Earlier this year, Marakkar scooped up three National Awards, including the coveted National Award for Best Feature Film. The achievement serves as a painful reminder of how terribly wrong awards juries can sometimes be.
2021 has been wonderful for Malayalam cinema aka Mollywood. Culturally rooted and distinctive films, most of them shot on a small scale, visually stunning despite their often minuscule budgets, giving primacy to storylines over stars have continued to sustain the now-decade-old Malayalam New New Wave, and the national interest in this cinema that was gradually rising over the years has finally surged into a full-blown tsunami of pan-India attention. The likes of The Great Indian Kitchen, Joji, Drishyam 2, Nayattu, and Malik, the even more intimate Aarkkariyam, #Home, and Kaanekkaane have been watched on OTTs by audiences across India, embraced and/or debated with a fervour that India’s myopic exhibition sector long assumed was reserved for Hindi/Bollywood.
Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham (Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea) is the exact opposite of these films — it lionises its lead male star (Mohanlal) in a cliched manner, the story and storytelling feel generic and, barring an engaging patch or two, it is indistinguishable from other formulaic war dramas intermittently produced by commercial cinema across Indian languages.
Sadly, Marakkar is based on a fascinating historical character. Kunjali Marakkar was the 16th century Naval commander of the Samoothiri (the ruler of Kozhikode), he fought and defeated Portuguese imperialists, but was ultimately betrayed by forces in the kingdom who allied with the Europeans. The Samoothiri was Hindu and Kunjali was Muslim — this in itself makes their fluctuating relationship fertile ground for cinematic exploration in a contemporary India ridden with Hindu-Muslim tension. If nothing else, Kunjali’s life offers a perfect illustration of how political alliances were usually forged in pre-Independence India based on commercial interests and the self-preservation instincts of individual monarchs rather than what flag-waving nationalists now insist was love for Bharat Mata. To be fair to writer-director Priyadarshan, he does not play dirty with the Muslims in the film, as a steady trickle of films from another Indian film industry — Bollywood — have done in recent years. (It is ironic that Marakkar caused offence anyway, with a petition in the Kerala High Court last year alleging that it “offends the religious sentiments of Muslims by showing the great martyr in poor light. Kunjali Marakkar is portrayed as a romantic hero and ‘a dancer singing songs with women.'””)
Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham begins with a young Kunjali aka Mohammed Ali (played by Mohanlal’s actor son Pranav Mohanlal) whose carefree youth with his adoring mother (Suhasini) and romance with his romantic partner (Kalyani Priyadarshan, the director’s daughter) are cruelly curtailed in a bloody attack by the Portuguese. He spends years on the run as a misunderstood man and a wanted criminal before becoming a trusted lieutenant of the Samoothiri (Nedumudi Venu).
Jealousies, rivalries, patch-ups and betrayals follow.
Marakkar’s stereotypical nature is staring us in the face from the start but is epitomised by that shot in which Pranav as Kunjali leaps into the air and predictably metamorphoses at the other end of that moment into his Daddy Mohanlal.
Women in this film are written strictly as sidelights in the plot, existing solely to nurture men, love men and be loved by men. It is frustrating to see stars as major as Manju Warrier and Keerthy Suresh agree to play such uninteresting, microscopic roles in Marakkar.
The treatment of the women characters is, however, no match for the embarrassingly superficial writing of Kunjali’s Chinese loyalist, Chinali (Jay J Jakkrit).
Kunjali himself is depicted as a flawless human being. And the Portuguese — played by a bunch of bad actors — are caricatures. The atrocities committed by European imperialists in India are a matter of historical record, but as Shoojit Sircar showed us just this year in the Hindi film Sardar Udham, it is possible for an intelligent team to portray even a brute without being lazily shallow. (Whether intentional or unwitting, the impression created by this film that Christianity came to India with white imperialists is surprising since it plays along with harmful propaganda that is widespread in north India but not in Kerala. The haziness of this point in Marakkar is troubling because Christianity in India is as ancient as Christianity itself but most viewers outside southern India are not aware of this fact.)
The news media has widely reported that Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham is the most expensive Malayalam film ever made. Be that as it may, it has an unmistakable shot-in-studio look, a far cry from the spectacular cinematography of much smaller Malayalam productions that have imaginatively captured Kerala’s great natural beauty for decades now.
Despite a couple of clever war-time tricks, for the most part the battlefield scenes in Marakkar are unmemorable. A Baahubali hangover doth not a Baahubali make. That Telugu blockbuster may have been deeply politically problematic, but it certainly broke new ground on the SFX front in India. Marakkar does little to take that legacy forward.
No member of the star-studded cast rises above the ordinary writing of Marakkar, though Keerthy Suresh does offer us a glimpse of her immense charisma.
Meanwhile, Mohanlal, who aced the mischievous and mysterious Georgekutty in Drishyam 2 just this year, struggles with Kunjali Marakkar, failing to convincingly capture the legendary warrior’s physical prowess or convey his emotional turmoil.
Earlier this year, Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham scooped up three National Awards including the coveted National Award for Best Feature Film. The achievement serves as a painful reminder of how terribly wrong awards juries can sometimes be.
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