Playing the Malayali card and loving it

Playing the Malayali 'card' and loving it

What happens when there is one Malayali in a room full of people? Not much. He would more or less be invisible. What happens when there are two? That, God forbid, would be a chaotic reunion between two complete strangers with a sudden agenda – to celebrate everything that is simply Malayali! And yes, ignore everyone else. Rosemary Jacob and Sona Harris — two single,...

What happens when there is one Malayali in a room full of people? Not much. He would more or less be invisible.

What happens when there are two?

That, God forbid, would be a chaotic reunion between two complete strangers with a sudden agenda – to celebrate everything that is simply Malayali! And yes, ignore everyone else.

Rosemary Jacob and Sona Harris — two single, independent, 30-something women based in Bangalore — have hit the sweet spot to celebrate this clan’s extreme preoccupation with their own pop culture. It is a card game called Malayali Aano (Are you a Malayali?), born out of lockdown but bent on defeating the isolation by getting all Malayalis to play it — be it in the remotest parts of Kerala or the uppity NRK (non-resident Keralite) homes across the world.

Custom-made for Malayalis

“The idea hit me before the initial lockdown in March 2020,” says Rosemary, a marketing consultant and a curator of events. She says she was inspired by the US card game — Cards against Humanity — which had a similar concept of questions and answers. “I had got a box from the US and it used to be the life of house parties. It had an open creative licence that enabled anyone to re-create the format, say in different languages.”

The drawback of the game, she says, was that it couldn’t relate to everybody equally. “India is too diverse to play the US version.”

And that’s when she thought of the possibility of creating an entire Malayali version of it. “A game that needed to be played by an essentially-Mallu crew with a love for all things Malayali.”

The first person she spoke of it to pooh-poohed the idea. But luckily, with friend Sona Harris, the project hit the green button.

Rosemary Jacob and Sona Harris. Their new game draws heavily from Malayali pop culture. The idea hit me before the initial lockdown in March 2020. Credit: Facebook/malayaliaanogame

A graphic designer with her own design studio in Bangalore, Sona knew this was a winner from the start. In a city under a tight lockdown, during more than 300 video calls, Sona and Rosemary started writing down the most popular, funniest, and quirkiest words and phrases in Malayalam that were categorised under proverbs, movie dialogues, colloquialism, food, attire, politics and so on.

“Humour was again split up – dark, slapstick, cringe, political. We had to make the game all-inclusive. The players should be of all ages, familiar with every single dialect from Kasargod to Trivandrum, and even the jargons on Instagram and Facebook like ‘troll’ and ‘social media pennu’.

“We decided to keep the ratio of questions to answers as 100:400. For every question we phrased, we made sure we could pick up at least eight to ten quirky answers. Priority was given to phrasing the questions. It had to be relatable. And one that could get maximum possibilities for answers.” says Sona.

That Mallu aunty at every wedding who asks you – eppozha kalyaanam (So, when’s your wedding)?

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Playing your cards right

The duo had started the process in June and by mid-August, around 60% of the written content was ready.

The short-listing came next. “By then the lockdown had eased, we could move within the city limits. So we sat together with a few Mallu friends and played it. We got to choose what to keep and what to eliminate. We also decided we needed more words,” says Rosemary.

And that brought them to the category most needed – profanities.

“How can you not have profanities?” asks the duo. It is the best part of belonging to a core group and a natural ice-breaker. “So we asked our male friends to help us. It was almost educational!”

The girls had no idea that there was a verbatim Malayalam word for every sexual quirk under the sun.

Once the content list was fixed and sorted into 100 cards for questions and 400 cards for answers, the next step was to choose the design and the make.

For a graphic designer, that was hardly a worry. Sona made around seven different prototypes of the card to get that perfect ergonomic size.

“We expected this card game to be that unavoidable accessory for the guzzling Mallu. So we made sure it was thick enough to be a coaster,” Sona actually immersed her prototypes in water to check its sturdiness. But the girls also knew it had to be light enough to hold 10 each at-a-time in a player’s hand.

“No confusion over the colour either. Kerala is green, and so the cards and the packing boxes had to be predominantly green.”

The ‘question cards’ had the text in white over a green background, the answer cards vice-versa. The font was essentially sans serif, the easiest to read, and the size of the font was big enough to make reading possible in dim light (read pubs). The placing of the text was from ‘left to right’ because according to readability psychology, says Sona, the eye reads from left to right and from top to bottom.

The box, again, was a splash of green with the name of the game written in typical movie poster-like Malayalam script, the letters inter-linked like a vertical chain to symbolise the shape of Kerala.

“We did remember to add a tint of blue on the cover. Kerala is non-existent without its water.”

Show time

The first test batch of 100 boxes didn’t burn their pockets either. “The printer was a long-time client of mine who asked us to sell it first and pay back later,” says Sona.

Priced at Rs 1,650 each, it got sold within four days to their closest relatives and friends. The feedback was tremendous. “The game was an instant hit. It was all everyone could talk about in the first few weeks of the soft launch.”

The next batch of 1,000 boxes are now on sale through their website Malayali Aano, registered under Lol Salam Entertainment, and although their biggest clientele is still from Kerala, followed by the Malayalis in Bangalore and Chennai, Germany is a huge draw, Singapore and the Middle East not far behind. “The lockdown worked in our favour. It gave us plenty of free time to focus on this game. It also got us an assured market. People were sick of isolation. Malayali Aano was a life-saver!”

The creators of the game say they were inspired by the US card game, Cards against Humanity, which had a similar concept of questions and answers. Credit:

So, was any worst-case scenario ever visualised? “Lawsuits and moral policing,” says the duo in unison. The former was about copyright issues. Friends in the movie industry told them nobody ‘owns’ movie dialogues. As for brand names and popular Malayalam advertisement slogans used in the game, corporates were only too happy to get that extra mileage in publicity.

The moral policing, however, was a different story. “The most negative feedback came from very close quarters.” Although the game does specify the age limit as ‘above 18 years’ and that it is a complete no-no for children, it still raised a few eyebrows.

But no changes are in the offing. Everything, including the expletives, stays.

Rosemary recalls a feedback from a guy who wrote that a couple of movie dialogues used were sexist and derogatory. “We told him that we had chosen it for the very same reason. We tend to overlook such dialogues while watching the film, but the minute it is spoken out of context, even in a game, it hurts.”

“He actually thanked us for making him aware,” quips Rosemary.

Another hiccup was their total unfamiliarity in retail online selling. From setting up a back-end inventory system to dealing with multiple currencies, this tech-driven endeavour drained them off their juices from the day of the website launch — November 20. “Within the first hour, a customer called to say he was unable to pay. The payment gateway had crashed. It was a panicky half hour before we got the problem sorted out.”

For team Lol Salam Entertainment, all that is passé now.

The future is bright. They are already looking at an expansion package for the game for summer. The ultimate goal, they say, is that every Malayali household should own one. At Rs 1,899, it is definitely not cheap. “The reasons are purely technical,” says Sona. “We offer more number of cards than any other card game. One box can be played for a minimum 20 times, which means they are thoroughly reusable. Most importantly, these cards are not plastic but made of the best paper with plastic coating. That sky-rocketed the expense, but going plastic-free was non-negotiable.”

Anyway, no one seems to be complaining yet. Especially not the Malayali who can’t get enough of his favourite cuss words, or his screen hero’s lengthy monologue, all to win that prestigious title of being ‘thani Malayali’ (true-blue Malayali).

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