Thursday, December 2, 2010

Royal slips

Three years ago, an award-winning director stepped into their house atop a hill in Pazhassi in North Kerala’s Kannur district. It wasn’t a surprise; for the past 70 years, they have had visitors—scholars, historians, researchers—who came knocking for the story of their granduncle, the legendary Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma. It was all the attention they got; mainland Kerala otherwise hardly knew of them. They led a mute life sans the aristocracy of the times when the freedom fighter ruffled many a feather on the British crown.

When Hariharan, the director, came to Syamakrishna Vihar asking Shankara Varma, the present head of the family, for details on Pazhassi Raja, the local media went to town with it. The Pazhassi family is centuries old, and is an offshoot of the Kottayam Kovilakam, the royal clan of a hamlet in Kannur. Varma, a renowned Carnatic musician and disciple of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, was one who performed the rites for Pazhassi Raja, when an astrological enquiry showed ‘his soul is yet to be liberated from wordly ties and attain moksha’. Hariharan’s visit coincided with Pazhassi Raja’s slow patronisation by cultural outfits in Kerala, a la Shivaji in Maharashtra. Many expected a big flick and the news that one was to be made didn’t come as a surprise.

Thus, even before the movie hit theatres, it had made headlines. It flaunted a glittery star cast, whizkids like Illayaraja and Oscar-awardee Rasul Pookutty behind the scenes and trends that Malayalam cinema has only longed for. It had its share of controversies, too, with the truck carrying horses for the shoot meeting with an accident and the movie’s maker going on a short court stint. The Pazhassi family’s accusation is right on time; the movie could help itself with a bit of controversy to buoy its fortunes. Hariharan, however, feels he and the movie would do a lot better without such controversies. “I am not interested in them (the controversies). I referred eight or nine books before getting into this project. So I do not think the movie is full blunder,” the director says.

Varma’s discontent with the movie does not just lie with the structure of the plot. He also feels the film has less of Kannur, Wayanad and Pazhassi in it, the places which were part of parcel of Pazhassi Raja’s valour. Also, places like Ezhimala, where war strategies were laid out against the British, and Pazhassi Madam temple, the warrior’s family shrine to which he was attached, do not appear in the movie at all. “The climax, too, doesn’t go with history,” Varma says. Pazhassi Raja dies after being shot at in the movie, when the way he died is still a mystery. The movie is also significantly oblivious of the road constructed through the middle of Pazhassi palace by the British after his death.

Historically, too, there are discrepancies, says Varma. “There is even a scene in the movie where Pazhassi Raja enjoys a Krishnattam performance,” he notes. Krishnattam can be performed only in Guruvayur temple or in the Zamorin’s palace. The movie crew incurred huge losses to shoot the scene. It was postponed thrice and locations shifted for each time. “If I had known about the scene, I’d have told them and so all these things may not happen.” Varma thinks such mishaps took place as the art form was taken out of its home premises.

Shankara Varma recollects narrating to Hariharan, the story he has literally grown up with for all of his 90 years. But the director was not very keen about the detailing; he, afterall, just wanted a movie with all the spices of a commercial hit. “May be the original didn’t have the flavour for a popular movie,” says Varma. The award-winning director left the story there, and promised to be back soon. The Pazhassi household still awaits his return.

(This article came in THE HINDU. Check out: