Beyond Bollywood’s Glitz, a Subtler Indian Cinema Embraces New Stories

It is an Indian film without song and dance. The lovers don’t share a word, their main interaction a fleeting moment of eye contact in the monsoon rain. There are no car chases and no action stunts. The men are vulnerable. They cry.

And yet when “Kaathal — The Core,” a film in the Malayalam language about a closeted middle-aged politician, was released last month, it became a commercial success as well as a critical one. Cinemas in the southern state of Kerala, home to the Malayalam film industry and about 35 million people, sold out. That one of South India’s biggest stars had taken on the role of a gay man, and portrayed him so sensitively, started conversations well beyond Kerala.

Outside India, the country’s cinema is often equated with the glamour and noise of Bollywood, as the dominant, Hindi-language film industry is called. But in this vast nation of 1.4 billion, there are many regional industries whose styles are as distinct as their languages. “Kaathal” is the latest example of what Malayalam cinema has become known for: progressive stories that are low-budget, nuanced and charged with real human drama.

What distinguishes it from other regional cinemas, observers say, is that it has found a rare balance. Increasingly, Kerala audiences turn out as enthusiastically for these modest Malayalam-language stories of everyday people as for high-adrenaline blockbusters, often imported from other parts of India.

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