Since the emergence of new-age filmmakers in the previous decade, Malayalam cinema has unquestionably been the most successful Indian film industry in terms of quality of production. When it comes to Malayalam films, the 1970s and 1980s were the best era, as they saw the emergence of both the New Wave and the Middle Cinema.
From the 60 or so Malayalam films made by Priyadarshan alone, many Malayali cinephiles may find it difficult to choose just 25 of the best Malayalam films of all time.
This list is a compilation of the best mainstream and independent films I’ve seen throughout the years. I’ve grouped the work of filmmakers who have more than one film on this list, rather than ranking it. Several directors have produced multiple great works of cinema, but I’ve limited it to two per director. Readers will hopefully be swayed to seek out more of these filmmakers’ work after reading this list.
25. KUMBALANGI NIGHTS (2019)
Kumbalangi Nights is one of the best mainstream films of the last decade, tackling societal taboos and challenging preconceptions while never losing its grasp on the entertainment quotient. Alpha guys sobbing and bringing home the widow and baby of their best friend’s deceased best buddy are all progressive topics for the middle-class milieu, which is why they’re so popular.
That one standout scene in which Saji goes to a doctor for counseling overcomes the taboo of seeking care for mental illness. Shammi, Fahadh Faasil’s villainous character, is the film’s standout performance. Syam Pushkaran depicts a typical patriarchal male who hides his toxic masculinity and misogyny behind the guise of family honor in this character.
24. SUDANI FROM NIGERIA (2018)
This Malayalam film, which won the National Award for Best Feature Film, is one of the best feel-good movies of all time. It was directed by another first-time director. It has a big heart, and even the most stoic people are bound to shed a tear or two when they see it. “Sudu” is the name given to a top foreign player of Majeed’s (Soubin Shahir) football club, who was injured in an accident and is now recuperating at Majeed’s residence. As they exchange experiences about their own lives, Majeed and his mother form a close bond with Samuel. Good-hearted foreigners who don’t speak the local language quickly win the hearts of even the town’s residents.
In the film ‘Sudani from Nigeria,’ we see that love and humanity can transcend language and national boundaries. There is also a successful debunking of the common misconception that international players in Indian football clubs come from well-to-do families. What most people think they know about many African footballers is actually quite different from what they think they know. Many of them travel to India in search of a better life for themselves and their families back home.
23. MUNNARIYIPPU (2014)
As a young female journalist, Venu’s second directorial effort follows C. K. Raghavan (Mammootty) who claims to have never committed the crimes for which he is currently serving time.
When it comes to storytelling, ‘Munnariyippu’ is a fascinating visual experiment that breaks with tradition and deconstructs the narrative. Mammootty’s superb performance and reserved demeanor lift the film to another level. In order to completely immerse himself in Raghavan’s role, he eliminates all traces of his rockstar identity.
Restraint and maturity are the hallmarks of this picture, which avoids the peaks and valleys of mainstream drama. ‘Munnariyippu’ seeks to convey to the audience through Raghavan that the meaning of freedom or exclusion is entirely dependent on the individual in question. Those who are willing to take an active role in the story will be rewarded for their efforts.
22. THE GREAT INDIAN KITCHEN (2021)
Is one of the most critically acclaimed Malayalam films of the last few years and serves an unpalatable mixture of patriarchy, menopause, chauvinism, hypocrisy, reminiscence, and monotony for its female protagonist.
All moral guardians of society who believe in gender roles in the home should see this film. As a newlywed (Suraj Venjaramood), Nimisha Sajayan tries to live up to her husband and his family’s expectations of what a subservient wife should be. Millions of housewives who have accepted their expected status as duty-bound housewives will become aware of the historical injustice they have been subjected to as they go about their everyday lives. If ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ can even affect a single happily married couple, then the film’s mission has been accomplished. That would be the pinnacle of success for the movie.
21. JALLIKATTU (2019)
‘Jallikattu,’ India’s official Oscar submission, establishes Lijo Jose Pellissery as one of our generation’s finest filmmakers. In this tumultuous voyage, the raw, throbbing energy of the film calls forth the latent savage nature that is veiled by civilization.
‘Jallikattu’ is a modern-day masterpiece thanks to an inventive plot, a diverse cast, and a haunting soundtrack. The film’s barbarous theme is reflected in Lijo’s fascination with close-ups of meat butchering and meal preparation.
We can count on Lijo to take risks with every new project. All of Lijo’s films are excellent, save for “Double Barrel,” which falls somewhere in between. There are high expectations for Lijo’s upcoming film ‘Churuli’ in Kerala after the success of ‘Jallikattu’, which has made ‘Ee.Ma.Yau’ and ‘Angamaly Diaries’ classic flicks.
20. SEXY DURGA (2019)
In Malayalam cinema, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is a contemporary filmmaker who is increasing the bar for experimental filmmaking. With each of his subsequent films, Sanal has experimented with a wide range of subject matter as well as narrative structure.
Sexy Durga, perhaps his best effort, won the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2017 and was the first Indian film to win the award. In spite of the film’s very straightforward premise, it touches on a number of unpleasant topics, including domination and patriarchal attitudes.
A young woman and her partner encounter a cross-section of Indian male culture during a nocturnal journey. What begins as an attempt to flee quickly degenerates into a hellish journey from which there appears to be no return. A number of Sanal’s movies have gained critical acclaim, including ‘Ozhivudivasathe Kali,’ ‘Unmadiyude Maranam, and Chola’. He’s a director whose work can be counted on to offer something fresh and original with each release.
19. VADAKKUNOKKIYANTRAM (1989)
‘Vadakkunokkiyantram’ is one of Indian cinema’s best dark comedies. With Sreenivasan’s performance and direction, his insights into the male ego, fears and inferiority complex show through.
A jealous and suspicious husband, he doubts his wife since she is more beautiful and intelligent than he. In the end, this causes marital problems and he needs treatment for his mental health issues. Many lists of the best Malayalam films of all time typically include this film.
As ‘Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh’, ‘Nanjangudu Nanjunda’, and ‘Dindigul Sarathy’, it has been remade in three different languages. His other directorial effort, “Chinthavishtaya Shyamala,” has him in the lead character and is a wonderful black comedy about a lazy and irrespontible husband who neglects his family.
18. AMMA ARIYAN (1986)
In spite of his tragic death in 1987, John Abraham has been regarded as one of the greatest Malayalam directors. “Amma Ariyan” is undoubtedly his most complicated and challenging piece.
One of India’s best-known films, the film tells the narrative of how the companions of a Naxalite who died in a shootout with police were able to travel to his village and tell him mother about the death of her only son after his death.
Among the most experimental works of Indian cinema, it is still debated for its multi-layered plot. When Mani Kaul needed an extra hand on ‘Uski Roti,’ Abraham was there to lend a hand. Cheriyanchante Kroorakrithyangal, a film that criticizes the feudal system and police brutality, is also a remarkable work by the filmmaker. ‘Agraharathil Kazuthai’, a Tamil film based on Robert Bresson’s ‘Au Hasard Balthazar,’ is also worth a look.
17. MAHESHINTE PRATHIKAARAM (2016)
Dileesh Pothan’s directorial debut is a “serious comedy” in the opinion of Fahadh Fassil, who plays Mahesh in the movie. He is pushed down as he tries to settle a fight between his friend and a gang of teenagers. Publicly pledging to never wear slippers again until the shame of his humiliation is repaid, mortified Mahesh is powerless to fight back.
Syam Pushkaran’s clever use of humour instead of depending on the normal mix of hatred and rage for retribution has resulted in a riveting, amusing screenplay (which won the National Award).
“Maheshinte Prathikaram” has been given a cult status throughout the years, with Tamil director Priyadarshan remaking it into “Nimir” and Telugu director Venkatesh Maha adapting it into “Uma Maheshwari Ugra Roopasya” for the Telugu-speaking audience. Dileesh partnered up with Fahadh again for his second and third feature films, ‘Thondimuthalam Driksakshiyum’ and ‘Joji.’ Both movies are a lot of fun and contain a lot of worthwhile social critique.
16. NADODIKKATTU (1987)
He is one of the most successful Malayalam filmmakers who have perfected the knack of satirizing social concerns and packaging them in amusing packages. In Malayalam cinema, the director-writer team of Anthikad and Sreenivasan has produced some of the funniest and most famous films.
Ramdas and Vijayan are played by Mohanlal and Sreenivasan in the film Nadodikkatu. After losing their employment in Kerala, they decide to travel to Dubai in search of a better life for themselves and their families. However, they are tricked and end themselves in the adjacent state of Tamil Nadu, where a gang of smugglers believes they are two criminal investigators.
“Nadodikkattu” focused on current 1980s societal issues including unemployment and poverty in Kerala. In this Malayalam satire, which depicts the difficulties faced by unemployed young people looking for work in the Middle East, the author takes a scathing look at middle-class society’s peculiarities and insecurity. It’s one of the most popular Malayalam comedy of all time, according to many.
15. THALAYANA MANTHRAM (1990)
Anthikad-‘Thalayana Sreenivasan’s Manthram’ is yet another blockbuster from their stable. The film focuses on Sreenivasan’s character’s greedy, insecure, and jealous wife, who cleverly divides her husband from his family.
She aspires to live a life of luxury that they cannot afford, which causes a great deal of stress in their relationship. The film is full of amusing scenes and scenarios. Sreenivasan’s powerlessness and the difficulties he confronts due to his wife’s demands are the source of much of the comedy.
While playing Sreenivasan’s wife, Urvashi garnered much praise for her portrayal of an arrogant and conniving woman. Some of my favorites by Sathyan Anthikad include “Achuvinte,” “Varavelpu,” and “T. P. Balagopalan M. A.”, but there are many more.
14. KIREEDAM (1989)
Malayil and Lohithadas have produced some of the most commercially and critically successful films in Malayalam cinema. This is another another masterclass in acting from Mohanlal, who was awarded the National Film Award – Special Mention “for depicting a young man’s misery and pain brilliantly and in distinct way” in “Kireedam.”
What happens when one young guy intervenes to save his father from an outlaw? That’s what the film focuses on in its plot. The heartbreaking theme of this Malayalam classic is an accidental outburst of fury and the succession of unintended consequences that follow it.
Somber portrait of a young guy entangled in the web of an intricate father-son dynamic, violence, and personal failures is painted by Sibi Malayil. Rowdyism Nasinchali (1990), Modada Mareyalli (1991), and Gardish (1992) were all reworked versions of ‘Kireedam’ in other languages (1993).
13. THANIYAVARTHANAM (1987)
The Malayil-Lohithadas relationship began with this film. Among other things, the video examines the prevalence of superstition in rural Kerala, attitudes toward mental illness, and the demise of once-proud Nair “joint families” in modern Kerala.
Balan (Mammootty) is the focus of the film, but it also touches on the lives of people in a “matriarchal” culture. The uncle of Balan (Thilakan), Balan’s father, exerts so much power over the family that he is a catalyst for Balan’s gradual descent into lunacy.
To play Mammootty’s character, Thilakan has referred to Mammootty. Some of Malayalam cinema’s most beloved films were written and directed by this team, including “Dasharatham” and “Bharatham,” for which Mohanlal won the National Film Award for Best Actor. “25 Greatest Indian Cinema Acting Performances” by Forbes India included Mohanlal’s performance in the movie.
12. PERUVAZHIYAMBALAM (1979)
Padmarajan was one of Kerala’s greatest directors, but he also wrote some of the most popular books in the state. A new style of filmmaking in Malayalam cinema was credited to him, along with Bharathan and K. G. George, in the 1980s. Padmarajan, like many of his contemporaries, made pioneering pictures that were both popular and highly praised.
He’s renowned for his ability to write screenplays. Ashokan, who plays Raman in the film, made his directing debut as well as his acting debut with the film based on his novel, “Peruvazhiyambalam.”
Violence and dictatorship are examined in the film, which deals with troubling concerns about masculinity and how people both love it and fear it. According to the Hindu, the film is one of the best Malayalam films of all time. For the best feature film in Malayalam, it won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film. The master’s other works include “Thinkalaazhcha Nalla Divasam,” “Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal,” and “Innale.”
11. THOOVANATHUMBIKAL (1987)
One of Jayakrishnan (Mohanlaltwo )’s loves, Radha (Parvathy), is a distant relative, while the other is an escort in town named Clare (Sumaltha).
The film’s score and songs, lyrics and characters, script in depth, and Mohanlal and Sumalatha’s performances are all highly regarded. The rain is a constant motif in the movie, and it’s almost like a character in and of itself. In numerous sequences, the film depicts the traditional bachelor lifestyle of a Malayali man living in Thrissur. Mohanlal’s invitation to Ashokan for a drink at the city bar has become an iconic call sign for a drink offer among Malayalis.
‘Thoovanathumbikal’ is often regarded as Malayalam cinema’s most romantic film. Love and passion are two of the most powerful human emotions depicted in the film. The film has become a cult favorite, particularly among the younger generation, many years after its first release. IBN Live ranked it as the 8th greatest Indian film ever in an online poll conducted in 2013.
10. PRAYANAM (1975)
Rural life in Kerala was well-represented in Bharathan’s films. Escapism and sentimentality were rarely seen in his productions. Because of his training as a painter, he was able to construct frames that were frequently praised for their aesthetic value. His films frequently included natural settings and personalities, such as the railroad track in “Palangal” and the sea in “Amaram.”
Few Indian directors are known to use a detailed storyboard approach for filming, including Bharathan. Additionally, he designed several of his own movie posters. P. Padmarajan wrote the screenplay for ‘Pranayam,’ which was directed by Bharathan on his directorial debut.
There is an investigation of what it was like to be a Brahmin at the time. Sreedharan Nair portrays an elderly Brahmin priest who is married to a young woman who could be his own daughter in Kottarakkara. The film contains a great deal of implied and unspoken meaning. Because it is among the director’s favorites.
9. VAISHALI (1988)
One of the greatest Malayalam films ever made is Vaishali. Subplots from the epic Mahabharatha are retold in this film, which is an adaptation of one of them. As a devadasi girl tasked to seduce the son of Maharshi Vibhandakan and bring him to Chambapuri for a rain-bringing mahayagam, Vaisali tells her narrative.
Cinematographic brilliance in Malayalam and Indian cinema was raised to a new level with films like Vaishali and Amaram, where Bharathan partnered with Madhu Ambat, the famed cinematographer. Some of the films by Bharathan are noted for their daring depictions of sexuality. In many of his films, he violated conventional rules and traditions about the connection between men and women.
‘Rathinirvedam’ was a sexual-coming-of-age narrative about a teenager’s romance with an older woman, while ‘Chamaram’ dealt with the tempestuous affair between a college student and his professor. Both ‘Kattathe Kilikkoodu’ and ‘Kaathodu Kaathoram’ deal with adultery and are well worth watching.
8. YAVANIKA (1982)
K. G. George’s films are known for their psychological depth and character studies of the human mind. He is an uncommon filmmaker known for his unconventional work. Since then he has established himself as an important figure in a new Keralan cinema movement that began in the early 1970s.
One of the most commercially successful and artistically excellent films of the 1980s, ‘Yavanika’, was released in 1985. Backstage drama is examined in the manner of an investigative thriller. The story revolves around the search for a tabla player who mysteriously vanished from the ensemble.
Critics hail it as the best mystery or investigative thriller to come out of Kerala. Bharat Gopi and Thilakan provide sensational performances in one of Malayalam cinema’s greatest ever screenplays. Thilakan took home the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Screenplay, and Best Direction.
7. IRAKAL (1985)
‘Irakal,’ one of K.G. George’s best films, is widely regarded as the first dark film in Malayalam. As portrayed by the overtones of the film, the country’s political conditions at the time, especially The Emergency, were depicted.
Thilakan and Ganesh are thought to represent Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi in the film, however George never explicitly said this. The film is supposed to have inspired Dileesh Pothan’s ‘Joji’ in terms of concept.
Both the Second Best Film and the Best Story Kerala State Film Awards went to the film. Many ground-breaking films have been produced in Malayalam cinema thanks to George. Moviegoers should look at some of the highly entertaining films like “Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback,” “Adaminte Vaariyellu,” and “Panchavadi Palam” from the 1980s.
6. VANAPRASTHAM (1999)
Mohanlal’s acting career culminated with the film ‘Vanaprastham,’ for which he received yet another National Award. Many people believe his heartbreaking portrayal to be the pinnacle of acting. The film follows the life of a Kathakali artist (Mohanlal) from a lower caste who achieves fame and fortune in his profession but suffers heartbreak and rejection in his personal relationships.
This film, like so many others by Shaji N. Karun, is rife with suffering. ‘Vanaprastham,’ an Indo-French production, is a model of excellence in filmmaking across the board. Both the photography and the stirring soundtrack, composed by Zakir Hussain, are of the highest caliber.
His third Cannes screening, the picture is widely considered to be one of the best Indian films. Shaji was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) by the French government after the premiere of the film.
5. PIRAVI (1989)
Shaji opted to become a filmmaker after a successful career as a cameraman in Malayalam cinema, working primarily on films by G. Aravindan and contributing some of the genre’s most poetic visuals. That being said, what a start! While ‘Piravi’ won the National Award for Best Feature Film, it also went on to win the Camera d’Or at Cannes and other major international film festivals.
On the life of professor T. V. Eachara Warrier, whose son was slain in police detention while studying at Regional Engineering College in Calicut during the National Emergency Period of 1976, this film is based; Premji, the winner of the National Award for Best Actor, did an outstanding job portraying the agony of a parent waiting in vain for his son to return.
Pathos abounds throughout Shaji’s flicks, which are as true to life as cinema can get. One of the best filmmakers we’ve ever seen for his unyielding approach to the medium. The last Indian film to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes was his second, ‘Swaham,’ (1994).
4. POKKUVEYIL (1982)
There are few better Indian directors than Govindan Aravindan. For their visual lyricism and minimalism, Aravindan’s films are considered among of the best in the country. To a considerable extent, Shaji N. Karun is to be credited for creating an ethereal universe through his stunning photos.
Both painters are at the top of their game in ‘Pokkuveyil,’ and the result is a disturbing work of art. One of nature’s most magnificent works of art, it features some of the best images ever caught on film. The film’s central theme is the human mind’s incapacity to be defined.
Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Rajeev Taranath recorded the flute and sarod versions of Aravindan initially. Without a storyline, the graphics were ‘created’ based on musical notations. The film was awarded the Rajat Kamal for the country’s second-best film of the year in 1982. It was shown at numerous film festivals across the world, including the Cannes Film Festival.
3. ESTHAPPAN (1980)
Esthappan’s mysterious existence is woven with the Biblical tale of Christ’s deeds and the way society responded to him. Fisherman Esthappan lives in a seaside community. Through the accounts of other fisherman, his narrative is told. The mysterious figure of Esthappan is revealed through the conflicting accounts of these people.
Shaji N. Karun’s ethereal pictures once again enchant the observer. It explores fundamental concerns about the nature of existence through the film’s prophetic dialogue and the concept of mysticism.
“Esthappan” was awarded Best Film and Best Director at the Kerala State Film Awards in Kerala. Aravindan’s full filmography should be viewed by all readers of this list, if possible. As an artist, he was matchless and his inventiveness was seen in his stunningly gorgeous set design.
2. ANANTARAM (1987)
As one of the best Indian filmmakers of all time, Adoor Gopalakrishnan is Malayalam cinema’s brightest star. His debut film, ‘Swayamvaram,’ was released in 1972 and ushered in a new era of filmmaking in Kerala. As the director of numerous documentaries and 12 feature films, practically all of his work is eligible for inclusion on this list.
It is widely considered to be his finest work. It is, in fact, my all-time favorite Indian film. In addition to Ashokan and Shobhana, Mammootty has a prominent part in the film. Monologues form the film’s narrative structure. Through a first-person narration by the protagonist, the story progresses.
During an interview, Adoor stated, “Anantaram is primarily about perspectives. It’s the story of a young, impressionable youngster who’s missing certain basic abilities. Despite the fact that my life was unfamiliar, I was yearning for the familiar experience of growing up, fighting with life and relationships. Or, put another way, it has to do with tuning into the reality that lies just beyond perception, which is what is outside the frame. Even if we don’t think about it, this is an everyday occurrence.
1. VIDHEYAN (1994)
The film is based on Paul Zacharia’s Malayalam novel Bhaskara Pattelarum Ente Jeevithavum. The character Patela Shekhara Gowda alias Shiradi Shekhara, who appears in Zacharia’s tale, was modeled after a real person. Master-slave relationships in South Karnataka are examined in ‘Vidheyan,’ a fascinating psychological study of the subject.
In this film, Mammootty and M. R. Gopakumar play the roles of master and slave. Possibly the best nasty character depiction in Indian film is Mammootty’s. He plays a cruel landlord who does anything he wants with his slave, and he does so with horrifying and menacing authority.
As the video unfolds, Adoor expertly investigates the shifting relationships between the master and slave. Mammootty received the Best Actor Award and the Best Feature Film in Malayalam National Film Award for his work in the movie. Mathilukal, Kodiyettam and Kothapurushan and Elippathayam are all must-see flicks by Adoor that you won’t regret seeing.