Contemporary Critical Theory
16 February 2014
An Analysis of the Malayalam Movie Urumi
Urumi is a 2011 historical-fantasy film directed and co-produced by Santosh Sivan and written by Shankar Ramakrishnan. The film is set in the backdrop of the warrior clans of Northern Kerala in the sixteenth century and focuses on the cult of Chirakkal Kelu Nayanar, a man with a mission. His mission is to kill Vasco da Gama and claim vengeance for the brutal killing of his father and hundreds of other natives by the same. The film received international attention with the screening of its trailer at the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum. The reason I chose this movie for a literary analysis is because it tells the tale of a history long forgotten in the pages of a soiled book. It also makes us think of an alternate history that might have been, had Kelu succeeded in killing Vasco da Gama. Also, unlike the recorded history, this movie attempts to tell the tale not from the victors but the victims point of you and this makes the movie a lot more interesting. For the purpose of this assignment, I shall attempt at showing how this movie can be considered to be written in the style of an epic. Though largely looked at as a post-colonial study, I shall also aim at an archetypal reading of the film.
The film is spread between the second and third visit of Gama to India and chronicles a varied version of how he could have met with his death in AD 1524. It also captures the seamless conflicts between the kinsmen and a warring Muslim warrior princess Ayesha of the famed Arackal Sultanat. The character of Ayesha is said to be a strong portrayal of feminist virtues because of her strong will power to fight and literally get down on the battlefield to protest for all the wrongdoing’s done to her. The name of the movie has been taken from Kelu’s legendary golden Urumi, a long sword with a whip-like blade. The urumi is considered to be one of the most difficult weapons to master due to the risk of injuring oneself. The urumi is handled like a flail arm but requires less strength since the blade combined with the centrifugal force is sufficient to inflict injury. This choice of the weapon and using the same name for the movie can be considered as a reassertion of the phallic symbol, or rather the strength and perfectness of the main character, Kelu. His urumi is specially made from the ornaments of the dead women and children who were burnt alive in the massacre of a Mecca ship, commanded to be set on fire and drowned by Vasco da Gama during his second visit to Kerala. The film also takes a dip into magic realism with mystical characters like Makkom, a displaced Devi Deity in the Oracle form. The Delphian Oracle finds an expression through the Devi here: Makkom mystifies the male duo and through a dance recital prophesises the future. Also, the last scene of the film and the character of the modern-day Genelia also hints at an attempt towards magic realism. Again, the movie is no doubt written on the lines of an epic as is evident from. To qualify as an epic, a work needs to meet the following criteria: a long narrative on a serious subject, told in a formal and elevated style, and cantered on a heroic quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe or a nation. The movie fits this description correctly. It has its lot of comedy too with Prabhudeva’s brilliant performance as Vavali. Again, the archaic language used in the movie is of interest as well. The protagonist also, comes off as a perfect candiadate for a chivalric knight.
Dennis Walder, in his famous work Post-Colonial Literatures in English stated, ‘The histories of colonozing process (like all histories) have continually to be rewritten. But at the centre of that rewriting from the post colonial perspective, is the reclamation of thevoices and experiences of the other.’ As Nandy says in his famous book, The Intimate Enemy; Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, colonialism is nevertheless a psychological category. We have to develop a more psychological or cultural view of colonialism. Even the colonizers were small in number to us we hesitated to fight against them at first. By using intelligence, they made our hesitation into fear. They frightened us with the threat of violence like Gama tried when he burned the ship ‘Miri’. Every ruler uses this technique to gain power and subjugate others.Along with Gama’s cruelty, Urumi also presents an image of hanging bridges to show this threat of violence which is used by the colonizers upon the colonized. Portuguese empire built hanging bridges in each and every corner of the villages in Cannanore. They hanged the ones, who raised their voice against the empire, in front of others. Through this they sowed the seeds of fear in every child who born to this land. In the film, Kelu saves a brave warrior Arackal Baliya Hassan, whom the Portuguese soldiers dragged to the hanging bridge, by cutting the rope. It is the very first act that made by Kelu against the foreign empire. There is another scene in which Kelu and his companions go to the interiors and uproot the hanging bridge there. At first the villagers hesitate to join Kelu,Vavvali and Ayesha in there endeavour but then they abandon their hesitation and join them. The scene symbolizes Kelu uprooting the very fear in the minds of the rural mass. It is this act of uprooting helped him to win their support. Urumialso projects this idea of violence in its theme. The warrior Kelu and his comrades use violence as their mean to find the end. Kelu introduces the peasants’ weapons and trains them to face the battle. With the help of this trained militant group he manages to fight with the Portuguese about three times. By accepting Fanon’s notion, the film seems to reject Gandhi’s decolonization strategies of ahimisaand satyagraha .
In Urumi an interesting fact is that actors take double roles that are also contradictory.the film is designed in such a way that it talks about the present an the past. For example, it is Prithviraj who appeared in the roles of both Kelu and Krishna Das. Nithya menon plays the role of princess Bala of Chirackal as well as the CEO of Nirvana who represent the multinational corporate. It is sure that Santhosh Sivan deliberately makes this to indicate the changes that happened before and after colonialism. Kelu and Bala are people who stand against the foreign invaders while Krishna das and the CEO of Nirvana deliberately support new invasions. It is also worth to mention that the characters of Chenicheri kurup and the minister of forestry in modern Kerala are done by Jagathy Sreekumar. It shows the modern minister is nothing but a continuation of old minister who stood for the invaders for his selfish needs. Madayi Kavil Yakshi and NGO worker Bhoomi are characters who invoke both Kelu and Krishna das against foreign invasions respectively; Vidya Balan enacted both these characters. There is a tribal boy who joins first among the villagers in Kelu’s endeavor to pull out the hanging bridge, in modern age the same boy reappears in the film as throwing his slipper to the minister of forestry who speaks for Nirvana, when Krishna Das refuses to sign the papers. It is important to note that in modern times the protest begins from the peasant (tribe). But the director did not make any changes in the costume of this character in both parts. It indicates that no matter what happened in the name of decolonization and so called ‘independence’, the peasants’ situations remain the same.
Filmmaker Shankar Ramakrishnan, who has written the story and screenplay for Urumi after doing an extensive research, said that the film presents history from a different perspective. "Even a small child in Kerala perceives Vasco da Gama as an explorer, who made the first-ever colonial invasion in any part of the world. But there's more to him than that. Urumi is an attempt to portray or rather discuss the many realities that could have affected the course of our history," he said. Shankar added that the title is not just suggestive of Kelu's Urumi, but the feeling of vengeance that we carry in our hearts. The gorgeous design and the finely tuned quality in imagery should make 'Urumi' one of the best stylized visual extravaganzas ever shot in Malayalam. This visual panache that is exceptional retains an aura that could easily be associated with an unreachable past; a past that is heartily revered and yet one that remains so mysteriously distant. Sankar Ramakrishnan cautiously places the supporting characters all around Kelu, and at times the screen looks flooded with them. Yet there is an individual streak that runs through each one of them, that simply doesn't let them stray away and be a mere embellishment. “Urumi is more than a weapon that carries the identity of Kerala. It symbolizes that armoury which yields to you; it need not always be a weapon, it can be the pen; one has to find one’s Urumi’s forte,” was how Shankar Ramakrishnan, the scriptwriter, explained the title of the movie.
Sivan, Santosh, dir. Urumi. August Cinema. 2011. Web.
Abrams, M H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6thth ed. Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.