Kind of odd watching a movie which hits so many familiar beats, even in the same time period, but it is about Malayalis fighting the British instead of Americans. But then, that’s the point, the British are the British wherever they are, and there is only one particular form of warfare that is effective against them. Well, at least in the 1700s.
I just have to get this out of the way at the start, the white people are TERRIBLE! Not a moral judgement, an artistic one. Terrible terrible actors! TERRIBLE!!!! Also, terrible clothes, terrible hair, terrible sets, terrible EVERYTHING. And I know I have no right to complain, I know Hollywood movies have done much much worse by Indian culture. But I still have to acknowledge that it was itching under my skin the entire time and I had to spend excess energy ignoring it so I could focus on everything else that matters.
The non-white people are great though! Mammootty, of course. But the one that really stood out for me was Padmapriya. Who was also one of the few characters not based on a real and well-known historical figure. I am sure that freed her up and allowed her to create her own character a little more.
The other actors were equally good, but were harder for me to connect with because of the weight of history. That is, knowing absolutely nothing about this time and place as I did, there was a lot of stuff that was brushed past quickly because the assumption was that the audience could fill in the gaps. But I couldn’t fill in those gaps! I remained gaping for the whole film.
What did work very well were the broad themes. Because, like I said, the British are the British no matter where they are. Especially in the 1700s. They had their redcoats and their gunpowder and their forts and battle plans that worked great against Napoleon. But which were no good at all against guerrilla fighters in their own territory. The idea of a band of farmer-fighters taking to the woods and mountains, running and attacking and running again, well heck! That’s just the American revolution! Only in different mountains.
The other hidden part of this history is the French. Who were there too, not liking the British, and providing their own gunpowder and soldiers and so on. In the American revolution, the guerrilla fighters got us started and gave us our edge, but the massive support from all the people the British had gotten mad at them back in Europe really really helped. Casimer Pulaski, Lafayette, von Steuben, they all came aaaaaalllllllllll the way over from Europe, with lots and lots of money and lots and lots of training and helped us out. And that’s why we won, because we had both, the guerilla fighting and the training.
This movie skips that part, the part where the battle in India was related to battles back in Europe (just like battles back in Europe were sometimes related to battles in the colonies). Tipu Sultan is in the background right there at the beginning, and in the background of Tipu Sultan is the French who funded him. If Tipu, the French, and Pazhassi Raja had all gotten together, they could have thrown the British out. If the French and Pazhassi Raja had gotten together, maybe they could have done it. If Tipu and Pazhassi Raja had gotten together, maybe they could have done it. But Tipu and French could quite do it, not when the British allied with the other local states against them. And Pazhassi Raja couldn’t do it on his own, not without formal European warfare to support him.
(I will never pass up a chance to put in a picture of Tipu Sultans huge toy tiger that eats a British soldier)
The line I keep seeing on the internet about Pazhassi Raja is that he was one of India’s first freedom fighters. Which he was, certainly. But part of that is that he was in there right at the beginning, he was first because there wasn’t anything to fight before him. When the British weren’t “the British” yet, they were just “The Company”. And when it was just beginning to be apparent that “The Company” had a little more in mind than the kind of minor power plays and warfare that had been going on in the country since history began.
That’s the thing that is fascinating to me about the early eras of colonialism. In places that aren’t America (where smallpox changed everything. Well, and Columbus, that disgusting slave trader and torturer), they entered softly. Nations in Africa and India had long histories of territory disputes with their neighbors, ancient hatreds, trade agreements, all kinds of things. And then a couple dozen strange looking guys with ugly skin show up in a funky looking little boat and offer to help out in these territory disputes, ancient hatreds, trade agreements, etc. No reason not to use their help, you are in the position of power, you are the one who owns the country. It’s only slowly, over time, that these strange looking guys keep coming and coming and keep asking for more and more in return to their help until all of a sudden they turned around and were expecting you to offer them help because somehow it was now their country.
This movie is fascinating because it captures that exact moment of the turn. Our hero, Pazhassi Raja/Mammootty is a chieftain and guerrilla fighter who stood up to Tipu Sultan and allied with the British to defeat him. Which was good! I mean, I don’t have any issues with Tipu Sultan myself, but he was invading territory that traditionally belonged to the Malayali rulers, and they were defending their territory however they could.
But the question is, what do you do when Tipu Sultan is defeated? Who is the first person who is going to stand up and say “what a minute, why are these ugly pale-skinned guys still here? We don’t need them any more!” And what is the first thing that these ugly pale-skinned guys are going to do which draws the line that they have now moved from working “for” you to working “with” you to you working for them.
(This guy. This guy will stand up to them)
Okay, here’s where we are now way way outside of American history. America is totally different from other colonies. Because of smallpox. Most of the native inhabitants of the Americas died before we even got to the interiors. Which mean the “colonizers” weren’t just wealthy merchants and soldiers, they were farmers and peasants and desperately poor people who were looking for a chance to start a new life forever in a new country. And then there was this strange thing where suddenly we all started to feel more like “Americans” instead of British or Dutch or French or whatever else we started out as. And the British started to treat us that way too, as somehow no longer “them”. And that’s where it comes back around to what is happening in Kerala in this movie. When we went to war with the British, we didn’t fight like the “British”. We fought like farmers and hunters and people defending land where they had grown up and knew every inch of it. And people who had nowhere else to go if this didn’t work, didn’t want to go anywhere else. And that’s how you win, if they are fighting because they are trained to fight, and you are fighting for your life.
Well, that and von Steuben drilling you until you drop, Lafayette throwing in money, and Casimer Pulaski being all kinds of handsome and inspiring. It’s not very noble or heroic, but sometimes you just need to ask for help. Or maybe you just have to be lucky.
(Casimir was very handsome. Von Steuben, not so much.)
And by the way, that’s how I know this is a good movie. Because it has to be a good movie if it makes me sit here for two hours thinking about how lucky I am to be in a country that successfully threw the British out in 1783 (and again in 1812) and why that happened (and why we could never beat the Canadians, but that’s another story).
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Like I said, we open kind of in the middle of things. Or, more accurately, in the interval of things. Tipu Sultan is almost defeated and the British are talking with the local lords about what life post-Tipu is going to look like. Only right away it comes up that not all the local lords just relied on the British to defeat Tipu, there was one lord, Mammootty, who fought for his own territory.
And thus, the British eyes turn to Mammootty and how to weaken him. Enter Thilakan! Obviously, you want to undermine a young hero, you always look to Thilakan. He is Mammootty’s uncle, who the British give rights to collect taxes on their behalf from Mammootty’s territory. Which quickly means giving the British the right to burst into Mammootty’s ancestral house, raid his treasures, and terrify his women.
And it just goes down from there. Very very slowly. Mammootty gathers together farmers and allies, trains the common people in warfare, and puts pressure on the British. Until they manage to get a new treaty, one that favors Mammootty and his people and forgives their actions. And then there is a brief period of peace. But an unsteady peace, both sides know it won’t last. And are prepared when it ends. And then Mammootty loses. I mean, spoilers, right? The British did NOT in fact lose and leave India in 1806.
But, as in all Malayalam films, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. And along the way we meet Padmapriya, the farmer female freedom fighter who fights alongside her fiance (F F F F F F!). We get to see Mammootty not just as the brave perfect fighter, but as the sad man who dreamed of having a son and daughter and eventually let that dream go, with no blame for his wife. Even the British get shades. Okay, no the don’t, but they are supposed to! It’s the acting that lets them down. Our upperclass British lady who is supposed to show the horror of the general British public at the inhumanity of those who are enforcing their rule is a TERRIBLE actress! OH MY GOSH!!! And, she is from Dallas, which is just about as far as you can get from a British accent. And the clothes and the piano in a tent, and everything else just kind of ruins it. But the thought was interesting.
(Just like Urumi, this is not the usual take on the arrival of the Europeans, and it does not have a happy ending)
And we get to see all the varied reasons that Mammootty’s followers choose to follow him, or ally with him. Ranging from lifelong respect, to respect for his leadership, to gratitude for his support in previous conflicts. All kinds of things, it’s not as simple as “well, he is their chieftain”.
And, while this is a little petty, all the costumes and sets and everything else which is terrible for the white people, is GREAT for the Malayalis. Simple believable white cloth outfits, gorgeous gold jewelry, but nothing that you can’t believe for people who are running and hiding. Same for the locations, simple huts and tents in the forest. Even the weapons, homemade bows and arrows. It’s a combination of gorgeous and historical accurate that just warms my little history major heart. I mean, this isn’t my area, I could be completely wrong, but it feels accurate.
The fight scenes are also great, so long as they come at it from the Malayali perspective instead of the British. There are two big attack scenes, one of the British attacking Mammootty’s house, and the other of Mammootty’s troops attacking a British fort. And the second is much much better than the first. The use of the weapons, the strategies, the sense for who is who and what their skills are, it’s all so much better when it is the Malayalis are the focus instead of the British with their poorly fitting uniforms and clunky guns.
And I guess that’s the most important part, that this movie exists and puts the focus on the Indian side in these battles. I’ve seen Gunga Din, I’ve read Kipling, so it’s good for me to see the other side. And it’s good that this film provides us with that other side, not the Gandhi part of it, but the earlier part.