After seeing the news article yesterday about this movie maybe being re-released with Hindi dubbing, I got curious and tracked down a sort-of legal online source so I could stream it. And I am kind of stunned that it hasn’t been dubbed already, and that I’d never heard about it before.
First: I have finally learned the name for the thing that I always think of as a “fwippy sword”. The thing Shahrukh used in Asoka and Ranveer had in Bajirao Mastani, is apparently called a “Urumi”. After watching an entire movie about it, with the name of the sword in the title, every other song, and every third line of dialogue, I think this has finally penetrated my brain. I am really really bad at languages. It took me a year of Hindi films before I learned “Prem”. And that includes watching Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Meine Pyar Kiya dozens of times.
Beyond the vocabulary lesson, there was all sorts of other stuff I learned from this film! History, of course. It opens with a really cool way of getting the audience to learn the basics. A voice over tells us the myth for how Kerala was founded, and then goes on to say “But if you google it, you will learn that the discovery of Kerala was Vasco de Gama”. And while the voice over is saying that, you see a computer screen with someone typing “Vasco de Gama” in the search box. And then a youtube video loading, and then we zoom in on the youtube box until it fills the whole screen and see a re-enactment of Vasco de Gama’s arrival, meeting with the natives, etc. And then the voice over continues, “But today, people don’t care about this history” and we see a new youtube video load, and it is Prithvi and Prabhudeva dancing and singing in a bar. We go into that video, and from there the movie proper starts. It’s really really clever!
And it also sets up a question from the beginning of what is real and what is in the character’s heads. The actors we see in that youtube video are the same ones we will see later in flashback. And our modern day actors play similar characters in the flashback as well. But, is this because we are in the head of our hero as he is hearing this story and he keeps imagining those he knows as characters in the story and the actors he saw in a youtube video as the other characters? Or is it because the present day people are re-incarnations of those in the past? It is the same balance that Rang De Basanti teeters on. And just like in Rang De, the solution is that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The point is that our present is connected to our past, whether it is through reincarnation or inspiration.
It is particularly interesting how they make that connection in this. It’s not in the obvious way. The past is against Portuguese invaders who were fought off with swords and responded with guns, and it was all very violent and exciting, today it is about rejecting multi-national corporations and maintaining an agricultural society. But, there are still some really interesting points it makes about colonialism today and in the past.
There is the importance of “paper”, and how the colonizers convinced the locals that contracts and signatures would be honored. In the past, we go from the super violent early arrival of the Portuguese to twenty years later when everyone has been trained to ignore their actual actions and think about “trading rights” and contracts and pieces of paper, as though that is what really matters. And at the end of the film, when the weak prince trumpets his success in getting the “trade contract” that his father has desired for years, it is shown to be ultimately pointless. The de Gama’s simply kill him and take the piece of paper away from him. It is truly just a piece of paper, any protection or power it provides is an illusion.
This is a fairly sophisticated statement about colonial power and how it functioned. It is hard to understand how pointless these pieces of paper were, because of course we are reading books written by the colonial powers, heck, we are reading books which are themselves pieces of paper! It is a lot easier to write about this treaty or that treaty, the national borders defined by this map, the official declaration of war made because of this particular breach of promise, than to accept that all of these treaties and maps and war declarations were just distractions from the simple real goals of land, people, and goods that the colonizers would take by any means necessary and then write down justifications for it later. And the real danger is that those who are colonized learned to accept these justifications as well, to focus on the trade agreements and treaties and contracts rather than on the actual men who were moving into their land and destroying it.
And in the present day, with the new forms of colonization, we still only see the papers. The film opens with a multi-national corporation wanting mining rights for land in Kerala. Our protagonist is just asked to sign a piece of paper, to have it witnessed by neutral parties, everything is very simple and clear and safe. He can sign the contract and walk away and never actually see the people being dispossessed, the land torn up, and so on. It is all disconnected form him. But the story he is told from the past reveals that these papers can be smokescreens for rampant greed and destruction, that those who want to take over make you look at the paper so you don’t see the reality.
The other fairly sophisticated statement about both the past and the present is that it isn’t as simple as global forces invading and destroying Kerala. It is about them teaching Kerala to destroy itself. The same actor who plays the king’s adviser in the past who has been corrupted into desiring European style power and goods, plays an MP in the present who is hand in glove with global corporations. The same actress who is the princess of a kingdom with an alliance with the Portuguese plays a local executive of a global company in the present day.
(Princess. And Prabhudeva)
Most fascinating, for me, was how Amol Gupte’s king character was treated. He is not a good man in many ways, but good in others, and these contradictions are allowed to exist together, as contradictions within Kerala society at the time. He allowed himself to be lead and controlled by his corrupted chief minister. But he also tried to keep his kingdom fairly clear of European influences. And he planned to make his daughter ruler after him, and sincerely loved her. He was ready to destroy the Portuguese when he had the chance. But he also wanted a trade agreement with them. He went to war with a neighboring kingdom, apparently over religious differences, which is not a very good reason, and he triumphed in their defeat.
But what really bothered me is, he had the women of the defeated royal family brought to him after their kingdom was taken, and offered them up for rape by either himself, his son, or his closest advisers. Our heroine (a warrior-princess of the other kingdom) tried to prevent this, but failed, and her pre-pubescent sister was brutally raped by the king’s son, with the king’s permission and approval (it was previously referenced that apparently the son is unable to perform sexually with full grown women, so they offer him young girls). The film as a whole seems to generally condemn this behavior (our hero and his friend refuse to participate in it and later help the women escape), but also acknowledges that it was common and accepted during the time period for women to be considered part of war trophies, and for rape to be part of the celebrations.
This is all occurring with the background of increasing colonial aggression and violence. Certainly, one could argue that the Portuguese exacerbated the tensions between kingdoms and religious factions, and that they tried to put weaker and more venal rulers on the throne. We see that in this film, when they attempt to put the pedophile prince on the throne rather than his stronger sister or father. But, even if the colonial powers are encouraging these weaknesses to grow, it still means that they are already present to some degree in the original society. This was not a pure and perfect India in the past, it was an India where the impure elements were controlled and rejected by the greater society, but still present. And that same appeal to the worst parts of the Indian society is what must be guarded against in the present day. It is not simply a matter of rejecting outside influences, it is a matter of repressing within yourself the baser urges. Like our hero being tempted by money and greed to sign away his heritage, but eventually rejecting the temptation.
Those are the big themes in the script, but what fascinated me beyond the script, were the big themes in the casting. This is the most all-India movie I’ve ever seen! Our hero, Prithvi, is mostly known for his Malayalam work. But his best friend is played by Prabhudeva, who is known through out the country but mostly from the Tamil industry. Genelia D’Souza, our heroine, is from the Telugu industry mostly although she has also had some success in Hindi films. Nithya Menon, the other heroine, is known through out the Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil industries. Amol Gupte is a Hindi director and screenwriter as well as an actor, and this is his only film outside of Bombay. And there is an extended cameo from Vidya Balan, who’s first movie was from the Bengali industry but otherwise has been all Hindi. It’s not just that they cast stars from multiple industries, it’s that they picked stars who are known beyond their primary industry. Well, except for Amol Gupte. But Prithviraj, Prabhudeva, Genelia, and Nithya Menon have all spent their careers moving back and forth between Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and sometimes Hindi.
I know this kind of shifting between industries is more common in the regional industries, but it’s kind of remarkable that all 4 of the main leads are known from different industries. And well known! This wasn’t a matter of casting the person who happened to be available, this was getting big names from all over the south, big enough that they are known nationally.
Oh, and also, they all did a great job. I should make sure to mention that. I was disappointed that Prabhudeva didn’t have a really big dance scene, but he used his physicality really well in fight scenes, and even in the way he moved through sets during straight dialogue scenes. Genelia was fierce and determined, without being depressed or hopeless. Vidya did a great job being the mysterious wise figure. Almost a preview of her Kahaani character (which was filming around the same time), the woman who has a touch of the Goddess in her. Amol Gupte was magnificent, playing a character you hated and then loved and then loved to hate (really similar to his performance in Kaminey, which is where I knew him from before, but slightly more sincere instead of calculating). Prithvi was a good solid grounding for the film, although he got stuck with the “perfect virtuous hero” role, which is always the most boring.
(Love the flowers in her hair)
The directing was solid as well. I think, even if I hadn’t known in advance, I would have been able to figure out that it was the same director as Asoka. It had the same strengths and weaknesses. The battle scenes were a little less epic, a little more about one on one battles than a full sense of armies moving against each other. Which actually isn’t a weakness, it is just a different way of filming a battle scene. The interpersonal relationships were handled very well, better than they usually are in epics. And there was a lot of getting into or coming out of water sources. There were also a couple of really striking images, a moment when the hero and heroine are on opposite sides of a waterfall, and an homage to the death of Durjan Singh from Mughal-E-Azam.
The only real weakness, is that the story as a whole felt a little shaggy. I didn’t get a strong sense of events driving forward inevitably, more sort of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. Which doesn’t make the film less fun to watch, it just makes it a little harder to remember the exact order of things later.
But my big take away from the directing is how magnificently this multi-cultural cast was handled. And how confident he must have been in its all-Indian appeal to put such a cast together. Apparently at the time of release, it was dubbed into Tamil and Telugu as well. And I am sure having such a regionally known cast helped with that. But they also inserted Vidya Balan and Amol Gupte, who are not regional at all, they are national. Which makes me think this film was always planned to be a national, not a regional, crossover. I actually can’t think of a film I have seen that was so aggressively national in its casting.
Which makes me look back at the message again. The idea of outsiders coming in and seeking to divide us is rejected even within the framework of the making of this film, in which members of every major film industry within India work together to provide an anti-globalization message.