Boom in Malayalam web series with young directors with diverse theme casting leading stars in cinema

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The success of Kerala Crime Files, the first Malayalam web series on Disney+Hotstar, has opened the floodgates to a plethora of web series in the language. Comedies, thrillers, social dramas, romance, dramedies and more are slated for streaming. The entertainment industry in Malayalam is seeing a boom in the format with several young directors making their debut in the space with diverse themes.

Poster of Kerala Crime Files

Poster of Kerala Crime Files
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Ahammed Khabeer’s Kerala Crime Files, an investigative thriller headlined by Aju Varghese and Lal, which streamed on Disney+ Hotstar, is all set for a second season. Next up on Disney+Hotstar is Masterpeace, a dramedy helmed by Oru Thekkan Thallu Case director Sreejith N, starring Nithya Menen, Sharafudheen, Ashokan, Shanthi Krishna, Renji Panicker and Maala Parvathi. The series drops on October 25.

Rahul Riji Nair

Rahul Riji Nair
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The channel has taken the lead by commissioning several web series directed by up-and-coming directors in Malayalam cinema. SonyLIV, Zee and other channels are amping up the scene by lending their support to web series in the making.

Nithin Renji Panicker, Manu Ashokan, Vishnu Raghav and Najeem Koya are some of the directors working on web series. Puzhu director Ratheena PT will be coming out with her web series with Rima Kallingal in the lead while KumbalangiNights director, Madhu C Narayanan, is also reportedly working on a web series. PR Arun, director of Finals, just announced his web series, Pharma, with Nivin Pauly, Narain, Rajit Kapur and Shruti Ramachandran.

An office-bearer of the Association of Malayalam Movies Artists had said the organisation was planning a web series with A-listers in the industry.

Srikanth Mohan, director of Jai Mahendran, the first Malayalam web series on SonyLiv

Srikanth Mohan, director of Jai Mahendran, the first Malayalam web series on SonyLiv
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Srikanth Mohan, who is helming Jai Mahendran with six episodes of 30 minutes each, considers it an honour to make his debut as a director with the first web series in Malayalam for SonyLIV.

Director-scenarist Rahul Riji Nair, who produced Kerala Crime Files, is also the show runner of Jai Mahendran. He says, ”This is a trend that took its time to mature in the entertainment industry in Kerala. But it was in the making since the lockdown when OTT platforms became the prime source of entertainment.”

Even big-ticket films began to premiere on streaming platforms. “So, it was a natural progression for the platforms to explore long and short form storytelling in Malayalam because there was a lot of good content,” adds Rahul.

Most of the directors see it as a challenge to helm a web series. They say the luxury of time in a series gives them the time to narrate a story without going for abridged versions.

Director Manu Ashokan 

Director Manu Ashokan 
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Manu Ashokan, director of Uyare and Kaanekkaane, maintains that the time a web series has to tell a story gives the creative team ample time to delve into a plot or delineate a character without editing it to suit the runtime of a feature film.

Manu will be working with scenarists Bobby and Sanjay for a series that will be streamed on SonyLIV. “Although both web series and films are different styles of visual storytelling, the grammar of visual narratives for a web series is benefical for writers and directors to portray a character in depth,” he says.

For scenarist-directors Nithin Renji Panicker (Kasaba and Kaaval) and Najeem Koya (Kaly), it is the chance to experiment that enthuses them about the new format.

Renji Panicker

Renji Panicker
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Nithin explains: “When an offer came from the platform to direct a web series, I did not have one in mind. I was toying with a dark comedy for a feature film. It was completely different from what I have done in cinema. I thought I could experiment with that theme since I was doubtful if it would work in a movie. That was the main motivation.”

Waiting in the wings
Jai Mahendran, a slice-of-life-narrative, centres on a taluk office in Thiruvananthapuram and was shot in the capital city and Kollam. Saiju Kurup, Suhasini, Maniyanpillai Raju, Johny Antony and Miya are in the cast.
Nithin Renji Panicker’s Madhuvidhu, to be streamed on Disney+Hotstar during Christmas, is a period film with Suraj Venjaramoodu in the lead. Prashant Alexander has a significant role. Grace Antony, Shwetha Menon, Niranjana Anoop, Kani Kusruti, Ammu Abhirami and Alphy Panjikaran are the six heroines in the film shot at six places with different terrains.
Vishnu Raghav’s Love Under Construction, starring Neeraj Madhav, Aju Varghese and Gouri Kishan, is being shot in Thiruvananthapuram. It is the first series from Rejaputra Visual Media.

The time afforded by a six-or seven-episode series is an advantage, agrees Najeem. He has just wrapped up the shoot of his web series 1000+ Babies, starring Neena Gupta and Rahman. He elaborates, “Movies give you just three hours to narrate a story. Many films based on novels are akin to reading an abridged version of the same story. However, nine or more episodes might give you the time and space to delve into the many layers and subplots in a novel,” believes Najeem.

Vishnu Raghav

Vishnu Raghav
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Vaashi director Vishnu Raghav maintains that the excitement lies in exploring a new space with great potential. “Although web series in Hindi have a strong following all over India, thanks to sub-titles and dubbed versions, for some reason, Malayalam web series have not yet made a mark in this space. So, when I got the opportunity, I was eager to work in this new space.”

No cost is spared to ensure that the series meet the best of aesthetics and technical standards. In fact, Nithin, who has produced Madhuvidhu, says that the budget of the series was more than what was spent for his movies. Aiming at a pan-Indian audience, the casting is done with a lot of care and thought. Najeem says one of the reasons for casting Neena was her reach among viewers outside Kerala.

All of them agree that the challenge is in writing a web series as each episode has to have a prologue and a cliffhanger to keep the viewer hooked to the series. As Vishnu points out, a feature film cannot obviously be divided into six parts and streamed as a series. The craft involved is different.

And that is where the writer’s room comes in. A Western concept that arrived with the streaming giants, the writing room has been instituted in Rahul’s production house, First Print Studios.

“We have five writers working for us and we are developing projects with multiple writers. It is still a new concept in Malayalam. While working on multiple projects and seasons, we needed a bigger vision,” says Rahul.

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