I cannot recall a movie that was anticipated more eagerly, in recent years. The hype was enormous, the expectations sky high and the wait never-ending. I had made up my mind to watch it on the first day itself, but I couldn’t as I was out of town.
I got around to watching Pazhassi Raja on Sunday evening from SriKumar theatre, Trivandrum. The balcony was fully booked – for weeks, rumor has it – and we had to make do with the sixth row in first class. It was a teeny bit uncomfortable but I stopped fretting in minutes. Why? The movie was so damn CLASSY!
I will breeze through the background and avoid a long-winded history session . In a nutshell, the movie deals with Pazhassi‘s feud with the ‘Traders who are trying to rule the land’. Pazhassi had fought alongside them when Tippu invaded North Malabar but realises who the true enemy was, as the Company starts to break the backs of his subjects with unreasonable taxes and to curtail their freedom. So he prevents the tax collection, leading to the Company ransacking his palace with the approval of his uncle Veera Varma Raja of Kurumbranadu – Thilakan plays the megalomaniac to perfection – and the help of the Raja’s erstwhile associate Pazhayamveedan Chanthu.
The king who’s driven out of his home builds his lair in the forest and goes on to be a thorn in the flesh for the Company, with well-planned guerrilla warfare. His associates like his lieutenant Edacheni Kunkan, the tribal warrior Thalakkal Chandhu and Kaitheri Ambu, the brother-in-law of the Raja are all men of valour and cunning, thus making his dedicated albeit small army, a force to reckon with. The movie portrays the encounters between the two forces and how it pans out in the end.
So where to begin analysing this gem of a movie? Let’s start off with the portrayal of the protagonist by Mammootty. To be honest, it was very different from what I expected. Because in a role which could have been used to usurp each and every scene he is in, Mammootty does nothing of the kind and actually underplays. His portrayal of the Raja is restrained and finessed. But in no moment, does he come across as anything but Royal. Yes, Royal with a capital R. He doesn’t really have to do anything much but to be gracefully THERE and he does it with aplomb.
Sharathkumar enacts what may be the best role of his life perfectly. Edacheni Kunkan – The warrior with a fierce loyalty towards his king. He literally fills the screen with his presence – What physique!!! – and comes across effortlessly as a character you wouldn’t want to cross. Manoj K Jayan does a splendid role too as Thalakkal Chandhu, the tribal warrior whose tactical prowess makes one of the mightiest armies of the modern world look like blundering idiots.Kaitheri Ambu is portrayed decently by Suresh Krishna, though he pales in comparison to the performances of the former two. Suman dons the role of the traitor Pazhayamveedan Chandhu who conspires with the Brits to take down Pazhassi and does it well.
Of the female leads, Padmapriya steals Kaniha’s thunder with a memorable performance as Neeli, the tribal girl who is a lioness in battle, albeit one with amazing dexterity in using the bow and arrow. She did amazingly well, particularly in the martial arts scenes. Her dubbing was really irritating though, I wonder who felt they could pass off THAT as a tribal speaking Malayalam. Kaniha played the beautiful Maakkam, the Raja’s wife with grace. Well she did alright in the scenes where she was supposed to stand around and look beautiful – Not that she requires any effort there – but came up slightly short where more strenuous emoting was to be done. Nothing that can’t be pardoned for the other *ahem* delights of having her on screen.
Other characters – Kanara menon, Unni Mootha, Emman Nair, Athan Kurikkal, Kannavathu Nambiar, Mooppan – are all safe in the hands of experienced veterans – Jagathy, Captain Raju, Lalu Alex, Mamukkoya, Devan, Nedumudi Venu respectively. Maybe some of them deserved a more detailed portrayal on the basis of their actual contribution to history, but the scope of the movie sidelines them to being fringe players. Not a drawback, only a necessity. And extremely well played, all of them.
Sayippanmar were generally okay, though I thought Baber looked slightly gormless on occasions. Could have done better there. His fiancee was sort of an unnecessary character – Doesn’t seem to be strongly backed up by history books – and reminded me at times of Lagaan. Still, it was acted out splendidly by Linda Arsenio. The scene where they enjoy the hospitality of the Raja was a nice touch – Not sure if there’s any record of it. Anyone? – The other Englishmen succeed in their task of being generally hateful and of holding a grudging admiration for Pazhassi.
Done with the actors and moving on to the technical part. Technically – WOW! The best done period film ever in Malayalam and arguably in India. Camera, editing, whatever – They have done the best they can in all technical departments. The camera in some scenes deserve a very special mention. The Raja doing SuryaNamaskar, on horseback watching the Panamaram fort burn – the instances are too many to be listed here. The songs were superbly shot and blended in well with the narrative – particularly Adiushassandhya and Kunnathe Konna.
The war scenes were all brilliantly executed. The battles in the forest and in open land were both very real , yet managed it without unwanted gore. The martial arts scenes were generally good but I was disappointed with the jumps at several point. They looked very artificial and not in keeping with the perfection of the rest of the movie. I would expect 27 crores to get you a bit more originality than the jumps in Jai Hanuman.
I was deeply skeptic at Resul Pookkutty going apeshit in the media about the sound effects, before release. But I have to say I retracted every word of it. The movie is a treat to the ears – the clanging of the swords, the sounds of the forest, the soldiers marching, galloping horses – They have never been more real. The heavy rain pelting down seemed so real that I almost wrapped my hands around myself in cold, at one point.
So I finally get to the real geniuses behind this Magnum Opus – MT and Hariharan. There is an opinion doing the rounds that the magic MT weaved in Oru Vadakkan Veeragaatha has diminished in Pazhassi Raja. I beg to disagree – the comparison is flawed. OVVG was born off a folktale which gave MT maximum room to manipulate the tale to tug at our heartstrings, but in PR his artistic freedom is much more curtailed. He has to strike a balance between history and entertainment. And boy has he done that! Hariharan faced the same challenge. Only wizards of their ilk could have taken such a subject and woven it into 200 minutes of Awesomeness (Yes I watch too much HIMYM).
On a final note, let me take on a point that the detractors of the movie are touting. No, the movie cannot be renamed Edacheni Kunkan, because you are not seeing the point. Sharath gets to hit it off with the audience because he is a warrior – and an awesome one at that. But in the end, he remains largely a one-dimensional character who is nonetheless crucial to the narrative. But the movie portrays the different sides of Pazhassi brilliantly. Pazhassi the patriot, Pazhassi the lover, Pazhassi the warrior, Pazhassi the ruler – The trio of MT-Hariharan-Mammootty have captured it so brilliantly that every other character pales – as they should – in comparison.