Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pazhassi Raja review

*Contains spoiler, which is actually cliché of these kinda films, so I warned you*

Somewhere in the middle of the big budget Mallu film called Pazhassi Raja, the name of the leader of the freedom fighters out to oust the East India Company, was the scene all the purveyors of this kind of films waiting for. Speech time. Scriptwriters and the lead actors die for this kind of scene that will elevate them into god-like status within the films context, therefore making us, viewers, to follow them, laugh with them, cry with them, and die with them as these kind of martyrs usually do on screen.

Sitting erect on the horse, looking at his thousands of soldiers, Pazhassi Raja, played by Malayalam superstar, Mammootty, must have said about three short sentences with the urgency of a man who’s missing his breakfast. That’s it.

Anything lost during the speech time was made up with visual spectacle in this motion pitcure that attempts to reach for the sky, though it made halfway through Mount Kilimanjaro. It has ambition, but limited mechanism. It had voice, but was trifle muffled. It had vision, but as Paul Newman says in Butch Cassidy, “boy I have vision; the rest of the world wears bifocals”. In this case, thinner lens.

Yes, there is something amiss about this big budgeted Malayalam venture. No rallying cry that almost invites viewers participation? The clunky battle sequences with overzealous wire-pullers? Or the sequence itself that seemed to be inspired from the Ewoks episode of Star Wars?Could it be the rude interruption of intimate scenes between the hero and the heroines accompanied by Ilayaraja’s song that seemed to be dug up from the 90s? Or overall cut & paste feel of the background score that does nothing much to elevate important scenes? I can’t quite place it.

But there are still plenty of reasons to like the film. The cinematography, for instance. Shot mostly in the forest, and occasionally on sets, almost every frame looks like framed photographs. There was one particular shot of a horse coming out of the river that was simply riveting. In the Tamizh version that I watched, the opening had Kamal Haasan lending a voice over, his voice crackling with emotion reading some historical text, which I felt was unnecessary considering the Indian cinema is usually generous with expositions.

One thing that will be remembered is the performances of the Indian actors. While the ones playing English were less than amateurs, it looked like whatever they saved from paying the whites, were used to pay top notch stars from South India. Mamooty, who has the right commanding presence, and lends nobility and dignitiy, and not to mention, intelligence to his role, where, unlike other freedom fighter heroes you have watched (Veerapandiya Kattabomman [VPK], remember?), Pazhassi is more of a master strategist and trainer, than a warrior himself. The surprise was Tamizh actor, Sarath Kumar, who was very, very effective as Pazhassi’s commander-in-chief, looked great in the warrior get-up and was never the usual wooden self. In fact, my wife kept saying that Sarath should have played Pazhassi in the Tamil version again and again until I threatened a gag order.

One thing for sure, the film didn’t feel long. The script moved on, tracking all the main characters and their activities and finally leading to a clichéd finale where the hero goes by himself and get slain; we see that from the time of VPK to Hollywood’s Gladiator. True, it may be based on history, but they could have stopped the film somewhere rather than showing the heroic death. In VPK, the death of the lead was unbearable, no thanks to just concluded fiery speech by the doomed king. In Pazhassi Raja, you were just waiting for that to happen, especially considering there were no fiery speeches anywhere.

Pazhassi Raja is watchable thanks to the lead actors and wonderful cinematography. Other than that, it’s up to you…