Thoughts on Urumi (The Curling Blade)

(This post is written by Raj Menon, who is a journalist with Indian Express. )

THE first thing that struck me about Santosh Sivan’s  Urumi is its simplicity.  Okay, so it reportedly cost around Rs 20 crore to make.  Sure,the frames are rich, the sets lavish and the canvas grand.  But Urumi is ,at its core, a simple tale of valor.   It speaks of wronged men and womenwho were desirous of revenge and justice and refused to go quietly though pitted against a powerful adversary (Vasco Da Gama, shown as a ruthless, mercenary invader as opposed to the celebrated explorer).  The dialogue is sharp and unabashedly patriotic: Aa kuttikalude kannukalil Vasco kandu…mola pottunna oru shathruvine…abhimaanam adiyaravu vekkatha orujanata ye (In the eyes of those children, Vasco saw a budding enemy, apeople unwilling to grovel).  There is no inessential glorification of the protagonist, Kelu Nayanar (Prithviraj). He is portrayed as a bold warrior out to avenge his father’s death, reacting to his circumstances and mobilising his people.

The characters are introduced quickly, without ceremony.  And before you know it, you’re drawn into the narrative.  I meant to watch the first 15 minutes or so before I stepped out for a coke. It was a full 50minutes before I reluctantly left my seat.  That said, the makers have over done the whole disclaimer bit at the very onset:  That this is ‘only a movie’ is repeated once too often.  Now, wouldn’t you rather be led to believe you’re *not *watching a film but seeing a slice of life unfold onscreen?  Oh well.  Can’t really blame them for wanting to avoid lawsuits.

Deepak Dev’s compositions are above average. Watch out for Prabhu Deva’s dance scene with the soulful Thelu thele playing in the background. It has a serene, trance-like quality.  Full marks to the creators for not allowing the viewer to think, “Oh, just because he’s a dancing sensation anda reputed choreographer!”

Then there are the beautiful women. Nithya Menon looks bewitching in Chimmi Chimmi.  Genelia D’Souza is aptly cast as the fiesty Arrackal Ayesha, who can wield the urumi as effectively as the warrior hero. Tabu makes aspecial appearance (song) while Vidya Balan has a blink-and-miss part.

Prithviraj proves yet again that he can carry off roles that his contemporaries in Malayalam cinema would be laughed at in.  Amol Gupte is arevelation as the gullible,  good-at-heart but ill-advised king.  Not even ina single scene do you feel he’s out of place in a Malayalam mileau. Such talent!  A superb Jagathy Sreekumar (as the canny, conniving, polyglot minister, Cheni Cheri Kurup) gives a whole new definition to the epiphet veteran actor and there is a refreshing turn by Prabhu Deva (as the immensely likeable Vavvaali: Caring, witty, naive, ever mindful of  being righteous).

Never mind the historical inaccuracies,  they’re bound to be there! Those who whine cannot conclusively prove or disprove their theories. What are they going to do, go back in time?  And as Robert the Bruce narrates in Braveheart: “Historians will tell you I’m a liar. But history is written by those who have hanged heroes.”  The beautiful visuals, well-executed fight scenes and the vibrant performances make  Urumi a compelling watch. Two thumbs-up.

PS:  I don’t care much for the English title, though. The Coiled Sword has a nice ring to it, no?

Review: Urumi

For those of us used to seeing so called “Entertainers” like Twenty-Twenty or various mindless comedy movies, Urumi is a welcome change. It is a bold move from the producers to think of a big canvas movie, get a pan-Indian cast and film it as professionally as possible. The movie falls into a new category which can only be called fantasy-historical-fiction for it is not historical-fiction. In historical fiction, the writer tries to stay within the historical narrative and weave a tale without violating the space-time continuum. Brilliant writers like M.T even weave a new tale within the given parameters. But in this movie Shanker Ramakrishnan decided to throw the history out of the window. Instead what we have is a tale which takes place during Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India and that is pretty much the history part. Rest of the stuff is his imagination in overdrive mode and he makes it very clear in the begining of the movie when he writes all incidents have been changed for dramatic purposes.

But guess what. We don’t have any issue with it. A story is a story and the only question is if the dramatic purpose has been served. It a revenge saga of a boy who wanted to kill Gama because Gama killed his father. We can call this a Hero’s journey for it tries to follow a set pattern as the hero travels and goes through new lands and has new adventures. In this movie Kelu Nayanar’s calling is revenge. He knows Vasco da Gama is in town and wants to kill him. In fact at the begining of the movie itself the pre-history is given and Kelu has crossed the threshold and made a commitment.

So now that the motive has been given, what do you do for the next 2 hours 30 minutes? We see him travel along with his buddy Vavvali (Prabhu Deva) and during their travel they meet rest of the cast — Chirakkal Bala (Nithya Menon), her father (Amol Gupte), the king of Kolothunaadu and his scheming minister (Jagathi Sreekumar). They also meet Arakkal Ayesha (Genelia), Vavvali’s mother and also an Oracle (Vidya Balan). Finally, as expected, Kelu gets his revenge.

Imagine now that you are on a travel and you meet all these people and take their pictures. It is not really an interesting journey isn’t it. You need some twists in the plot. In fact there are some twists in the sub-plots, but none of them affect Kelu or his personality. The sub-plot concerns the way Kolothunadu is ruled and the succession battle there. There is another sub-plot concerning Arakkal Ayesha and her fight, but that too has nothing to do with Kelu, except for the fact that he is around. In such movies, what you want to see is the hero being put to test, completely pushed to the ground and how he survives that, rises and achieves his goal. Think Devasuram. Neelakantan is pushed to the ground and his machoism cannot save him. He has to rely on Revathi’s character to teach him some lessons about himself and life. As you empathize with him, there is a transformation in the viewer. The viewer who hated him till interval is now rooting for him.

In Urumi though, Kelu is never down. He is like Mayavi who appears in every troubled scene and saves the damsel. That is not really interesting. In Star Wars, when Luke is down, he has to go to a mentor, Yoda, who trains him and he returns back. Our heroes don’t need any training. They are experts in fighting and singing the moment they are born. There is no change in Kelu’s personality in the 150 minutes of the movie. He delivers dialogue in the same dead-pan mode and this makes him really an uninteresting person.

But there are three people who make the movie interesting: Jagathi, Amol Gupte and Nithya Menon. They get quite a number of scenes and it is a delight to watch them perform. These are well etched characters.

We already have written about the music, so lets mention a few things about cinemotography. It is by Santosh Sivan and there is nothing more we need to say. The visuals cannot get better than this. But just watching brilliant visuals without a strong story does not make a memorable movie. But then Santosh Sivan has some staple shots which are repeated in most of his movies. There is a scene in Asoka where SRK and Kareena take bath in slow motion under a waterfall. There is an exactly similar shot in this movie. Another obesession of his is eyeballs and closeups of eyeballs. From Terrorist to this movie, you see the same shot. In one song all the characters jump up and down on an invisible trampoline. You can call these shots his signature, but these repetitive shots pull you away from the immersive experience.

While the songs are terrfic, another let down is the BGM. Look at the scene where Chirakkal Bala is attacked and the music that goes in that scene. It is a fight scene and the music is the most inappropriate one. We know why it was done. Each person has a particular theme and that music is blindly dumped when the character appears. Similarly there is a piece when Ayesha appears and she is asked to sit on the lap of Chirakkal king’s lap. There is a scene where Prithviraj comes to resceue Ayesha and guess what music plays in the fight scene?

The next terrible thing in the movie is the visualization of songs. We simply loved hearing those songs, but when we saw them, some were not interesting. Aarane Aarane was done very well and so was Chimmi Chimmi. But look at the visuals for Aaro Nee Aaro. It is like a rock video songs with all the extras and Prithvi jumping up and down. It looks as if people from the 15th century suddenly time traveled to the 21st century MTV studio. Also the Oracle song called Chalanam Chalanam was simply terrible.

The movie brings up an important issue that none of us know about our history and care about it. Thus when the movie starts we see this guy called Krishnadas who is selling his ancestral property and then after hearing about Vasco’s story, changes his mind. The movie also paints the true picture of Vasco da Gama who was one blood thirsty trader. While the visuals are stunning, there is nothing great about the story. It is not the stuff of classic movies. While the creators have made a decent entertainer, they have missed an opportunity to create a Gladiator. We had great expectations from Shankar-Ramakrishnan-Santosh Sivan combo and maybe that is why we are disappointed.

Historical inaccuracies in Urumi

By Arun Mohan

See, there are several historical pitfalls as deep as a bore, which any history knowing person will understand. The advantage Urumi has is that, 99% of Malayalees donot know our own history, atleast pre-1857, whereas most of them study and learn about Mughal and Rajput histories. Even our own state curriculum donot teaches where is Kolathanadu and Arakkal and its relation with Samoothiri.

Let me tell, there is a big mistake in first few scenes. Chirakkal is just a place or city that used to be capital of Kolathunadu Kingdom and until arrival of Dutch in 17th century, people used to refer the term Kolathiri instead of Chirakkal. In opening scene, we are shown Arya as Chirakkal Kotuval. But the script didn’t explain the relation between Chirakkal Kotuval and Kolathiri Royal family. As a result, the question whether Kelu Nayanar is part of Kolathiri family is unanswered. In first few scenes, we are made to understand that Krishnadas, the character Prithiviraj plays as modern is of royal heir and hence one needs to believe Kelu Nayanar was part of Kolathiri dynasty. However how can a- “Nayanar” (NAIR for Malabar area) become part of famous Mooshika Kshyatriya dynasty of Kolathiri. As per Nair traditions, its Marumakathayam, which means caste has to be inherited from Mother, not father. If Kelu Nayanar is from Chirakkal Royal House, naturally Krishnadas won’t be a heir today, as per Maternal law of Kerala, its nephews who inherit, not children.

Secondly the ship burning incident is from real incident when Vasco Da Gama came in 1502 as revenge against Zamorin (Samoothiri) for burning down Portuguese factory in Kozhikode killing 1500 Portuguese people. The ship Miri was bound to Calicut and it was hijacked near Kozhikode Beach to bring Samoothiri to negotiating table. So from where Kotuval of Chirakkal comes into picture. The script writer doesn’t appreciate the 100 km distance between Chirakkal and Kozhikode nor justify the amazing power of Kotuval to fly from Kannur to Kozhikode to attack Gama’s ship.

Throughout the history of Kerala, Kolathiri was the most powerful ally of Portuguese, after Kochi. Even in 1502 when Gama came to attack Kozhikode, he first visited Kolathunadu and signed in treaty to establish the Kannur Factory (the modern St.Angelo’s fort). So how in the movie, Chirakkal shown in odds with Portuguese. It was only by late 16th century, Kolathiri turned against Portuguese when Chirakkal and Kozhikode signed in peace treaty.

The surprising factor is that Arakkal kingdom has never been odds with Kolathiri in its five century long history. Perhaps, it was the Kolathiri himself, who created Arrakkal kingdom to allow his daughter who was married to Muslim to enjoy regal status. Ever since that, two royal families were in strong relations to each other and for several age old customs, members of both families has to jointly perform. Kolathiri family considers Arrakkal as its 3rd branch as the dynasty has 5 branches. So how come they shown as bitter enemies?

Likewise, the scriptwriters weren’t much aware of that, Guns and cannons were part of Kerala even when Portuguese first came to Kozhikode in 1498. Guns and cannons were introduced to Kerala, through Arab traders and Chinese. However the difference was, we had gun technology of 13th or 14th century even in 16th century as most of rulers didn’t invest much in improving new gunpowder technology. Rather focus and attention was developing on Kalaripayittu.  In the movie, we are made to believe, Chirakkal Princess doesn’t know what to say for Gun and calls it as Thee Thuppi! Whereas the word Pirangi and Thokku etc were much in Malayalam dictionary even in 14th century. So why to use the word Thuppakki? In 1502, Zamorins had fired more than 1200 cannons against Portuguese ships. However the Portuguese had better range, more firing power and manuveourability which our cannons didn’t have that time.

The movie had several other issues too apart of these historical mistakes. Many people do not exactly understand what is intended. For example, how many people can understand Perumpadappu means? When Estvo Da Gama was arrested, Jagathy says that immediately we must send an emissary to Perumpadappu. Its nothing but Kochi, as it was old name of Kochi Kingdom (just like Chirakkal- the capital of Kolathunadu Kingdom, Kochi was capital of Perumpadappu Swaroopam). Kochi that time was capital of Portuguese Indies.

There are some other issues too – In 1524, the third visit of Vasco-Da Gama, he didn’t visit Kolathanadu as shown in the movie. In 1515 Goa became the capital of Portuguese India and most of Portuguese viceroys started visiting and living in Goa. Kochi was their second capital and hence several factors and agents visit there. In 1524’s Gama’s visit, he first settled in Goa and later thought to visit Kochi as invited by Kochi King. Gama reached Kochi in Dec 23rd 1524 and died on next day due to Malaria. Vasco Da Gama was so fragile by 1524, that one blow from a person like Kelu Nayar’s kind of person would kill him. Yet we were shown that Vasco fighting with a powerful hunk like Kelu in full vigor. And the story is not clear whether he killed or not…

And thanks for Sankar Ramakrishnan, that at least through  his movie, he made Vasco’s second son Estave Da Gama to visit Kerala, a dream which Estave couldn’t accomplish during his lifetime as he was busy establishing African provinces of Portuguese and Homzur straits.