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Opinion: A Malayalam Sleeper Hit Spotlights Unsung Heroes Of 2018 Floods

Anand Mathew

Anand Mathew

Opinion: A Malayalam Sleeper Hit Spotlights Unsung Heroes Of 2018 Floods

It has not been a great year for the Malayalam film industry, with increasingly poor responses many new releases. The only movie that could pull in audiences was the blockbuster "Romancham" released in February. Mostly, theatres survived by playing Hollywood releases or hits from their southern neighbours. It was in this grim scenario that the film '2018', depicting the aftermath of devastating floods in Kerala, released quietly, without publicity of any sort. Reactions to its trailer on YouTube were also tepid.

Slowly but steadily, "2018" like the notorious real-life protagonist it was portraying, rose phoenix-like and swept everyone off their feet, going on to break several box office records for a Malayalam film within weeks of its release. Bankrolled on an approximate budget of Rs 30 crore by producers Venu Kunnappilly, CK Padma Kumar and Anto Joseph, the film has now been crowned the biggest hit of Malayalam cinema. As it did so, '2018' also released in countries where a Malayalam film has never been screened before, like Philippines, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. It is in its fourth week in Germany, Austria, and Denmark. With its stupendous success and its overarching theme of the triumph of the human spirit transcending boundaries, the film is gearing up for a pan-India theatrical release in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu - a rare feat for a Malayalam film.

Humanity's Ark

Through the microcosm of a small town in Kerala, '2018' tells the story of ordinary citizens coming together to save those in need, as they confront an unimaginable catastrophe. There is an underlying ordinariness in the slew of characters that inhabit the canvas of director Jude Anthany Joseph's '2018'. The director deftly pitches them in everyday situations as they wage their lonely little battles in the first half of the film.

Popular stars like Tovino Thomas, Kunchako Boban, Asif Ali, Vineeth Sreenivasan and Lal along with Tanvi Ram, successfully sketch relatable people. The second half is remarkably shot as the small battles of these individuals count for nothing in the face of incessant rain and floods destroying homes, sparing none, and scarring lives forever.

Filmed over a period of 102 days in 2022, with huge tanks constructed to film scenes of the flood on a 15-acre set, '2018' is a remarkable feat both in scope and intent. In Pathanamthitta district, which was one of the worst-hit that year, '2018' was running to packed houses in the very theatres that were submerged back then.

Preamble to A Disaster

The windswept and lush rains, every Keralite's constant companion, turned diabolical when it poured non-stop from June to August in the year 2018. The resulting deluge brought to focus what everyone knew - that the unchecked egotistic streak on the causeway to development would one day extract a cost. The 2011 Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report had warned against siloed development in the Western Ghats states. The report foretold that a price would have to be paid when the sole dictum was to "develop recklessly, conserve thoughtlessly", rather than "develop sustainably, conserve thoughtfully".

The vengeance of nature resulted in Kerala suffering the worst floods since 1924, and the displacement of about 1.4 million people, with nearly a sixth of the state's population impacted. As in disasters of such magnitude, the post-disaster template was unashamedly similar to the aftermath of such calamities the world over. It was the poor, the women, children and the elderly, especially those from socially vulnerable groups, who suffered disproportionately, bearing the loss of livelihoods and livestock along with the damage to their meagre assets.

The Invisible Men

In '2018', director Jude Anthany Joseph and writer Akhil P Dharmajan string their gripping narrative around one of these disadvantaged groups - the fisherfolk. For the fisherfolk, the floods just meant that the mighty sea lord had decided to pay them a visit instead of the other way round. Kerala's 590-km coastline is home to over 11 lakh fisherfolk and they have always found themselves at the periphery of the ambitious policies and programmes of successive governments.

"We become news only when there is a disaster, just like when Ockhi struck a few years back," said Ammini. She talks of her husband and brother, both fishermen, who were unable to venture out to the sea as their weather-beaten small trawling boat had been docked for repairs.

In 2017, the severe cyclonic storm Ockhi led to the death of many fishermen who were at sea, as timely radio communication could not be relayed by the authorities.

A woman panchayat member, who is also part of the Kudumbashree group (Kerala's neighbourhood women's collective that is organically linked to the local governments in the state) in the area, chimes in. "The government has said that radio handsets will be provided to those who go out to sea. But we are also asking them for stronger and more stable fishing boats," she says.

In late February 2019, as part of a multi-donor poverty and social impact assessment team gathering inputs for the state partnered Rebuild Kerala Program, we were speaking to women members in a coastal hamlet in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram. Their lives were in a constant state of impermanence, and they were unsure of what even the next hour may bring.

According to official data, over 3,000 fishing households in the state were severely affected during the floods and over 1,000 boats were damaged. The director Joseph has said that he had based his movie on the one-column news clips that were lost in the haze of flood-related headlines in the inner pages of different newspapers.

The fisherfolk of Kerala did make the headlines as they volunteered their fishing boats for innumerable rescues missions across the state. It is their scenes in the film that get the greatest applause from the audience.

Despite '2018' being widely appreciated, there were dissenting views. The movie did not give enough credit to the government of the day for the way it handled the disaster, said some.

There may be another movie in the offing, focusing on the Kudumbashree Collective, which through its community mobilisation efforts was able to sustain and nurture links with local communities and would go on to play a huge role in the post-flood rehabilitation efforts. Until then, let us celebrate the heroes of '2018'.

(Anand Mathew is based in New Delhi.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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Why Kerala Needs Your Support

Kerala has been hit by the worst floods in a 100 years. The Kerala Government estimates Rs 21,000 crore will be needed to rebuild the state. The funds are required to rebuild hundreds of flooded villages, thousands of damaged and destroyed homes and 10,000 kilometres of ravaged roads.
This Onam as Kerala struggles to rebuild after the most devastating floods in a century, NDTV has organised a special telethon to raise funds for Kerala. We have specific goals - to enable the rebuilding of villages in the worst-affected districts and provide immediate assistance in terms of rehabilitation and food kits to people in the worst affected areas . All donations will go directly to our partner NGO Plan India.
Our focus will be coverage that makes a difference, stories with a heart, standing by people and making their experience a shared one to effect change.   
NDTV chose to report on this massive crisis with unwavering focus and commitment; having done that, now we look, as NDTV always does, to go beyond the news and make a difference to people's lives.


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