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How Priyadarshan and Mohanlal’s Kaalapani paved way for Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham two decades later

The period film that released 25 years ago, was Priyadarshan and Mohanlal’s biggest film then and had a pan-Indian appeal featuring actors such as Tabu and Amrish Puri – an aspect that the filmmaker has used abundantly in Marakkar too

Sanjith Sidhardhan
Nov 11, 2021
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In 1996, when director Priyadarshan and Mohanlal’s Kaalapani released, there weren’t huge market strategies in play or the flooding of posters, teasers and trailers on social media to give the movie a pre-release push. But yet, the film had a hype that spread across the State and even to the Middle East where Indian social and cultural associations had arranged special shows in auditoriums at places that didn’t have theatres because they deemed it an “important film about the nation’s history” to watch.

Further propelling the movie was its cast featuring an array of Hindi, Tamil and English actors to go along with the established Malayalam actors, and the expectations that came with it being the biggest Malayalam film yet – reportedly made on a whopping budget of Rs 25 Cr when Rs 1Cr was the norm for Mollywood ventures back in the mid 90s.

Fast forward 25 years later, the same team of Priyadarshan and Mohanlal have done an encore with Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham – a Rs 90 Cr Malayalam film based on a historic figure with the same art director, Sabu Cyril, and featuring a pan-Indian cast.

As part of the OTTplay series, November to Remember, we take a look at how the seeds for Marakkar were planted during the making of Kaalapani in 1996.

Marakkar – an idea born during Kaalapani

It has not been smooth sailing for Marakkar which has been plagued with controversies from the start. First, cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan and Mammootty had announced that they were coming up with a movie based on Kunjali Marakkar IV. Priyadarshan had given them an ultimatum, stating that if the movie didn’t go on floors in eight months, he would begin his movie. Soon after that writer TP Rajeevan had raised allegations that Priyadarshan’s film had used his concept for Marakkar. Amid the conjectures, Priyadarshan explained that the film was based on a story he had read about the Zamorin naval chief in his Class 3 textbook along with inputs from the late scriptwriter T Damodaran, who had also served as the writer for Kaalapani.

Incidentally, Damodaran had first pitched the story during Kaalapani, and Priyadarshan discussed it further with him after the movie’s success. However, to do a massive film like Marakkar soon after mounting a movie like Kaalapani was almost unthinkable back then, the director had said. Damodaran had in fact also written 10-15 key scenes as part of his script.

Santosh, who was the cinematographer of Kaalapani, too confirmed this, saying that Priyadarshan had been contemplating directing a film about Kunjali Marakkar IV since 1996. In fact, Santosh was all set to reunite with the Kaalapani team as a cinematographer when Priyadarshan had first revived the film in 2014, but only to abandon it till 2018.

Massive production sets and period detailing

While the entire band didn’t get back together, art director Sabu Cyril, who won his second National Award for Best Production Designer for Kaalapani, was back in the fold.

In 1995, the prime reason for the big budget of Kaalpani was recreating the 1910s and especially the cellular jail in Port Blair, which by then was set up as a national monument. The structure that existed in the past was star-shaped with six wings. Four of these had collapsed in the 1970s, prompting the team to erect a huge set in Chennai resembling the colonial prison. Sabu drew inspiration from a Manipur jail that had similar architecture and most of the research went into recreating the prison settings and costumes to fit that era.

Another major challenge was that Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1996 didn’t have horses or vintage cars. The production team had to ferry these to the islands. However, the boat carrying the cars and horses caught fire, destroying half the properties (the horses were safe and were given to the Andaman administration after the shoot was over). Sabu along with his team had to built the vintage cars from materials that were later transported. In fact, a scene featuring a taxi stand in Calcutta in Kaalapani comprised entirely of immobile cars made by the team.

For Marakkar that is extensively set in the sea, the challenges might have been fewer, thanks in large part to the VFX, but Sabu still had to create Portuguese war galleys, old mast ships and tanks from scratch at the Hyderabad Ramoji Rao Film City where the movie was shot.

Pan-Indian appeal and foreign presence

While the phrase ‘pan-Indian appeal’ has now almost become recurring with every film release, back in 1996, what Priyadarshan and his team had achieved was almost unthinkable. He assembled a cast featuring top actors from Bollywood such as Tabu, Amrish Puri and Annu Kapoor along with leading actors from South – Mohanlal and Prabhu – for a Malayalam production. His defense back then was that a movie made on such a large scale needed a pan-Indian cast to reach a larger audience.

The filmmaker has pulled the same feat for Marakkar. Apart from popular South stars Mohanlal, Prabhu and Manju Warrier, the movie has Suniel Shetty, Arjun Sarja, Keerthy Suresh and Ashok Selvan as part of the cast.

While Kaalapani had foreign actors such as Len Hutton and David Berry, who were part of Robert Redford’s stage productions, Marakkar has Thai actor Jay J Jakkrit along with four Britishers in pivotal roles such as Vasco Da Gama’s son and a viceroy.

Another aspect that hyped Kaalapani was how it was made available to the audience across the country. The movie, in which the cast spoke Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, English, Bengali and also the Andaman tribe’s Ongi, was dubbed into four languages – Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English. Similarly, Marakkar was planned to be released in theatres in these four languages along with Kannada and Mandarin.

A story of national importance

Both films also tell a story of national significance. While Kaalapani, set in 1915, revolved around the pre-independence struggle and the lives of activists forcibly and wrongfully jailed during the British Raj, Marakkar focuses on Kunjali Marakkar IV’s battle against the invading Portuguese troops in the late 16th century. Marakkar could be dubbed as India’s first naval commander and that’s why the film is also a tribute to the Indian navy, Priyadarshan said.

So, in a lot of ways it could be argued that Kaalapani’s success could be what fueled the team to aim higher. And Mohanlal subscribes to this view. “Scale wise and artiste wise, after Kaalapani, we haven’t done such a project. It has been a big dream for Priyan and me,” he said, in an interview last year.

Kaalapani can streamed on Disney+ Hotstar, Voot and SunNXT.

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