Adventure Movies

Does Mollywood have ‘real’ survival adventures?

April 8, 20246 Mins Read

Mollywood has a new buzzword for commercial success – survival adventures. Manjummel Boys, a gripping survival thriller inspired by true events that occurred in the Guna caves of Kodaikanal, has become the highest-grossing movie in the Malayalam film industry. Another real-life event-inspired movie, Aadujeevitham, tells the story of the ‘great escape’ of a Gulf Malayali from slave-like sustenance herding goats in a remote desert, and it is currently captivating audiences in theatres.

Without a doubt, both Manjummel Boys and Aadujeevitham are remarkable works of art, raising the standards of Malayalam cinema to that of world-class movies. Moreover, these masterfully crafted survival adventures have left a huge impact on Malayali audiences across generations, as evidenced by their historic commercial successes.

Prithviraj in Aadujeevitham. Photo: IMDb

Is Mollywood following Hollywood’s footsteps venturing into awe-inspiring survival movies based on real events?

Parallels from Hollywood
Hollywood has a long list of survival thrillers. Perhaps the best example of survival movies based on a real event is the infamous Nutty Putty cave incident of 2009, which could be considered the American counterpart to the Manjummel Boys.

It all started with the fateful descent of John Edward Jones, a paediatric cardiology student, along with his brother and friends, into Nutty Putty Cave, a hydrothermal cave located in Utah County, United States. He hailed from an adventurous family whose members pursued spelunking and cave exploration as a hobby.

After entering the front area, John moved into the ‘big slide’ region, the spacious part of the cave. Slowly, he began crawling into a narrow passage known as the ‘birth canal’, guided by a map of the cave firmly gripped in his hand.

However, instead of reaching his intended destination, John accidentally found himself in an unnamed area too small for spelunkers to explore. Believing he had spotted a wider passage ahead, John attempted to wriggle headfirst through a very narrow gap, intending to pivot and retreat. Unfortunately, his efforts resulted in him becoming irreversibly trapped, wedged upside down at a precarious 70-degree angle.

During the span of one day, over 100 trained rescue personnel and advanced equipment were diligently employed to free the young doctor from the depths of Nutty Putty Cave. Despite investing a cumulative total of 3,700 hours of effort and standing side by side with the family to provide emotional support, the rescuers failed to save John’s life.

The dramatic rescue mission aimed at saving John Edward Jones from the confines of the cramped Nutty Putty Cave later inspired the Hollywood film The Last Descent, released in 2016.

Maverick Spirit
Apart from movies like The Last Descent, Hollywood can also boast about another sub-genre of survival films depicting expeditions undertaken with meticulous calculations to celebrate the ‘maverick spirit’. Westerners, particularly American culture, hold a high regard for the ‘maverick spirit’ – defined as the practice of taking risks or calculated adventures and pushing one’s physical or mental boundaries – as a positive force that propels human progress. It is about exploring nature and learning from it.

Many Europeans and North Americans believe that their inclination towards calculated adventures is what has contributed to their current dominant position in the world. In the context of Hollywood adventure movies, the ‘maverick spirit’ typically manifests in characters who embark on daring journeys, defy authority or obstacles, and explore new territories or experiences with a sense of adventure and freedom.

Perhaps the best example of such maverick spirit is portrayed in the 2012 movie Kon-Tiki. The movie is based on the real-life expedition of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who set out to cross the Pacific Ocean on a simple raft made of wooden logs in 1947. The adventure ended successfully, lending credibility to his hypothesis that Polynesian islands were inhabited by Native Americans crossing the Pacific by raft in ancient times.

Another movie of a similar genre, likely to be released in the coming years, is based on the failed underwater expedition to explore the wreckage of the RMS Titanic. In June 2023, the submersible named Titan imploded, resulting in the deaths of all five passengers on board, including three billionaires, at a depth of around 3500 meters.

“For many, it’s haunting. When I’m down there driving the sub, it’s a different experience for me,” once said Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate Expeditions. Mr. Rush, the pilot of Titan, was also killed in the accident. MindRiot Entertainment recently announced that they will be making a film about the tragedy titled Salvaged.

Not by choice but by chance
The film Manjummel Boys is a survival movie, but the original incident doesn’t fully embody the true essence of the ‘maverick spirit’. The blockbuster movie ultimately portrays a group of youths who, under the influence of alcohol, enter the prohibited Guna caves without professional cave-exploring experience or knowledge of the cave’s layout. They faced serious consequences but managed to overcome the crisis solely through ‘legendary’ collective effort and sheer luck.

Crew of Manjummel Boys. Photo: Instagram

While Malayalis are not unfamiliar with the idea of exploring the world, they tend to be conservative and cautious when embarking on something new. It’s no surprise that the Malayalam film industry doesn’t yet have survival thrillers based on adventurous explorations. The prevailing trend in the industry revolves around movies inspired by real-life events, such as Manjummel Boys, Helen, and Bharathan’s Malootty, which often depict unforeseen accidents.

“Although the characters in both movies, Manjummel Boys and Aadujeevitham, faced harsh encounters with nature, their adventures were not by choice but by chance. It seems that the Malayalam film industry is carefully crafting its own variant of adventure movies, placing great emphasis on the socio-cultural world rather than exploring nature,” says Dr. Rakesh R, a cultural studies scholar who teaches at Mar Ivanios College, Thiruvananthapuram.

Nevertheless, the younger generation of Malayalis has started discovering their identity by venturing into uncharted territories. One remarkable example is Commander Abhilash Tomy’s solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe on a sailboat, overcoming numerous near-death incidents. It may not be long before we witness the Malayalam film industry taking a bold step forward by creating a movie based on real-life adventure, one that demands meticulous calculations and embodies the true maverick spirit.

(Social anthropologist and novelist Thomas Sajan and US-trained neurologist Titto Idicula, based in Norway, write on politics, culture, economy, and medicine.)

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