The West remembers Vasco Da Gama, when we remember him at all, as a brave explorer who faced the open seas and hostile natives to bring spices back to Europe. I know because I just listened to a program about him on my favorite radio show that completely glossed over the bloody trail of mutilated corpses Vasco Da Gama left behind in India when he returned to Europe with his precious peppercorns, as if the spices simply hopped into his boat of their own accord. (Age of Discovery, indeed!) While the descendants of the indigenous peoples the explorers “discovered” continue to fight for their very right to exist, the global consumer culture encourages us to remember nothing at all - not the glorious explorers of previous centuries nor the atrocities they committed nor even the people whose lives they permanently changed.*
Our communities are no longer tied together by a shared sense of history. We relate through horse race politics, the latest style trends, reality celebrities, and current hit songs. Things that happened only three years ago may as well have never occurred. Heroines massively popular just five years ago may as well have never existed. We have been living like this for quite some time in the United States - witness how swiftly we, as a nation, have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam - but it’s a fascinating transition to see play out in other cultures, especially in a place like India where history used to be measured in millennia. In Urumi, writer-director Santosh Sivan frames his narrative of Vasco Da Gama against this very idea of a shared history, dragging the Portuguese Dom and his atrocities back into living memory.
Urumi begins in Goa, in the present. We meet our hapless hero Krishnadas uff KD (Prithviraj) and his good buddy (Prabhu Deva), hip young musicians without two rupees to rub together. So, you can imagine KD’s delight when a lawyer shows up one day offering to buy an ancestral property he didn’t even know he owned for three times its worth. KD has no emotional ties to this patch of land, after all he didn’t even know it was his, so he and ?? head off to the ancestral plot in order to sign the deed away. As it turns out, things aren’t so simple. KD’s mother had leased the property over to a school run by a stern Vidya Balan and Vidya is extremely disgusted by the idea that KD would even consider selling a piece of land that is home to more than 100 families. She encourages KD to go and meet with them before he signs on the dotted line.
It turns out that KD doesn’t have much choice when the pals are Shanghaied by the locals and taken to meet the local leader, an intimidating gentleman named Thangachan (Arya), who appears clad only in a loin cloth with his skin painted in bright ceremonial colors. In one of the most telling exchanges of the whole film, Thangachan asks KD if he remembers his father. “Of course,” says KD, relieved that his head is currently not being stewed and eaten by these ‘natives’. “He was a cartoonist! And he always said that I was his worst cartoon...” Thangachan could not have less patience for this Hum-Tum claptrap and begins telling KD about his ancestors and what they gave up for this piece of land.
The narrative then switches to The Age of Discovery, Vasco Da Gama, and what was then the Kingdom of Kolathunadu. The main players in this part of the film are Kelu (Prithviraj) - whose village was destroyed by Vasco Da Gama - and his (Muslim) best friend Vavvali (Prabhu Deva), who are wandering warriors of a sort. When Kelu and Vavvali rescue the Princess Bala (Nithya Menon) from some Portuguese-backed thugs from a rival kingdom, the two friends are plunged into a complex and highly dangerous political game, which is being manipulated by the King of Kolathunadu’s advisor, the slimy Kulup (Jagathy Sreekumar).
Along the way, Kelu and Vavvali fall in with fellow warrior Ayesha (Genelia D’Souza), kidnap Vasco Da Gama’s son Estêvão (Alexx O’Nell), lock horns with the King of Kolathunadu (Amol Gupte) and his son (Ankur Khanna), get enchanted by a priestess (Vidya Balan), and, finally, tangle with the big man himself - Vasco Da Gama (Robin Pratt.)
The title of the film comes from the sword that Kelu wields - a long, flexible sword called an urumi. The weapons is kept coiled and hung from a belt around the waist until it’s needed, at which point it’s unfurled and whipped gracefully (hopefully) at the wielder’s enemies. Kelu’s urumi was forged from gold jewelry given to him by one of the victims of Vasco da Gama’s infamous (and factual) attack on a ship of Muslim pilgrams and the buring desire for revenge on the man who killed so many is molded not just into the sword but into Kelu himself.
Kelu’s quest for revenge is the main narrative thread of the film but the real meat of Urumi is tied up in the subplots. In that leisurely narrative style so beloved of Indian film fans like myself, Santosh Sivan, supports that main thread of revenge with a lush tapestry of romance, comedy, political intrigue, violence, moral dilemmas, patriotism, and greed - allowing each to take center stage from time to time. And the characters are given many facets in which to play all of these things out. Each scene is wonderfully composed and full of motion - much of it thanks to Prabhu Deva - and Santosh Shivan’s favorite watery landscape gets plenty of screen time.
While most of the film is fairly easy to follow, for those of us who must rely on subtitles, I fear that the political drama ends up being very convoluted. When complex speeches are rendered into one or two brief lines of English text, there will be audience comprehension problems. As it was, I did manage to cobble together an idea of what was happening between the King’s advisor, the King, and Vasco Da Gama but certain motivations - hiring a new military advisor, for example - seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Thankfully, the politics were not a crucial part of the main narrative between Kelu, Vavvali, and Vasco Da Gama but non-Malayalam speaking viewers would be advised not to think too hard about the political negotiations happening.
One other critique I had of the political drama - and one I feel confident that I understood - is that the King’s advisor and the King’s son are made out to be sexual perverts, as well as villains. The King’s advisor is very obviously portrayed as homosexual, as well as conniving and creepy, while the King’s son is a more amorphous sexual deviant. In an age when films like Onir’s I Am and even comedies like Dostana are being made, it seems really socially regressive to deliberately make the villain some creepy gay pervert/Portuguese collaborator who is sexually interested in the King’s son and willing to kill for him. I’m not saying a film can never have a gay villain but it would have been nice if there had been another implied homosexual character who was a good person just to balance it out. It just seems odd that Santosh Sivan would make gayness a signifier of evil in a film that is framed around the question of an oppressed and misunderstood community speaking up for their rights.
As Kelu, Prithviraj is all Epic Hero with his buff muscles and stoic glances but, quite winningly, Prithviraj also gives Kelu an irreverent sense of humor and a soft-heart. And Kelu is not flawless. For all his noble calling, we see him make mistakes and we see him act out of passion - passion for love and for revenge. Even humanized in that way, Kelu does retain some of the Epic Hero remoteness. The wandering warrior may find love but the person who is singing the songs** is his friend Vavvali.
Vavvali is really the beating heart of Urumi and Prabhu Deva is perfectly cast in the role. Prabhu Deva is that rare actor who brings a dancer’s grace into his roles.*** He has a kinetic charisma that commands attention whenever he is on screen, as he acts and reacts to the events happening around him - concern for Kelu’s safety, a puffed up manner around the princess, and pure joy during a song. And even when Vavvli serves as comic relief, he, as a character, is never a joke. Vavvli can fight just as fiercely as Kelu - it’s just that his desire for delicious food and beautiful women is stronger than his desire for revenge. (And who can blame him.) At the end of the day, Vavvali is a true friend to Kelu.
Despite the hero-centered format of the film, the women of Urumi are given a lot of material to work with. Genelia D’Souza plays Ayesha as a fierce warrior who also happens to be a woman and she does equally well with the fight choreography and the romance. Genelia is a force (get it!) to reckon with when she isn’t given annoying love-obsessed manic pixie dream girls. Nithya Menon also makes a big impression as the self-confident princess. She plays the role as a woman who is used to being pampered but who is far from weak. Neither of these women shy away from speaking their minds or in choosing the path they feel to be the righteous one.
(And, of course, hats off to both Vidya Balan and Tabu for their guest appearances. It is always a treat to see them in a film. In fact, one is left with a burning question - why doesn’t Tabu work more?)
I already briefly touched on the King’s advisor and his son but I should mention that Amol Gupte is adequate as the drugged-out King. He has a few great scenes - one with Genelia and one with Nithya - but for the most part he sits back and plays the straight man (in more ways than one) to his advisor.
One of the real surprises in the film were the two Portuguese characters - Vasco da Gama and his son Estêvão. Robin Pratt as Vasco Da Gama was extremely unnerving and one does get the sense that he would be perfectly capable of casually committing horrific atrocities. Da Gama is shown with an hour-glass in the foreground on a number of occasions, signaling the clock ticking on the Portuguese control of the region. One particularly memorable scene towards the end of the film has Da Gama watching the clock while a mosquito buzzes around his head. He lets it run for a minute as the audience sits and squirms, taking his time before he smashes it. Da Gama is no parading pantomime villain but a cold-hearted, calculating man.
Estêvão da Gama, as played by one of India’s finest firang actors, Alexx O’Nell, is a fascinating character. After being given a villain entrance that rivals Gabbar Singh, Alexx goes on to give Estêvão human emotion along with the evil posturing. Estêvão may be partial to the same mutilation-as-punishment as his father but we also see some compassion when he is faced with a young girl who has been brutally raped. We can also see Estêvão’s disgust as the brutal ‘natives’ that would do such a thing to a child and shows that Estêvão has a deeper motivation than just “evil” for his vendetta against Kelu and Vavvali AND the King and his court.****
And, as a viewer, it is more satisfying for Kelu to have an opponent like Estêvão da Gama. Vasco is remote, God-like. Estêvão is the one whose defeat means something personal.
Lastly, I want to talk about the music and visuals, both of which add a lot to the atmosphere of the film. Visually, as we should expect from a cinematographer, Urumi is stunning. It’s packed full of Santosh’s watery world-view. Courtship in the bath; lovers separated by waterfall; mist, sweat, the sea, and a wide river all play their parts. Along with showcasing the beauty of nature, Santosh also increases the mythical feel to the tale by playing with everything digital filmmaking can do - Vidya Balan’s hair whips around in reverse; battle sequences are shot in extreme slow motion. It’s all wonderfully showy and evocative.
The incidental music were also wonderful, for example the princess had a delightful little trilling tune that played whenever she entered, and the songs by Deepak Dev were really quite good. “Aaranne Aarane” has soaring vocals anchored by a pounding drum beat so strong I coul feel Prahbu Deva’s earthy dance echoing in my bones, even from my living room couch. “Chimmi Chimmi” is all sweetness and spice while “Chalanam Chalanam” rings with mystic portent.
Overall, while Urumi isn’t a perfect film, it is a very good one and, more importantly, this is a film with enough substance to hold up to repeated viewings.
I should know because I watched it twice last week.
[All images courtesy of ... who? Manorama Online who run the official Facebook page and annoyingly tagged every single one for no discernible reason.]
* In the United States, we no longer fight about Columbus Day because mainstream cultural memory has forgotten Columbus himself. You are much more likely to hear about the football team the Redskins or baseball team the Chiefs in the news than actual Native Americans. Native Americans and their problems are so invisible to mainstream American society that we name our sports teams after them, as if they were mythical beings that belong to a Grand American Past instead of, you know, citizens of our country. Actually, a Native American remake of this film could be really interesting... set out West somewhere maybe?
** It is a truism of Indian popular cinema formats that the villain of a film is never given a song picturization - a song expresses the deepest feelings in a character’s heart and giving voice to a villain’s feelings and making him or her in any way sympathetic would turn that character into what film fans call a grey role.
*** When I did an interview with Alexx O’Nell earlier this year about his role, he mentioned that Prabhu Deva is a master improviser and would do something completely new in every take. Read all about it - and other Urumi anecdotes in the interview!
**** Or at least that is what I saw.