The first Malayalam film, Vigathakumaran, which was produced in 1928 by Shri
J.C. Daniel, was a silent film. The next film, Marthanda Varma was produced in 1933 by Shri B. V. Rao. In 1938 Shri S. Nottani produced the first sound film in Malayalam called
Balan. Until 1950, film production in Malayalam progressed at a very slow place with only one film each being produced in 1940, 1941, 1948 and 1949. The first major film studio,
Udaya, was set up at Alleppey in 1947. It was followed by P. Subramaniam's
Merryland at Thiruvananthapuram.
In 1948, Nirmala became the first Malayalam film to be made in Kerala. The 1950s saw the production of several Malayalam films with social themes. The first social film in Malayalam was
Jeevitha Nauka released in 1951. Neela Kuyil, which was produced in 1954, dealt with the subject of untouchability. It won the President's Silver Medal for the second best film that year. The film Newspaper Boy produced in 1955 was another important milestone as it paved the way for serious films in Malayalam. From the early 1960s, Malayalam film-makers began making films based on popular novels and dramas. This trend was more visible in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Popular literary works of Thakazhi, Muttathu Varkey, P. Kesava Dev, S.L. Puram, Thoppil Bhasi and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer were taken up for production of Malayalam films. In 1966, the Malayalam film
Chemmeen, based on Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's famous novel of the same name and directed by Ramu Kariat, received the President's Gold Medal for the best film. Other acclaimed films were
Iruttinte Athmavu (1967), scripted by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and directed by P. Bhaskaran and
Olavum Theeravum, scripted again by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and directed by P.N. Menon. Some of the Malayalam films that won the National awards for the best film include
Chemmeen (1965), Swayamvaram (1972), Nirmalya (1973),
Chidambaram (1985), Piravai (1988) and Kathaporushan. Children's films like
My Dear Kuttichathan, Kummatt, Manu Uncle and Kochaniyan have also won national awards.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan is one of the most renowned directors of the Malayalam filmdom. He directed the film
Swayam Varam in 1972. Later, he made Kodiyettam, Elipathayam, Mukha Mukham, Mathilukal, Vidheyan and
Katha Purushan, which won national and international acclaim. Aravindan was another important film director, who started his career with the film
Utharayanam. His other films Kanjana Seetha, Thampu, Kummatti, Esthapan, Pokku Veyil and
Chidambaram also won universal recognition. M.T. Vasudevan Nair's directorial venture
Nirmalyam won national honours. Most of the films scripted by him were masterpieces, like
Vaisali, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, Perumthachan and Parinayam. Among other important film directors are Padmarajan, Bharathan, Shaji N. Karun, Sibi Malayil, K.G. George, T.V. Chandran, K.R. Mohanan, Lenin Rajendran, Pridyadarshan, I.V. Sasi and John Abraham. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Shaji, T.V. Chandran and Jayaraj had won the National awards for the Best Director. Aravindan made significant films like Thampu (1978) and Kanchana Sita.
The end of 1970s witnessed the emergence of "sexy cinema" in Malayalam initiated by I.V.Sasi's
Avalude Ravukal ("Her Nights"), and soon such movies began to be made in substantial numbers. This trend is again revived in 1999 in the backdrop of the dismal performance of the Malayalam cinema. Several C-grade movies like
Neelathadakathile Nizalpakshikal ("Birds in the Blue Lake"),
Kinnarathumbikal ("Love Birds"),
Nishasundarikal ("Night Beauties") and
Rakkili ("Night Bird") are being churned out to cater to the fantasies of the masses using non-entities as heroes and heroines, causing dismay and frustration among the serious film-makers.
Thikkurisi Sukumaran Nair, who was a script-writer, lyricist, director and versatile actor, was like a father figure of Malayalam films. The important heroes who ruled over Malayalam film kingdom were Sathyan, Prem Nazir, Raghavan, Sudheer, Vincent, Sukumaran and M.G. Soman. Some of the popular heroes of the present day are Mohan Lal, Mammutty, Suresh Gopy, Jayaram and Mukesh. Among the earlier notable heroines were Padmini, Madhu, Ragini, Sheela, Sarada and Jaya Bharati. Then came Ambika, Menaka, Manisha, Sobhana, Manju Warrier and Divya Unny. Malayalam film actors P J Antony, Balan K Nair, Gopi Premji, Mammutty, Mohan Lal, Suresh Gopi and Balachandra Menon have won national awards for best acting, while Sarada, Monisha and Sobhana bagged the best actress awards.
In the initial years, the lyricists used to write songs based on the tunes of popular Hindi and Tamil songs. However, the arrival of popular poets like P. Bhaskaran (1950), O.N.V. Kurup (1955), Vayalar Rama Varma (1956) and brilliant music directors like V.Dakshinamurthy (1950), K. Raghavan (1954), G.Devarajan (1955) and M.S. Babu Raj (1957) on the scene changed the scenario. Among the early playback singers were Kanukara Purushothaman, K.P. Udayabhanu and A.M. Raja. Popular female playback singers included P. Leela, Santha P.Nair, P. Susheela and Janaki. Later on many popular singers from the Hindi and other cinema, like Manna Dey, Talat Mehmood, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle and S.P. Balasubramanian lent their voice to Malayalam films. Even music directors like Naushad, Usha Khanna, Ravi Bombay and Ilaya Raja from other states composed music for Malayalam films.