When a director claims that there is only 30 per cent reliance on history in a period drama, taking an anticipatory bail on the plot of his movie, that must perhaps be a warning bell for a viewer. But with Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea winning the Best Feature Film at the 67th National Film Awards, and declaring itself worthwhile only of a theatre release, our hopes were definitely turned up. Add to the bonanza a stellar cast with stars from the South and North, an ensemble cast of seasoned actors, and a director in the likes of Priyadarshan, hopes were raised sky high.
So, does Marakkar deliver? If you love a visual treat in which the scenes present themselves as dreamscapes with larger-than-life action sequences involving pitch perfect action choreography, this movie is for you. If you are a movie connoisseur, a history buff, or someone who simply loves a good story, the movie is an abysmal failure. The film maker has turned a vexing issue of political intrigue which has caught the fancy of many a historian into a movie about a family feud and personal vendetta with a hero who struggles to convince you of his acrobatic abilities, or lack thereof.
The family is massacred by the Portuguese resident who is stationed at Kochi for intervening in a local dispute during Kunjali’s wedding eve. The rest of the story is about the journey of Kunjali who goes on to become a beloved pirate and later, the naval commander of the Zamorin owing to his prowess at the sea. As a one-liner, the storyline seems very interesting. If only the screenplay and script could do justice to it, if not to history.
The movie fiddles with the age old, worn out trope of star-crossed lovers from warring families falling in love and the love affair leading to confusions as the woman was betrothed to someone else. Haven’t we seen the same sequence in Baahubali and more recently in Annathe ( which apparently had Keerthi Suresh playing the same role)? Who cares, as long as we make the story about a Chinese warrior and a South Indian girl, maybe the audience won’t notice! Spreading a wafer thin script over a rich tapestry of medieval-looking war costumes mostly modelled after Baahubali and Hercules will not have the audience forget factual history, starting with the basic fact that South Indian kings never wore three layers of clothing under the tropical sun. Several travelers including Vasco Da Gama, Canter Visscher and others who authored medieval accounts mention with astonishment the simplicity of the royal attire of the Zamorins, the Rajas of Travancore and of Cochin.
What actually makes the feminist ear bleed is the constant insistence on women and land (mannum pennum in Malayalam) used in the movie as a reason for fighting against the Portuguese. In one instance, Kunjali Marakkar tries to incite people into fighting the Portuguese claiming that a defeat at the hands of the Portuguese would mean that their daughters would have to share the beds of Portuguese men and would give birth to blue eyed babies.
On another occasion, the land is equated to one’s mother and protecting it was to be understood as what makes men masculine. As seen in several other movies by the same director, there are several references to family honour, pure bloodlines and the most casteist ‘tharavaditham’ (belonging to a ‘good’ upper caste family), that make Marakkar a very problematic watch. The movie even has a screen card at the end which calls Kunjali Marakkar as India’s first freedom fighter, which cannot be more absurd as he was neither fighting for freedom or for India, but for the Kingdom of Calicut or the Zamorins at best.
The constant conflation of women and land together and the harping on pure, native bloodlines is a spoke in the wheel of patriarchy which feeds vulgar cultural nationalism. On the one hand, it objectifies women and on the other, it leads to the normalisation of a protectionist mentality towards them, both of which make it impossible for women to be considered as full-fledged citizens and capable individuals.
Marakkar also falls into the Orientalist trap of portraying the kings of South India as dependent and ‘effeminate’ rulers miring in riches and living a decadent life much like how they are depicted in colonial works through the colonial gaze. While some of the complexities of the court scenes are intriguing and factionalism among the Kolathiris, Naduvazhis and smaller svarupams are brought out, the scope for a more operatic, thrilling royal court drama is lost.
Even the superb acting by Harish Peradi and Nedumudi Venu could not hide the shortcomings of the barely there script and anachronistic dialogues. The North Kerala dialect which keeps slipping on and off only adds to the agony of a history loving movie watcher. The depiction of different communities –Hindu, Muslim and Christian are a far cry from how communities used to live particularly in terms of the material universe that they inhabited. Many of the sequences in the movie show a stark difference between Muslim homes and Hindu households, with the former showing a heavy Persian/Turkic influence and the latter being modelled after temple architecture.
In actuality, there was very little difference between the two in medieval times with even shrines of different communities resembling one another. An interesting anecdote that maybe cited in this context is Vasco Da Gama confusing a church for a temple (or vice versa) on his first visit to Kerala. Actors such as Suhasini, Manju Warrier and Keerthi Suresh are wasted in the movie and lack both screen time and presence with the exception of Keerthi Suresh meriting a song.
Marakkar has indeed set new limits for Mollywood in terms of VFX and animation, but it has lost out on what Malayalam cinema has been known for – good script and great story-telling. It is certainly hoped that in future re-tellings of history or myths, a little more of probing into the vivid multicultural pasts of India maybe a good starting point.