Sunday, 15 November 2009

A two-decade old dream

Now when many buffs speak with awe about Pazhassi Raja, the director of the multilingual biopic comes up with a wry smile and says that his recently rel­eased work, in a way, und­er­went a gestation period of not less than two decades. A pretty long delay, one might think — but T Hariharan has no regrets. True, the mega venture is a period film, yet its maker believes he has now made it look all the more topical. “I believe Pazhasi Raja has come at the right time,” he says about the film that features the life of a Malabar king who led a guerilla warfare against the imperial British in the late 18th century. “It’s a warning to my compatriots that if we don’t stand united, chances are that another East India Company will conquer us.”

Some 20 years ago, Hariharan, who ente­red the industry way further back in 1965, had toyed with plans of shooting a film on a freedom fighter-king. Around that time, cele­brated litterateur-scriptwriter M T Vasu­devan Nair conjured up a brilliantly tweaked version of a northern Kerala folklore, and Hariharan was simply tempted to finish it first.

The 1989 blockbuster, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, went on to grab many awards — at the national level as well. Hariharan continued making films — some of them won critical acclaim and laurels too. But the key to a watershed of sorts happ­ened in 2006, when Hariharan and MT — as Vasudevan Nair is known — narrated the Wayanad jungle tales of Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja to a prospective producer who had approached the duo with the intention of producing a movie based on a popular legend. Once the story was narrated to them, stifling silence descended on the room. Then, with a broad smile Gok­ulam Gopalan said, “I am more than willing to produce this film.” His Sree Gokulam Movies got into action, and the work soon started. Rest, as they say, is history.

History textbooks, by the way, have it that, upcountry, Mangal Pandey’s refusal to bite the greased cartridge sparked the Revolt of 1857, and it was the first protest for freedom from the British. “But,” as Hariharan points out, “William Logan’s Malabar Manual has a date-wise record of the meetings and enco­unters with Pazhassi more than 50 years prior to the Sepoy Mutiny.”

When it released last month, Pazhassi Raja broke many existing records, including the tag of the costliest-ever Malayalam movie. For an industry that has an average superstar-cast film’s budget pegged around Rs 4 crore, this was way above at an estimated cost of Rs 28 crore. Hariharan believes — and not many disagree — that the money spent reflects in the film that stars Mammootty and Sarath Kumar. “In fact, the film is a document for future references, considering there are many misconceptions about Pazhassi Raja. MT always lamented the absence of good record of the king, and said it had to be done. There are tales that he died choking on a ring. The movie has set the record straight.”

Hariharan agrees that he did incorporate certain cinematic considerations, but adds in the same breath that they “don’t disturb or distort facts”. One record says Pazhassi was killed while fighting, and his body was later spotted by the British troops among the dead. The film has refashioned this legend for visual grandeur.

Pazhassi Raja, in which the characters speak in Malayalam, English and Tamil, is to be dubbed into Hindi, where Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan lends the introductory voiceover. “Shah Rukh was bowled over after seeing a portion of the film,” Hariharan

recalls. “He got emotional, saying that the film struck a chord with him as his father was also a freedom fighter.” (The Malayalam voiceover is by Mohanlal, while Kamal Haasan does it in Tamil.)

Drilling into the technical aspects of the film, Hariharan says the craft of a film depends on its subject. “For a period film, originality is very important. You should get the angles correct, yet ensure that the viewers don’t feel the presence of the camera (Ramanath Shetty is the cinematographer) or be distracted by the editing (Seekar Prasad).” The authenticity of the sounds also matters. Academy Award winner Resul Pookutty “has taken great care to capture minute details”. The renowned Ilayaraja has lent the music.

For all the different faces in the crew, Pazhassi Raja can bring in a sense of déjà vu for people who have watched Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. That’s largely owing to the period-film commonality and the coming together of Hariharan, MT and Mammootty. “While I had to contemplate about the rest of the cast, Mammootty was my only choice for Pazha­ssi,” says Hariharan.

The possible similarities one might notice in certain aspects apart, the director professes that donning the role of Pazhassi

required a completely different set of skills from that of essaying the protagonist Chandu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. “Pazhassi was a challenging role; it wasn’t dialogue-orien­ted. You needed to emote a lot — and Mamm­ootty has done it brilliantly,” he says, amazed that the actor’s physique hasn’t changed much from the 1989 film.

Having collaborated with MT on a dozen-odd films, Hariharan notes that the synergy emerges from the depth of their understanding. “A director-writer liaison is very important for good cinema — they are the two people who should ideally control a film.”

Hariharan made six films from 1989 to 2005 — the year he made his last film. But the

return of the ‘trio’ has prompted Malayalam cine freaks to believe that Pazhassi Raja is his comeback of sorts. In the intervening two decades, Hariharan has only matured further and refined his craft. It might not be coincidence, thus, that the tagline for the film is: ‘It’s time to remember’.

“While I had to contemplate about the rest of the cast, Mammootty was my only choice for Pazhassi,” says

Hariharan. The similarities one might notice in certain aspects apart, the director professes that donning the role of Pazhassi required a completely different set of skills from that of essaying the protagonist Chandu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989).

“Pazhassi was a challenging role; it wasn’t a dialogue-oriented film. You needed to emote a lot — and Mammootty has done it brilliantly.