Review: Pazhassi Raja

For three hours and twenty minutes, I watched the latest magnum opus from Malayalam cinema, Pazhassi Raja.

Mammootty, in and as Pazhassi RajaThen I left the theatre and, during the 15 minute walk home, promptly forgot all about it – and I am not sure whether that stems from the quality of the movie or from my own expectations of the combination of scriptwriter M T Vasudevan Nair, director Hariharan, and actor Mammootty.

Briefly: The film starts in 1796, when the British East India Company meets with the kings of Malabar to deliver a ‘pay up defaulted taxes or else’ threat. A recurring theme in the history of the Raj is how internal feuds and rivalries weakened the natives while strengthening the hands of the Company; that storyline plays out here through Raja Veeravarma [veteran character actor Thilakan in a cameo], the king of Kurumbaranadu, who plots to usurp power from his nephew Pazhassi Raja.

Thanks to his machinations, the British send a troop to arrest Pazhassi Raja, only to find that he has fled from his palace [Padinjare Kovilakam, near what today is Thalasserry]. In the process, the king however loses both his family fortune and his unborn child — and the conflict is set up.

The story of Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma is easily told; this wiki entry and this piece by Sreekumar Varma have all you need to brush the dust off those fading classroom memories. For buffs, an interesting resource is Nick Balmer, the great-times-four grand-nephew of Thomas Hervey Baber of the East India Company who is central to this story.

Balmer on his blog cites the diaries of his ancestor to trace the history of that period: the genesis of the conflict; setting out on the trail of the raja; tightening the noose; and the denouement.

The movie has much to recommend it, and at the top of the list I’d put the combination of Resul Pookutty’s sync sound and Ilayaraja’s background score. You first notice the unusually high quality of the sound early on, in the sequence where the British are meeting with the local satraps. As the clerks read out the Company’s diktat, a candle gutters briefly in the breeze, and a blob of wax runs down its side and plops to the floor. Sitting in the theatre, you hear that hiss, that liquid plop, with such incredible clarity, it puts you right inside that space, in that time.

And then it gets better. Pookutty plays to the gallery in the action sequences – the clash of swords, the clang of shield


Sarath Kumar and Mammootty

on shield and the rasping, tortured breathing of the combatants is in itself a good reason to see this one in a theatre with a good sound system. But where he really excels is in the subtle use of the forest and its many moods – the whistle of the wind and the rustle of leaves underfoot, the hoot of the owl and trill of the songbird, and the symphony of untamed water, from the gentle tinkle of quiet-flowing streams to the roar of the occasional waterfall and even the drumbeat of the monsoon play well against the on-screen action.

Ilayaraja, that enduring music maestro from Tamil Nadu, harnesses the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, Leslie Kovacs conducting, to produce an understated score that riffs off the sounds of nature [Raja has a history with this orchestra; they last collaborated in his brilliant recreation of the Thiruvachakam, the compilation of hymns written by ninth century Shaivite poet Manikkavasagar.]

In a story sign-posted by battles large and small, Ravi Diwan as action director has a large role to play – and to his credit he raises the bar from Jodha Akbar, the comparable film in his oeuvre. A minor quibble, however, about employing wire-work in fight sequences: done right, testosterone-fuelled fighters soar in defiance of gravity; done badly, as it is for the most part in this film, the effect is akin to those ‘mobiles’ that you see sold in our street bazaars – so many birds on strings jerking in the wind. The kalari payattu sequences – including a couple of set piece combats – are well done when the combatants don’t take to the air, and I’d suspect a large part of the credit for this would go to the experts from CVN Kalari who worked with the cast.

Sreekar Prasad is yet another member of the much-awarded technical crew; he edits with trademark competence and, in the action sequences, with some flair. I’m not sure if the decision to abruptly cut the fight sequence involving Neeli [more on her in a bit] was his or the director’s – in any event, we are left with no clue about the outcome of her extended single-handed battle against the company’s Redcoats, and that is bad storytelling.

Venu and Ramnath Shetty seem almost overwhelmed by the spectacular beauty of Kerala’s forests. It is impossible for a halfway competent cinematographer to shoot Kerala’s lush topography badly, so the best yardstick to measure their competence is in the action sequences – and the camerawork there is confident, at times even bold.

I’ll leave Mammootty for later; among the other members of the cast, Tamil veteran Sharat Kumar is a standout in the role of Edachena Kunkan Nair, the orphan boy who in time becomes the king’s military commander and the backbone of the resistance. Manoj K Jayan as tribal hero and archer par excellence Thalakkal Chandu, and Padmapriya as his warlike fiancée, are equally impressive, with Neeli’s Tamil-accented Malayalam adding an unintended touch of verisimilitude to a period piece set at a time when the boundaries between Tamils and Keralites were considerably more fluid than today. This being a period piece, the support cast is too large to detail by name and role; veteran character actors like Mamu Koya, Captain Raju and Lalu Alex are sadly wasted in under-written roles – more so, considering that these actors essay characters that were crucial to the history of that period.

The real problem begins with the British characters, led by Harry Key in the pivotal role of Assistant Collector Thomas Baber. The dialogs written for them are insipid, uninspired – and Key and the others in pivotal British roles are not good enough actors to overcome the handicap. The result is an odd juxtaposition of well-acted native characters counterpointed by caricatured Brits [none so jarring as Dona, Baber’s fiancée, as played by Linda Arsenio] that dilutes the impact of many sequences. Unfortunately, less than pitch-perfect writing also reduces veteran Telugu actor Suman [Pazhayamveedan Chanthu], Jagathi Sreekumar and even the brilliant Nedumudi Venu to the status of broad caricature.

All of these are however side issues – central to this film is the combination of scriptwriter MT Vasudevan Nair, director Hariharan, and actor Mammootty. The last time this troika combined was twenty years ago – and magic happened; this time they – particularly, and sadly, MT – disappoint.

The thing about historical fiction – in literature, movies, whatever – that sets it apart from the dry narratives of schoolroom texts is the ability to delve into character, into motivation and to explore the interplay of relationships. In a recent post, my friend Jai Arjun Singh while writing of Hillary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall made a pertinent point:

When we learn about history primarily through cold details set out “objectively” in textbooks, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that the distant events we take for granted – events that now appear set in stone, almost as if they could have unfolded in no other way – were the accumulated products of the personalities, life experiences and whimsies of human beings who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time: real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas, biases and prejudices of their own.

It is what MT did brilliantly in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha; it is also where the writer fails signally with Pazhassi Raja. The key to the Raja was his messianic ability to fire a motley crew of tribals and assorted others of the disenfranchised, to imbue in them his own passion for his land and to fuse them together in a guerilla band that, for nine years, resisted and even at times humbled the far superior British forces.

At no time does the screenplay conjure up this messiah [In fact, on the only occasion where the protagonist is shown speaking to his people, the film-makers chose to superimpose a song on the visuals rather than let the audience, along with his people, listen to the Raja make his case for rebellion]; at no point do we in the audience catch fire from his spark – and the result, sadly, is a visual rendition of history that leaves us emotionally uninvolved, unmoved. Equally, the heart of the story is the confrontation between the Raja and the Company’s dynamic assistant collector – and again, at no point do we get a sense of this titanic clash of personalities and interests. The ambitions, dilemmas, weaknesses and strengths Jai speaks of, that should have powered the narrative are missing from MT’s script, and the biases and prejudices have been reduced to shrill stereotype.

Finally, Mammootty – who won one of his three national awards for his visceral portrayal of the mythical character Chandu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. Old timers talk of Kesavan, an elephant in Guruvayur who was pretty much the same size as most others in the stable but who would, once the deity was installed on his back, gain prideful inches and tower over the pack.

Mammootty is to acting what Kesavan was to temple processions – give him the right role, and he harnesses face and body and trademark bass voice to perfection, and visibly swells to fill the screen with an awesome majesty. Pazhassi Raja offers him almost no scope to test his abilities – and that perhaps is the greatest indictment of this film from the MT-Hariharan team and most especially the former, who fails to give the actor the kind of lines he could really work with.

It’s a decent enough film – the pity is that with so much going for it, the movie remains merely a technically updated version of the 1964 movie of the same name, and stops well short of being a truly great addition to the historical genre.

I’ll leave you with some clips. The first is the official trailer of Pazhassi Raja; the others are choice segments from Oru Vadakkan, a 20-year-old film that, for me, is an evergreen example of what is possible when a great writer, actor and director get their game on.

Happy birthday, MT

Welcome to Meledath — the over two centuries old Tharavad [Keralite ancestral home] in Bilathikulam, Calicut where I

Home is where the hurt is

Home is where the hurt is

spent my formative years.

Looks nice, doesn’t it — washed clean by rain, with its typical naalukettu facade holding out the promise of much history within?

Looks are deceptive; the home that means the world to me is a ruin waiting to happen, its foundations eaten away by familial squabbling and consequent neglect.

It is a world — sad, anachronistic, decaying — that readers of the fiction of MT Vasudevan Nair will immediately recognize.

‘MT’, who turned 76 today, has spent a lifetime chronicling the breakdown of the Nair tharavad starting with his debut novel titled, appropriately enough, Naalukettu.

That book, and its successors like Asuravithu [Demon Seed], resonated with me for the subject matter as much as for the intensely evocative writing: I was reading those stories of the breakdown of the matriarchal system even as I was living it in real life.

Superb though those novels were, they were hardly unique — other Keralite writers have painted similar pictures with equal, or even greater, skill. It was with the 1989 feature film Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha [A Northern Ballad] however that MT really captured my imagination — and at least in my mind, marked himself out as a writer beyond compare.

While wandering the paddy fields of my mother’s ancestral home in Palghat, I had heard workers sing of the storied warriors of Kalaripayattu, the ancient Keralite martial arts form, like Thatcholi Othenan and Aromal Chekavar.

The stories are simplistic, and etched in uncompromising black and white. The heroes are heroic, the womenfolk are beautiful, the villains are demonaic in their malevolence and inevitably, good triumphs over evil.

Thus, Aromal Chekavar was the invincible scion of Puthuram Veedu in northern Kerala, the greatest Kalari warrior of his day. In a duel to the death with rival master Aringodar, Aromal’s sword breaks off at the hilt. It turns out that the metal rivets holding blade and handle together had been replaced with wooden ones at the instance of his cousin Chandu, who was jealous of Aromal’s popularity.

No ambiguity here — thanks to this story, the name ‘Chandu’ became inextricably twinned with the word ‘chadiyan‘, traitor. Chadiyan Chandu — the touchstone against which all subsequent acts of treasury would be inevitably measured.

The legend of Aromal had been translated onto the silver screen many times; I had seen versions starring Satyan and Prem Nazir, and each fresh telling merely reinforced the ‘fact’ of the storyline.

And then I saw Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, for which MT had written the screenplay [He won the national award for it, as did actor Mammootty for his portrayal of Chandu]. Broadly, it followed the accepted storyline — but at each plot point, the writer subtly altered the focus to confront us with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Chandu could have been more sinned against than sinning.

There was no gee-whiz moment, no dramatic revelation that spun the perceived narrative on its head; instead, the screenplay was a succession of little moments, little incidents familiar to those who knew the story, but strangely new and compelling thanks to the author’s skill in getting beneath the skin of the characters.

Epic tales are typically one dimensional — it is all surface heroism and surface villainy, with little attempt to examine motivations, to delve into the emotional undercurrents. This version differed; at every point, action and motivation went hand in hand, with the byplay of conflicting emotions providing the undertow.

By the end of the film, MT had managed to reduce the heroic Aromal to a pompous, boastful, self-absorbed, vindictive caricature of his perceived self and his raison d’etre, the unparalleled skill with arms, had been shown up as inferior to that of his cousin. And with every notch that Aromal fell, Chandu simultaneously grew — when the end credits rolled, he had been transformed into the ultimate tragic superhero, a character elevated to epic, almost mythic, proportions.

What amazed me most was this: the traditional Chandu narrative was one I had grown up with and could still sing along with, without missing a beat or a line. Yet, in the space of two and a half hours, I was primed to jettison that storyline as rubbish, and totally buy into this new version — a tribute to the remarkable persuasive powers  of the author.

The film’s leitmotif was that there is invariably more than one side to a story, and that perhaps the most commonly ‘accepted’ side may not in fact provide the true, or even most compelling, narrative.

It was among the seminal influences of that period in my life when, after ten years of bumming around doing nothing in particular, I thought maybe I’d like to make a career in journalism and was trying to understand what the craft of writing was all about.

That evening, my highly literate uncle and I were discussing the film when my uncle off-handedly said, “That’s the thing with MT, he will convince you that black is white — haven’t you read Randaamoozham?”

That was my introduction to MT’s recreation of the Mahabharat from Bhim’s point of view — the source code for the narrative I’ve been attempting on this blog.

Your feedback to the latest episode has been embarassingly fulsome; this seems like a good moment to remind you of the original author, an amazing talent so well-known and loved in his native Kerala and sadly so completely unknown outside that small state.

Happy birthday, MT. And thank you.