Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pirate of the Arabian?

SNEAK PEAK Santosh Sivan's Urumi, releasing in Tamil shortly, reinterprets history, turning the spotlight on the man who tried to kill Vasco da Gam.

It's very rare to see an Indian film make an attempt at reinterpreting history or busting a few myths about the characters that history has celebrated unwittingly.

It is developing to be an important genre in cinema since history is usually the winner's version. Given the diverse group of ethnicities in India and the sensitivities involved, very few filmmakers venture to make controversial statements simply because recreating a period is expensive since every element in the frame, barring the landscape, needs to be designed and created.

It is a tricky proposition also because very few period films have tasted commercial success and those that have succeeded, say a Lagaan or Magadheera, were smart enough to steer clear of arthouse territory with their star appeal, song and dance, and set piece action sequences.

Santosh Sivan returns to revisit another aspect of history in his ambitious trilingual Urumi that gives us a fictional account of the man who tried to kill Vasco da Gama. Though there were a few attempts on his life, da Gama was celebrated as an explorer, even in India with streets and places named after him.

His notorious exploits were buried somewhere in those tales of glory and Sivan attempts to dig deep to bring out an aspect not many are familiar with — Vasco da Gama as a pirate who executed dissenting locals and controlled trade of spices along the coast.

While the Malayalam film released a few months ago, the Tamil version of Urumi starring Prithviraj, Arya, Genelia and Vidya Balan is all set to release next month. “We even reshot many of the scenes in Tamil which is why you won't notice any lip-sync issues,” says Sivan, after a private screening of the film.

The filmmaker, known for his little arthouse gems (Halo, Malli, Terrorist, Tahaan and Before the Rains), this time has consciously decided to tell his story in the popular format, probably because of the economics involved in creating the period feel and the canvas required for his story. Like he did with Asoka. So while it takes a while to get used to stars talking archaic language and breaking into song and dance, it is a genre worth encouraging for its sheer audacity and vision.

Admirable effort

While Hollywood spends millions of dollars on its period films, studios have not exactly been enthusiastic about green-lighting projects on an epic scale. In that context, Urumi is an admirable effort given the huge canvas Sivan has mounted his story on. Relying very little on special effects, except when he's showing us wide shots of ships at sea or armies at war, the cinematographer-director employs natural light and meticulous camera work to present us this spectacle with gloriously choreographed kalari and battle sequences.

While Urumi does not seek to entirely change the course of history like Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds did by pumping bullets into the face of history's most hated figures, it does take a few liberties with actual events to show us the villainous side of the man still celebrated in parts of the West Coast.

A shorter English version of the film will release in December, says Sivan. Catch the action in Tamil at a theatre near you shortly.


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