Indian patriotic films are commonly seasoned with the three Rs: Retribution (2019's Uri: The Surgical Strike, Bollywood's hundredth attempt at promoting jingoism), Realisation (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's memorable classic Rang De Basanti) and Reminiscence (The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Kesari, your everyday biopic about a real event or freedom fighter). Often, these Rs are mixed and added together in movies of this genre (you are free to add your own Rs to this list), with a conventional garnishing item called "Fiction" thrown in to make them appear more presentable. I agree, these are mouth-watering cinematic dishes that deserve to be consumed every now and then to fill yourself up with constantly disappearing calories of patriotism (or nationalism? One never knows the difference nowadays). They glorify the numerous battles fought in the name of our motherland, elevating their characters to the status of near-superhumans, without once stopping to explain the perspective of these unrealistic humans. Have there never been second thoughts? Has there never been a moment in the lives of these individuals, where they stopped to consider an entire life they might be throwing away in the pursuit of doing something greater, which none of the common masses can? A point where – despite having signed up for an uncertain future – they wished to just back out and make it all easier? Has it always been this easy to make sacrifices? Where is the actual pain, the doubt, or the longing for being with one's loved ones?
For a 1996 film, Priyadarshan's Kaalapani (starring Mohanlal as the protagonist Govardhan) was way ahead of its time, portraying a variety of themes and diverse, unconventional characters, which patriotic films of today fail to do. But Kaalapani was much more than that. It showed how one does not need to pick up arms to battle a tyrannical foreign power. One need not lead a large demonstration, hoping for freedom from corruption or oppression. A true patriot can also be one of the forgotten voices locked away in a faraway prison, undergoing gruesome torture and pain, while praying for some serendipitous outcome for their motherland in the midst of all the violence and turbulence of the freedom struggle. There is little that one can do when the only light one sees is filtering through the bars of a prison cell. And Kaalapani foregrounds that anguish, that helplessness, and that beautiful love for one's country.
In pre-independent India, we were divided. We were North Indians and South Indians, Hindus and Muslims, and we were all fighting for freedom in the hopes of satisfying our own personal gains. However, there has to appear an unusual moment, when these divided souls discover some common ground. In Kaalapani, it is the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that serves as the great equaliser. One may wear the sacred thread of the Brahmins or don a skull cap, but prison attire is something everyone has to put on. Through extremely powerful scenes and noteworthy dialogues, Priyadarshan attempts to endorse strength in national unity.
In fact, he addresses an important moot point regarding the futility of our fight for independence. What does the future of India look like? Are we not divided even now, practising regressive customs, fighting over unnecessary things, and corrupting the very soul of our country? A passionate speech by Mohanlal's character Govardhan washes away any doubts we might have about the sacrifices of our freedom fighters: "I know, the moment you give us freedom, we will start fighting over power, religion, states, and languages. At the end of it, if you are thinking that this country will divide into small princely states, that is your intention. It's your feudal complex that the regions you have lost would never progress. And that's why you are planting seeds of religious hatred through your 'divide and rule' policy. Even though we'll have freedom, it will divide us and destroy the country. But there will be a day every Indian will realise that India has only one religion: that is 'patriotism'. That day you will all bow your head with shame, the whole world will!" It is a statement capable of sending chills down the viewers' spines, and while we have a long way to go, Govardhan's Nostradamus moment actually provides you with a certain degree of hope.
One of the costliest Malayalam films of its time and the recipient of numerous accolades for its special effects and cinematography, Kaalapani deserved it all, and more. While rewarding us with memorable chartbusters like 'Aatirambile Kombile' and 'Chempoove Poove', it gave us an inspirational story worth remembering. Priyadarshan's determination to be faithful to the tiny details of the era is extremely noticeable. He recreated the screams within the colonial prison, the blood which watered its grounds, the salty ocean (reminiscent of the River Styx) surrounding it, and the eventful lives of its prisoners. Each time a character speaks, you can gauge a certain amount of emotional depth in their eyes and voice, which provides an unspoken background for the troubled soul. While there are some clichéd elements in the story (the bad Englishman, the good Englishman, the helpful Indian, the traitor Indian, the wife who keeps waiting), Priyadarshan gives each of them some uniqueness that sets them apart from characters in films of the same genre. A phenomenal pan-Indian cast also helps achieve this.
Tabu plays Govardhan's innocent wife Parvathi, and this movie reminds us about why she is a national cinematic treasure. When Vijay Sethupathi mentioned in a recent Film Companion interview that to act in a film of a different language, "knowing the culture is important", Tabu proved his words to be right way back with Kaalapani. She displays the quiddities of your quintessential Malayali girl of those times with ease. While it may be argued that her role is restricted to being Mohanlal's love interest, I beg to differ. She represents the hope we all need, in this dark film. She is the most prominent female character in the story, and it is because of her that we come to know about Govardhan's tale, because he will always remain as a part of her, as she naïvely sits on the railway platform, waiting for her dead husband to return. It is evocative of how Mother India lost several of her children to the freedom struggle – most of them being unknown souls shipped away to an infernal prison, never to return.
Annu Kapoor (in a perfectly cast role) plays the inspirational Veer Savarkar who seeks to raise the morale of the near-dead prisoners, while Amrish Puri plays Mirza Khan (Amrish Puri Evil Villain™), a cruel Afghan jail warden whose life goal is to make the inmates taste hell. His terrifying persona in the torture scenes is, well, truly terrifying. Then we have Alex Draper as the detestable David Barry, the sadistic jailer, and John Kolvenbach as the kind-hearted Dr. Len Hutton (Barry's exact opposite), for some perfect Englishman juxtaposition.
But it is Prabhu Ganesan's character – Mukundan Iyengar – who truly stands out. A nonchalant revolutionary-cum-part-time glutton, he is indifferent to his hellish surroundings unless he discovers an opportunity to flee the place. A staunch follower of Marxist principles and a "proud Tamilian" (something Govardhan attempts to change into "proud Indian"), his unusual friendship with Govardhan provides a few laughs, some warmth, and a lot of tears. The sacrifices they make for each other as fellow human beings trapped in similar circumstances and their final exchange (before Mukundan is shot) really turn on our waterworks. It is Mukundan's death (rendering Govardhan's efforts to protect him futile) that forces Govardhan to shed his garb of non-violence and avenge his friend. That is when all his emotions are a blur and all he can see is red. It is Mukundan who made Govardhan's character a lot more grey and realistic.
Priyadarshan cleverly chose the fortress-like domain of the Cellular Jail as a means of representing pre-independent India. There are scuffles in the name of religion and state, and betrayals (Sreenivasan's character Moosa is a spy for the warden) washed away by moments of unity and togetherness. The diversity of the prison inmates serves as a raw depiction of what our country is and stands for.
A great deal of effort has been out into making Kaalapani one of Priyadarshan's darkest films. The violence depicted is graphic and accurate, be it the mass shootings (we remember the Jallianwala Bagh massacre; Kaalapani illustrates the many years and episodes of our freedom struggle with a prison twist within its runtime of nearly 3 hours), the severe beatings, or other forms of torture. There is a moment of emotional greyness when an act of cannibalism is depicted. Is patriotism truly so fickle that it falls apart when it comes to survival instincts (a debatable question that Priyadarshan presents, to avoid – for good reason – the traditional jingoistic tones common to patriotic films)? The cries of the prisoners are raw and real, and so are their expressions. The effort applied to achieve this is truly commendable as well. Take, for example, how Mohanlal actually licked Amrish Puri's boots in a scene to make the act appear more genuine (it is juxtaposed with a scene where Govardhan tells an Englishman that "an Indian man's back is not a footboard").
While it reminds us to not let the sacrifices of our freedom fighters go in vain, Kaalapani does not let us forget the importance of individualism along with patriotism. Govardhan was just like any one of us, challenging social norms and oppression in whatever tiny way he could, yet he was wrongly convicted for a crime he did not commit. It is during this time that his patriotism reaches new heights, yet he never forgets the one person waiting for him. If anything, he only wishes to return to her. He could have got his life back and continued to fight for his country, but Mukundan's death causes him to lose it. He avenges his friend by attempting to kill those responsible (Barry getting paralysed and Mirza Khan's death gives us momentary peace as well as a serves-you-right moment), something which earns him the death sentence. He loved his wife, but he also loved his fellow Indians. In his final moments, all he remembers are the two things that matter the most in his life – his wife, and his country. He is not a blind patriot; he is a human being too. Your country matters, but so do you. There is no nation without its citizens, and no citizen without their nation.