Priyadarsan says Mohanlal-starrer Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham , releasing in theatres on December 2, is his best in his career. In addition to Malayalam, it will be released in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi.
The epic saga had evoked waves of excitement right from the time it was announced in 2017. Exploits of Kunjali Marakkar IV, a naval warrior and adventurer, had fired the director’s imagination since he read about him in school. Completely contrasting accounts of Kunjali puzzled him.
“Revered by Arab traders and reviled by Portuguese sailors, Kunjali was a swashbuckling sailor and warrior who lived and died for his land. I came across an African proverb that says ‘Until the Lion learns to write, the story would always favour the hunter’. That explains why the Arabs put him on a pedestal while the Portuguese branded him a pirate.”
Kunjali’s loyalty was with the Zamorins, the rulers of erstwhile Malabar, who appointed him as Marakkar, the admiral of the fleet.
Perhaps the most successful mainstream director from Malayalam cinema, Priyadarsan has proved himself in several genres and languages. From rib-tickling comedies to thrillers, period sagas and action films, he has spun gold at the box office. Occasional duds in between did not affect his standing at the box office.
Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham is the most expensive Malayalam film ever made; its budget is reportedly over ₹100 crores. The film is dedicated to the glory of the Indian navy.
Scripted by Priyadarsan with screenplay by the director and Ani Sasi, the period film is set in the 16th century when the monopoly of the traditional Arab traders was challenged by the Portuguese ships that arrived in Kerala in 1498.
Not many reliable accounts of Kunjali Marakkar I exist; stories about where he hailed from are not clear. Some stories claim he was an Egyptian who entered the service of the Zamorin while some claim he was an Arab who settled on the Malabar coast. Even facts about Kunjali Marakkar II, III and IV are shrouded in mystery.
Taking cinematic liberty
“Conflicting stories abound about the Marakkars. Nevertheless, the characters in my film are all historical figures. They may not all have been contemporaries. Those are cinematic liberties I have taken.”
There are no paintings of the Marakkars or how Kunjali Marakkar IV became such a feared naval warrior and who trained him. “Was it a hereditary post? We are not sure. So, my script is a mix of facts, fiction and folklore,” he says.
Since there are hardly any pictorial references regarding the costume and ornaments of the warriors and the people, the costume designers of the movie, who won a National film award for their work, had to depend on their imagination and some references from books and paintings.
Mohanlal and Priyadarsan had discussed making a film on Kunjali Marakkar in 1996 but the challenges they faced during the making of Kaalapani persuaded them to postpone the idea. The director remembers how difficult it was to shoot with one ship in Kaalapani and here was a film that was going to be set in the troubled waters of the Arabian sea at the turn of the 16th century.
However, sweeping advances in VFX and producers willing to bankroll the grandiose project motivated Priyadarsan to revisit the idea of a film on the legendary warrior.
The film, made under the banners of Aashirvad Cinemas with Moonshot Entertainments and Confident Group as co-producers, got rolling by the end of 2018.
With Mohanlal in the titular role of Kunjali Marakkar IV, the stellar cast includes Nedumudi Venu, Prabhu, Suresh Kumar, Arjun Sarja, Suniel Shetty, Manju Warrier, Keerthy Suresh, Siddique, Mukesh and Pranav Mohanlal. He says the film was written with Mohanlal in the lead as he felt that the character required an actor with an image to fit the larger-than-life stature of Kunjali. Kunjali’s younger version is essayed by Pranav Mohanlal.
But for a few shots of the Arabian sea at Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram, the entire film was shot in Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad.
Art and VFX
Completed in 102 days, Priyadarsan asserts that the film could not have been be made without the help of his trusted art director Sabu Cyril with whom he has worked with in several films. “A one-acre water body filled with one-and-a-half lakh litres of water was created in Ramoji City. We built four ships that have never been to the ocean. Director of photography Thirunavukarasu’s camera has never seen the sea during the shooting; all the action on the high seas, the storms, the thundering waves were created with the help of VFX,” explains Priyadarsan.
The film might be releasing only now but it has already won three National Film Awards: for best feature film, for costume and for VFX. The award for his son Siddarth Priyadarsan for VFX lends credibility to the director’s confidence that the film’s VFX effects have no parallels in India. It is for the first time that a father-son duo was winning the National Film Awards.
Music by Rahul Raj has been making waves even before the release of the film.
“Marakkar was a patriot whose loyalty to his land came above barriers of caste and religion. That is my message in my film. If Kunjali Marakkar could do it so many years ago, why do we find it so difficult to put our country ahead of caste, religion and region?”
Priyadarsan emphasises that filmmakers are beyond religion and politics. “I am a filmmaker and it’s my livelihood. There is no politics or religion in cinema. That’s the way it should be.”
While Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham readies to reach cinema, Priyadarsan is busy directing a feature film in Tamil with Urvashi in the lead. “I enjoyed reading the script of Appatha, a small film about a woman and her dog. It is Urvashi’s 700th movie. Twenty-eight years after Mithunam , I am working with her. Madhu Ambat is the cinematographer.”