(Reviewed by SI reader you know who with editing by you know who while retaining the spirit of the original.)
Pazhassi Raja or Keralavarma Pazhassiraja turned out to be a let down, albeit one with redeeming elements.
And the letdown is not because the much hyped Malayalam historical film isn’t good in its own right but for squandering the opportunity of entering the pantheon of great films.
If you count yourself among the ranks of those who demand no more than a thumbs up or down from a reviewer and would rather make the rest of the judgment yourself, let me not put your patience to trial.
Its failings notwithstanding, Pazhassi Raja is still worth watching on the big screen.
Now for those who relish some background, here’s a roadmap of what to look out for so that you don’t miss the finer points.
Those familiar with the history of Kerala or that of South India would recognize Pazhassiraja (Veera Pazhassiraja/Lion of Kerala) as the King of the Kottayam Royal family that reigned over Malabar region in the 18th century.
When the valiant Tiger of Mysore Tipu Sultan and his fearsome hordes came calling to the region, the Kings (including Pazhassiraja’s brother) and affluent families fled south.
To safeguard his land and his people, the brave Pazhassiraja now joined forces with the British traders to rout Tipu on the battle field.
Not long after Tipu’s defeat, the vily British showed their true colors to the erstwhile ally by taking over all of Pazhassiraja’s lands in the Malabar and began inquitously taxing out the citizens of everything they owned.
Allies had turned foes and Pazhassiraja was now forced to take up arms against the British.
Realizing early on the futility of fighting against the superior firepower of the British with mere spears and swords, Pazhassiraja cleverly took the battle to the woods for Oliporu or guerilla warfare.
For Pazhassiraja, who had the loyalty of the Kurichiyar tribe, the woods offered several advantages – a familiar terrain to them but inhospitable to the British soldiers, a setting where bow and arrows were as effective as, if not more than, guns at short ranges and the ability to lay traps and ambushes.
The movie starts off in the waning years of the 18th century (1796, to be precise) when the British East India Company (‘The Company’) decides to act against the Kings and chieftains (under the leadership of Pazhassiraja, played by Mammooty) for defaulting on the taxes owed.
In these uncertain times, we encounter Kurumbranadu Raja Veeravarma (played by Thilakan), the uncle plotting to usurp power from Pazhassi and a host of other characters notably Kanara Menon (played with elan by Jagathy Sreekumar), the translator/intermediary and an officer with the British.
With the help of his turncoat uncle, the British try to arrest Pazhassi and put him on trial on a litany of false charges. But by the time they raid his palace, the wanted bird has already flown the royal coop.
The escape, however, costs Pazhassi his unborn child and considerable family wealth.
From then on, it’s the saga of how one strong-willed man unites a disparate people into a common struggle against the Company equipped with a bigger army and greater resources.
Hats off to Venu and Ramnath Shetty for breathtaking visuals and reminding us of the almost-forgotten notion that cinema is at the end of the day a visual medium.
Some of the bewitching shots pack such beauty that you would be forgiven for mistaking them for a Raja Ravi Varma painting.
The interior sets deserve special mention. The Ettukettu and other shots of the houses are so magnificent that you wouldn’t think twice before answering what the best thing about the movie was.
A close second are the sounds. Thanks to Oscar winner Resul Pookutty’s stellar work, the euphony holds you in thrall and heightens the excitement, particularly in the battle scenes.
M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s script is praiseworthy and forms the soul of the movie. Nay, it’s what saves the movie from being just a series of compelling visuals.
The second half could have done with some tightening though.
Whether editor A. Sreekar Prasad or the script is to be blamed is a fit topic for squabblers to quarrel over ad infinitum. Also, some characters like Dora were unnecessary and expendable.
While Mammooty, Sarathkumar (Edachena Kunkan Nair, Pazhassi’s army chief) and Manoj K. Jayan (Thalakkal Chandu, a tribal leader) do not disappoint and deliver a consistent, credible performance, they do not soar to great heights.
Still, the sui generis charisma and charm that’s delighted legions of Mammooty fans for so long is evident here too.
Mammooty has the goods to pull of an Emperor and so the King he plays here is well served. The role is a welcome respite from the spate of comedies (in name only) this actor has been dishing out lately (Pattanathil Bhootham anyone?).
And for the ditherers still in two minds, no, Mohanlal couldn’t have pulled it off in a hundred years.
Music by Ilaiyaraaja is passable at best and tiresome at worst.
The goras playing the Brits are hopelessly inadequate to the task, overacting in most of their scenes.
And why the anger all the time? Not the intimidating type too, just childish rage.
Harry Key as Asst. Collector Thomas Hervey Baber is tolerable but for someone who is cast as Pazhassi’s nemesis, he just is woefully wanting.
Overall, the imports turn out to be one of the big disappointments of the movie.
Linda, Linda, Linda! Acting is not the same as performing an item number.
Of course, you know that having studied acting and done Broadway. Perhaps your recent Bollywood and Tollywood forays have taken the shine off your acting skills.
Sure, we saw you in Sachein and Thotti Jaya but what we needed in Dora (the fiancee of Asst. Collector Baber) was a woman with strength and class but alas your measly offering is unacceptable and crass. It didn’t help that your role was poorly fleshed out but you could have at least salvaged some dignity.
You look pretty, we certainly get that. But the law of diminishing returns sets in quickly. After a short while, every time you appear on the screen all we can mutter is OMG! Why is she here? Get her off! Get her Off!
Sadly, Linda is not the worst. That discredit and shame belongs to Kanika Subramaniam (who plays Pazhassi’s wife).
Kanika, what ever did you accomplish in the Tamil film Varalaru that convinced Hariharan to cast you here. Boggles the mind, really.
Truth be said, you cannot play a queen or even her maid-in-waiting if your life depended on it. Linda, at least, had the excuse that her part was expendable but alas you don’t even have that solace. You let us down in crucial scenes and no, you aren’t eye-candy enough for us to overlook your acting deficiencies.
Some amateurish stunts notwithstanding, Padmapriya, the other female lead, does a commendable job as Neeli (the fiancee of Thalakkal Chandu).
The movie gets ‘filmy’ as it moves along.
Although the first half is saved from damage, the second is choc-a-bloc with cliches and ‘filmy’ moments.
The super-duper-mega star in Mammooty is fortunately restricted to raiding a camp on his own and fighting 20 guys alone at the end! Not that it’s done badly but you instantly get that these are for the fan-boys.
The final fight scene is an irony in the sense that for someone who has fought and mastered the art of Oliporu all his life, why the final stand in the wide-open?
The sum of these vexing kinks is what foils Pazhassi Raja from achieving the thrust to the pinnacle of greatness.
For what it’s worth, the movie appears to be a sincere effort on the part of the makers to entertain.
And like I said at the outset, it’s worth your time and money once.