For film director Vinayan, who hails from Ambalapuzha, rennaissance hero Arattpuzha Velayudha Panicker was a familiar name. He had heard about the 19th century warrior’s valour, scholarship and relentless fight against caste-based discrimination and oppression that prevailed then in Travancore. “Arratupuzha is not too far from my place and, in my childhood, I had listened to many stories about Panicker. Nevertheless, when I wanted to make a film on him, there was not enough material,” says Vinayan, talking about his hit Pathonpatham Noottandu, still running in theatres.
Surprised at the paucity of information about Panicker, Vinayan plunged into gathering information about the multifaceted man who began his own Kathakali troupe and built a temple for all to worship. “Velayudha Chekavar, an Ezhava, was a wealthy exporter, landlord, scholar and warrior. He did not stand to gain anything by agitating against caste-based discrimination that was rampant in erstwhile Travancore, but he protested to help people gain dignity. Therein lies his greatness. But for some reason, his life has not been celebrated enough in literature or cinema,” says Vinayan.
During the pandemic-induced lockdown, Vinayan had time to read, speak to historians and elders and began putting his thoughts on paper. He decided against a biopic and came up with a narrative that centres on the social evils that existed then, which had prompted Panicker to take on the upper classes. “That is the reason, I titled the film Pathonpatham Noottandu (Nineteenth Century) and not Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker. It is about a period of time in Kerala,” says Vinayan.
His first period film in his long career, Vinayan’s work is a fictionalised version of the major milestones in Panicker’s life. “He had started his own Kathakali troupe so that even the so-called lower classes could watch the classical theatre, which used to be performed in temples and in the homes of the wealthy. Moreover, before Sree Narayana Guru established the first temple in 1888, Panicker is believed to have built a temple at Arattupuzha in 1852. The ‘Panicker’ title was bestowed on him by the monarch of Travancore,” explains Vinayan.
He point out that much more than warrior heroes like Palat Koman or Thacholi Othenan, here was a hero who deserved to be popularised for his stalwart work. “In addition, Panicker’s life is well-documented and not mired in the mists of time. He was born in 1825 and assassinated in 1874 by goons of the upper castes he had challenged,” says Vinayan.
The director was keen that the new generation learn about this man and his work. “Today, when we walk tall down a road in Kerala, we should know that there was a time when many could not even use certain roads, or had to maintain a certain distance from the upper castes. I want youngsters to know that the freedom we enjoy is hard won and precious.”
The maverick director, however, found it difficult to find a hero. Prithviraj, whom he had approached, had no dates for a year. Vinayan could not wait till then. That was when he came across Siju Wilson’s name.
The actor met Vinayan and after reading the script, Siju became inspired. He requested the director for six months to build his body to play the Kalaripayattu exponent that Panicker was. “We had time on our side and so I agreed. Three months later, Siju came to meet me. He had worked hard and it showed. I knew I had found Panicker,” says Vinayan. Although the actor had an Aluva slang, the director and Siju worked to together during the dubbing to get the dialect right.
As the film, produced by Gokulam Gopalan, garners more bouquets than brickbats, Vinayan has moved on. He is planning an action film with Siju.
“My dream project, however, is to make a film on a large scale on Bhima, the strongest of the Pandava brothers. I had written a script for a play during my college days. I plan to do my research and polish that into a script. I have always believed that Bhima never received his due in the Mahabharatha. He killed the mighty Kaurava brothers in close combat, with the mace and his wrestling skills. At the same time, he was loving and caring as we know through many instances.”