Pazhassi Raja

A triumph of mise-en-scene, with superb art direction and a refined palette of tones, more matte than glossy. But in going for surface, they sacrificed a bit of depth
Pazhassi Raja
Pazhassi Raja

Starring: Mammooty, Sarathkumar, Suman, Padmapriya
Directed by T. Hariharan; Screenplay by M.T. Vasudevan Nair
Rating: ***

In the eighties, a “Malayalam film” screened in the north would have carried two contrasting kinds of stigma. It could be high art (Aravindan, Adoor, John Abraham; always spoken of in awe, mostly from a safe distance). Or a dubious sort of porn, playing morning shows in halls where the seats would clatter and bite. Either philosophy or filth—that’s what everyone thought. Films that occupied the middle of the spectrum were the secret that never got out. Unbeknownst to the rest of the country, for two decades, Kerala made perhaps the best mainstream films in India. Commercial cinema had hit a strange barren patch up north, lifeless for no apparent reason, like a marathoner hitting the wall—Hindi turned infantile, Bangla went into intensive care (continues to be there). Tamil went hip—it got a spritz of MTV and technical savvy, and earned Japanese fans. But Malayalam witnessed a silent efflorescence, across popular genres. A range of stories and story-types, scripts full of nerve and sinew, naturalistic acting. Credible, rooted and real—and very entertaining. In the high tide of that phase, novelist-scriptwriter M.T. Vasudevan Nair, director T. Hariharan and superstar Mammootty had teamed up for the lush period epic Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, a revisionist take on a balladic villain, just one of a fistful of Malayalam ‘hits’ that made it to the 1990 IFFI Panorama. Now, two decades later, the troika has put together the costliest Malayalam film yet— a full house Sunday matinee in the carpeted hush of PVR Ambience, Gurgaon, worlds away from those morning shows. 

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It’s the story of Pazhassi Raja, a north Malabar king who defied the British for a decade in the early days of empire. Tipu has just ridden scorched-earth over these parts and Pazhassi initially helps the British against him. Once it dawns on him who “the real enemy” is—the “pepper merchants who presume to take over Bhagawathi’s sacred realm”—he retreats into the jungles of Wayanad with his loyal band of Nair warriors, enlists Kurichiya tribal archers and fights a pitched guerrilla war that inflicts heavy casualties on Company troopers till, inevitably, he is hunted down and felled. (The ‘vana parva’ is an established trope in Indian myth and history, coming down from the epics to passages such as that of Rana Pratap and his Bhils. The eerie echoes of the current Naxal situation, one suspects, are largely unintended.) In any case, the film dramatises the history, and gives it the ‘export quality’ costume epic treatment. The results are spectacular, literally. A triumph of mise-en-scene, with superb art direction and a refined palette of tones, more matte than glossy. The big budget shows: the forest sets are not tacky excuses, the apparel is elegant rather than gaudy, the murals authentic. With Resool Pookutty, war in the vistas of Wayanad is also an aural treat: the quivering of spears, the creaking of wooden bridges, falling raindrops, ambient birdsong.

And then, in a script that gives equal space to others—especially Tamil macho man Sarathkumar—there is Mammootty, all leonine grace at 56, the sort of Indian ideal of the male form that might not sit well on a Bernini sculpture, yet seduces us to cast our old heroes in his symmetry. Here, he plays a restrained hand, epic hero but also a fated man contemplating imminent death. For, midway, news arrives of the fall of Tipu, and his own end is surely nigh.

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Flaws? In going for surface, they sacrificed a bit of depth. An ensemble cast this size means an unwieldy script and some loose ends—a beautiful tribal girl with an improbable accent (a neat cameo by Padmapriya) disappears mid-action. The effect of Troy, Crouching Tiger, Hero—distilled via the likes of Jodhaa Akbar—are apparent. If Shaolin monks can fly and freeze in mid-air, what’s there to stop Kalari masters from performing triple pirouettes in slo-mo, ten feet above the ground? Yet, it’s slightly disconcerting to see the alarmingly built Tamil star Suman, the villain here, fully airborne. The English characterisations are too basic—all snarl, sideburn and cigar—though how much moral nuance is to be granted the empire-building of Wellesley is a moot point. After Lagaan, it’s become customary to have a sort of English divertissement in such films, mostly centring around a young couple. Here, an angel-face comes almost dying to be kidnapped and enact the Stockholm Syndrome down in the tropics. Ilaiyaraja enlists even the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, but his own music is slightly overdone. At one point, I thought I heard the Kurichiyas humming a western air. 

Lastly, maybe a bout of Atkins diet for the whole cast for a month before shooting wouldn’t have harmed the film. But this is probably an accurate imaging of the nutritional index back in late 18th century Kottayam, a royal house otherwise renowned for producing Sanskritists and Kathakali playwrights. On the map, it’s approximately where William Dalrymple was doing his research at approximately the same time. Why, if he had wandered on to the sets of this multi-culti Company-era epic, there surely would have been a walk-on part for a cherubic Scotsman. And by offering to impale himself on a quivering Kurichiya spear, he could have atoned for the sins of his ancestors at one stroke and spared himself the rigours of ethnography!

A slightly shorter version of this appears in print

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