malayalam cinema made significant technological achievements in the eighties. India's first indigenous 70mm movie was the Malayalam film Padayottam, released in 1982. Padayottam was produced by Appachan of Navodaya group. The first 3-D Film made in India, My Dear Kuttichathan was also a Malayalam Film produced by Navodaya Appachan and was released in 1984.
Leading heroes of the eighties were Mammootty, Mohanlal, Ratheesh, Shankar and Rahman. Mammootty and Mohanlal went on become superstars and are still the reigning stars of Malayalam cinema, while the others lost their stardom by late eighties and early nineties and later gave good performances in character roles. Jayaram and Suresh Gopi played promising performances as heroes in the late eighties and early nineties and later grew to the level of superstars. Leading heroines of the decade were Shobhana, Seema, Jalaja, Menaka, Urvashi, Geetha, Unni Mary, Parvathi, Lizy, Santhi Krishna, Ambika, Karthika, Renjini and Revathi. The eighties witnessed much appreciated performances from supporting actors like Thilakan, Nedumudi Venu, Jagathy Sreekumar, Sreenivasan, Innocent, Sankaradi, Cochin Haneefa, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Siddique, Jagadish, Ganesh Kumar, Kuthiravattam Pappu, Mammukoya, Manian Pilla Raju, Janardanan, Lalu Alex, Captain Raju, Sukumari, K.P.A.C. Lalitha, Aranmula Ponnamma, Kaviyoor Ponnamma and Philomina.
In the nineties also many films in the new wave genre were produced and released in Kerala. These films won many awards at the state and national levels and contributed greatly to the world wide recognition of Malayalam Cinema. Notable art films of the nineties include Adoor's Mathilukal (1990), Vidheyan (1993), Kathapurushan (1995), Aravindan's Vasthuhara (1991), Shaji N Karun's Swaham (1994), Vanaprastham (1999), M.T. Vasudevan Nair's Kadavu (1991), T.V.Chandran's Ponthan Mada (1994), Mangamma (1997), Lenin Rajendran's Daivathinte Vikrithikal (1992), Kulam (1997), M.P.Sukumaran Nair's Kazhakam (1994), Jayaraj's Deshadanam (1997), Kaliyattam (1997), Balachandra Menon's Samantharangal (1998), P.T. Kunju Muhammad's Magrib (1993), Garshom (1999), Rajivnath's Janani (1999) and Shyamaprasad's Agni Sakshi (1999).
Commercial films and middle stream films released during the nineties were also of good quality. These films were well received by the masses as well as the critics and some films managed to win awards at the National level. Popular commercial films of the nineties include I.V.Sasi's Inspector Balram, Devasuram, Varnapakittu, Bharathan's Thazhvaram, Amaram, Malootty, Venkalam, Chamayam, Patheyam, Devaragam, Padmarajan's Innale, Njaan Gandharvan, Joshy's No.20 Madras Mail, Kauravar, Dhruvam, Lelam, Pathram, Fazil's Pappayude Swantham Appoos, Manichithrathazhu, Aniyathi Pravu, Harikrishnans, Priyadarshan's Akkare Akkare Akkare, Kilukkam, Adwaitham, Thenmavin Kombath, Kala Pani, Chandralekha, Sibi Malayil's Bharatham, Aakasadoodhu, Sagaram Sakshi, Summer in Bethlehem, Hariharan's Sargam, Parinayam, Ennu Swantham Janakikutty, Sathyan Anthikkad's Thalayanamanthram, Sandhesham, Thoovalkottaram, Irattakuttikalude Achan, Veendum Chila Veettu Kaaryangal, Siddique-Lal's In Harihar Nagar, Godfather, Vietnam Colony, Kabuliwala, Hitler, Friends, Kamal's Pookalam Varavaayi, Ulladakkam, Champakulam Thachan, Mazhayethum Munpe, Azhakiya Raavanan, Ee Puzhayum Kadannu, Ayal Kadha Ezhuthukayanu, Niram, Rajasenan's Meleparambil Aanveedu, Aniyan Bava Chetan Bava, Aadyathe Kanmani, Kottaram Veettile Apputtan, Bhadran's Iyer the Great, Uncle Bun, Sphadikam, Thampi Kananthanam's Nadodi, Manthrikam, Rajiv Anchal's Butterflies, Kashmeeram, Guru, Shaji Kailas's Mafia, Ekalavyan, Commissioner, Aaram Thamburan, Sangeeth Sivan's Yodha, Thulasidas's Kilukil Pambaram, Cochin Haneefa's Valsalyam, Sreenivasan's Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala, Sunderdas's Sallapam and Vinayan's Sipayi Lahala, Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum.
Mohanlal and Mammootty consolidated their super stardom in the nineties while Suresh Gopi and Jayaram rose to the level of superstars in the early-mid nineties. These actors won accolades for the roles they portrayed in mainstream as well as offbeat films. National Film Award for the Best Actor was bestowed on Mammootty, Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi during the nineties. Mammootty won the award three times - 1990(Mathilukal & Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha), 1994(Ponthan Mada & Vidheyan) and 1999(for the English film Dr. Ambedkar). Mohanlal won the award two times - 1992(Bharatham) and 2000(Vaanaprastham). Suresh Gopi and Balachandra Menon shared the award in 1998 for their performances in Kaliyattam and Samaantharangal respectively. Dileep and Kunchako Boban entered Malayalam Film Industry during the nineties. Prominent heroines of the decade were Shobhana, Urvashi, Geetha, Revathi, Monisha, Vinduja Menon, Kanaka, Rekha, Annie, Mohini, Vani Viswanath, Chippi, Manju Warrier, Divya Unni, Nandini, Praveena, Salini and Jomol. Monisha(1987 for Nakhashathangal) and Shobhana(1994 for Manichithrathazhu) had won the National Film Award for Best Actress. Actors like Mukesh, Siddique, Manoj K Jayan, Sai Kumar, Sreenivasan, Jagadish, Asokan, Murali, Vijayaraghavan and Vineeth acted in both lead roles as well as supporting roles. Rajan P Dev, Narendra Prasad, N.F. Varghese, Sudheesh, Biju Menon, Indrans, Sainuddin, Harisree Ashokan, Kalabhavan Mani, Vijayakumar, Kochu Preman, Kalpana, Bindu Panicker and Urmila Unni were the other supporting artists who came into prominence in the nineties.
Malayalam films produced in the early 2000's were not able to match the qulaity of films in the eighties and nineties. Slapstick comedy and larger-than-life characters were the main theme in this period. Some movies in this genre did good business and became superhits but others failed disastrously. The crisis was deepened by piracy and the emergence of adult-content movies which ruled the theatres for almost one year.
Despite the crisis Malayalam cinema produced some hit commercial films in the early 2000's including Shaji Kailas's Narasimham, Valyettan, Rafi-Meccartin's Thenkasipattanam, Sathyan Anthikad's Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal, Yathrakarude Sradhakku, Manassinakkare, Shafi's One Man Show, Kalyanaraman, Vinayan's Karumadikkuttan, Oomappenninu Uriyadappayyan, Kamal's Nammal, Swapnakoodu, Lal Jose's Meesha Madhavan, Renjith's Ravanaprabhu, Nandanam, Thaha's Ee Parakkum Thalika, Sasi Shankar's Kunjikkoonan, Jayaraj's Thilakkam, 4 the People, Siddique's Chronic Bachelor, Johny Antony's C.I.D. Moosa, V.M.Vinu's Balettan, K.Madhu's Sethurama Iyer CBI and Blessy's Kaazcha.
Dileep attained super stardom in the early 2000's. A new set of promising actors also emerged in the early 2000's like Prithviraj, Narain, Jayasurya and Indrajith. Heroines like Samyuktha Varma, Kavya Madhavan, Meera Jasmine, Geethu Mohandas, Jyothirmayi, Gopika, Navya Nair, Nayanthara, Bhavana and Padmapriya played female leads during this period.
Around the mid 2000's some young directors like Blessy, Roshan Andrews and Anwar Rasheed made their debut in Malayalam Cinema. These youngsters and the veteran directors delivered some good commericial films in the recent past. Commercial hits after the mid 2000's include Roshan Andrew's Udayananu Tharam, Notebook, Shafi's Thommanum Makkalum, Mayavi, Chocolate, Sathyan Anthikad's Achuvinte Amma, Rasathanthram, Vinodayathra, Innathe Chinthavishayam, Joshy's Naran, Lion, Twenty:20, Lal Jose's Chanthupottu, Classmates, Arabikkatha, Anwar Rasheed's Rajamanikyam, Annan Thambi, Blessy's Thanmathra, Johny Antony's Kochi Rajavu, Thuruppu Gulan, Cycle, Major Ravi's Keerthichakra, Rafi Meccartin's Hello, M. Mohanan's Katha Parayumpol, B. Unnikrishnan's Madambi, Akku Akbar's Veruthe Oru Bharya, V.M.Vinu's Makante Achan, and Lal's 2 Harihar Nagar. Twenty:20 was noted for its ensemble cast; all the major stars, heroines and almost all supporting actors in the Malayalam Film Industry acted in this moive.
Notable parallel films made after 2000 include Adoor's Nizhalkkuthu, Naalu Pennungal, T.V.Chandran's Susanna, Danny, Paadam Onnu: Oru Vilapam, Vilapangalkappuram, Bhoomi Malayalam, Lenin Rajendran's Mazha, Anyar, Rathrimazha, T.K.Rajeev Kumar's Shesham, Shyamaprasad's Akale, Ore Kadal, Jayaraj's Shantham, Karunam, Kannaki, R.Sharath's Sayahnam, Sthithi, Seelabathi, Priyanandan's Neythukaaran, Pulijanmam, M.P.Sukumaran Nair's Drishtantham, Sashi Paravoor's Nottam, Pradeep Nair's Oridam, Rajiv Vijayaraghavan's Margam, Bijukumar's Saira, P. T. Kunjumuhammed's Paradesi, K.P.Kumaran's Akasha Gopuram and M.G.Sasi's Atayalangal. Jayaraj's Shantham and Priyanandan's Pulijanmam won the National Film Award for the Best Film in 2001 and 2007 respectively. Murali won the National Film Award for Best Actor in 2002 for his performance in Neythukaaran and Meera Jasmine won the National Film Award for Best Actress in 2004 for Paadam Onnu: Oru Vilapam.