At one point in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malayalam film Malaikottai Vaaliban (2024), which released last week, Mohanlal as Vaaliban has a face-off against a set of Portuguese rulers, who are named Macaulay and seem to be the personification of evil. When Vaaliban says he’s willing to fight a champion of their choice, the two Portuguese form a tag team of sorts (with “Rani” Macaulay wearing Wolverine-style gloves) and bring Vaaliban down. It’s a surreal, deliberately absurdist face-off, but draws on very real sentiments against colonial oppression.
The villainous colonial is a long-standing trope in Indian cinema, obviously rooted in history. The first Indian film to be banned by the British was Bhakta Vidur (1921), a silent mythological drama directed by Kanjibhai Rathod. Dwarka Das Nana Das Sampat, the actor playing the role of the righteous king Vidur closely resembled MK Gandhi and also wore clothes similar to Gandhi’s. That was enough for the colonial power to clamp down on its release. In the south, K Subramanyam’s Tamil film Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) which glorified Gandhian values, became the first Indian film to be banned after its theatrical release.
Post-independence, film industries across the country made several movies set in the colonial era. Considering the powerful ideas present in these stories, it’s not surprising that even now, filmmakers turn back to the time period for inspiration. What’s different, however, is how they are interpreting these stories and finding newer ways of presenting them.
Before Malaikottai Vaaliban, during Pongal, there was Captain Miller (2024) from the Tamil film industry, which explored caste oppression and colonial rule through the eyes of an adivasi hero. Pa Ranjith’s Thangalaan (2024) is also set in this era and is scheduled for a summer release. In the film, Vikram plays a tribal leader who takes on the might of the British when his land is seized for gold mining.
Tamil Prabha, who developed the story with Ranjith, and co-wrote the screenplay with the director and Azhagiya Periyavan, said Thangalaan is told from the point of view of the oppressed and set in the Kolar Gold Fields. “World-over, it is the oppressed who till the land, build the cities and the nation – be it the Black people in the west or the dalits here. In the Kolar Gold Fields, too, it was the marginalised who went into those mines, worked hard and turned it into a place of commercial value for the government,” said Prabha. The film will explore why these workers arrived at the mines, their internal conflicts, and struggle to mine the gold. “This is a film that tells their story with dignity,” he added.
Contemporary filmmakers appear to be keen at exploring subaltern perspectives. For example, the Malayalam film Kayamkulam Kochunni (2018) is based on a Muslim “socialist” thief – a Robin Hood type of figure who lived in the early 19th century in central Travancore. Directed by Rosshan Andrrews and written by the famed screenwriting duo Bobby and Sanjay, the film stars Nivin Pauly in the lead and has Mohanlal playing an extended cameo.
“We imagined Kochunni in the mould of an Amar Chitra Katha hero. As children, we were fascinated with such figures. The idea of Robin Hood is wishful thinking – everyone wants a hero like that, and we added our own elements to the story,” said Sanjay. The 1966 film on Kochunni, also of the same title, has him surrendering to the Diwan after killing his lover who betrayed him, and dying in prison. Since stories about Kochunni were passed on through folklore, there is greater creative freedom to interpret these narratives. For example, in Pathonpatham Noottandu (2022), another Malayalam period drama set in the same time period, Kochunni receives a less flattering portrayal.
In the 2018 film version, Kochunni is sentenced to death for killing a British general though in real life, there is no record of him committing such an act. “There are many stories about his death, but we chose to show him as escaping from the British. It was our kind of poetic justice,” added Sanjay.
Through Kochunni, the film also looks at the kind of caste oppression that was widely prevalent in the 19th century. “We consulted several books on the subject, and we had a brilliant research team. We cannot speak of Kerala society back then without speaking about caste oppression. Even names were assigned according to caste. The food they ate, the jobs they did, the punishments that were meted out to people, we had to do our research for all these details,” said Sanjay. Made on a budget of around Rs 45 crore – which is high for a Malayalam film – Kayamkulam Kochunni made over Rs 100 crore.
In Telugu, the biggest success among films of this category in recent times is undoubtedly SS Rajamouli’s RRR (2022). Based on real life revolutionaries Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, the film reimagines them as mythological heroes (played by Ram Charan and Junior NTR) who fight against the brutal British regime. While both Alluri and Bheem are well-known figures in the Telugu states, the audience outside isn’t so familiar with their real histories.
The blockbuster raked in over Rs. 1,300 crore and was largely celebrated in the West for its anti-colonial narrative, but was criticised at home for taking creative liberties with real life heroes and conflating nationalism with religious iconography. The portrayal of Gond tribal leader Bheem as a simpleton was especially slammed by many. “Rajamouli does not treat the two revolutionaries as equals. Alluri—whose caste location is made clear by the sacred thread he wears—is depicted as Komaram’s savarna saviour, teaching the ‘noble savage’ the ways of ‘civilised life’,” journalist Akash Poyam, who is from the Gond community, wrote in The Caravan, critiquing the film.
Surender Reddy’s Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019) starring Chiranjeevi, is another Telugu film set in pre-independent India that received flak for historical inaccuracies. Set in the 19th century, the film presents Narasimha Reddy as a nationalist rebel while historians have pointed out that he fought the British to retain the rights and privileges of his powerful clan.
“It is completely a director’s call what story they want to tell and how they want to tell it,” said Tamil Prabha. “Their political understanding will influence how they do this. There’s also the important question of how these ideas will be perceived by the audience.” But, Prabha noted, not all filmmakers are free to tell the stories they want. “We’re in a situation where the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) unduly interferes with a filmmaker’s freedom, and organisations outside the industry dictate what can and cannot be discussed in a film. I think this is what we should be questioning.”
Director Arun Matheswaran, for instance, acknowledged in interviews that Captain Miller was originally based on an episode from the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1987, but that when he developed the story, he was told such a film couldn’t be released in India. In real life, Captain Miller was a member of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), and was its first Black Tiger (an elite suicide commando unit). In the film, he is a fictional adivasi youth who joins the British army, but becomes an outlaw after being forced to shoot his own people. There is a reference to him leaving for Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but that’s all. “We thought no questions would be raised if the story is set in pre-independent India,” Matheswaran said.
In another instance, director Aashiq Abu and actor Prithviraj dropped out of a proposed period film on Variyamkunnath Kunhahammed Haji who led the Malabar Rebellion of 1921. Though Haji has been recognised as a freedom fighter, right wing groups alleged that the rebellion was an anti-Hindu movement. Following the stringent opposition and controversy, the director and lead actor stepped down from the project.
Sanjay agreed that making a historical film on a figure who has been widely written about comes with a lot of constraints. “We would then have to closely stick to those records,” said Sanjay. “There is a lot of information about Kayamkulam Kochunni, much of it from Kottarathil Sankunni’s Aithihyamala. There are contrasting oral history versions, too. But, since he is more legend than history, we were able to turn him into a larger-than-life hero. We could exaggerate as much as we wanted.”
This is perhaps why the subaltern perspective has also become popular. The audience is less familiar with these narratives, and with the anti-caste wave in Tamil cinema influencing other southern industries, there is a growing market for such films with an underdog hero. The period drama needn’t be restricted to kings, queens or famous people – it can also be about ordinary people from lower rungs of society whose stories haven’t been represented on screen because they haven’t been documented as much.
Tamil Prabha said that cinematic liberties were inevitable but acknowledged that there was a tendency in film industries to fall into the trap of aping a successful film – the slew of violent movies we’re seeing now inspired by KGF (2018) is one such example, the rise and slump of the sports drama genre is another. “Such trends die out. When a film isn’t made with conviction but just to build moments similar to other films, the audience also loses interest eventually,” he said.
What’s most important is the conviction of the filmmaker. “It’s not about how real the story you tell is. It is about how realistically you can tell the story that you wish to tell. If you want to exaggerate and show a battle with 500-600 people, it’s fine if you’re able to convince the audience. If you’re able to believe that Baahubali could lift a mountain, that’s what matters. People should be able to suspend their disbelief,” said Prabha.