Historical stories can be fascinating, especially when they come alive on-screen. Often built on a huge canvas that is riddled with challenges, from the painstaking research they require to their financial demands, it is a mammoth task for any filmmaker and producer.
Malayalam film ‘Mamangam’ is one such project. It narrates a little-known story from the pages of history and is set in 1695. Produced by UAE resident Venu Kunnappily and directed by M Padmakumar, the film is told against the backdrop of mamangam — a festival held once in 12 years on the banks of the Bharathapuzha river in Thirunavaya — and is centred around the legendary Chavers (suicide fighters) of Valluvanadu, who embarked on a mission to kill the Zamorin (the hereditary monarch) during this ongoing festival.
Kunnapily said he spent more than Rs55 crores (Rs550 million, Dh28.5 million) on the film, not factoring in marketing costs.
“We had 2,500 people on the sets all the time. Fight sequences were conducted during the night for two months. Oil lamps used to replicate the past posed risks,” he tells Gulf News tabloid!, adding that he’s happy with the final product.
“It was what I had visualised. Mammootty plays a mysterious character with multiple looks in the film — something he has not done before.”
Director M Padmakumar, whose last directorial venture was the much acclaimed Malayalam film ‘Joseph’, says the story is spread over two mamangam festivals.
“Mamuka [Mammootty] carried the same energy that I have seen on the sets earlier and being an experienced actor, he shared his inputs,” Padmakumar recalls.
‘Mamangam’ marks the superstar’s third period drama after ‘Oru Vadakkan Veerakatha’ and ‘Pazhassi Raja.’
“I feel it is a duty of mine to bring the story to people. Emotions are universal and expressions can be understood easily,” Mammootty said at a recent press event in Chennai. “The language spoken in that era was similar to Tamil. ‘Mamangam’ is the story of a clan that avenges something done. The revenge continues and is meaningless, that is the philosophy of the film. It is so relevant today.”
Mukundan, who plays Chandu Panicker, a 27-year-old chaver, built his body over 11 months and trained in the basics of martial art kalaripayattu for the role.
“Chandu is a pro in kalari,” he explains. “He is among the chosen few who die for their homeland and stand by their beliefs. He is a mature guy yet carries a childish innocence. This is not just a war movie, it’s about the emotions and traditions.”
Sharing the screen with Mamootty was a great learning experience, he says.
“Mamuka has been working on ‘Mamangam’ for over two years and I wondered how he maintained the emotional aspect of his role. Seeing him always energetic, I asked him, ‘What is the driving force after doing 300 plus films?’ Mamuka told me, ‘Be like the same guy you were when you did your first film’,” Mukundan says. “He helped me in rendering my lines and gave me suggestions on modulation of the dialogues.”
Achuthan, a trained kalaripayattu artist since the age of five, says he never aspired to become an actor but was selected for ‘Mamangam’ when the director’s team visited his kalaripayattu school in Kottayam for auditions.
He plays Chanthunni, the youngest chaver who is part of the mission at the mamangam festival. Achuthan trained in sword and urumi fighting at Kozhikode.
For sound designer and recordist Satheesh, the two main challenges of ‘Mamangam’ were recreating the ambience of the mamangam festival and propping up the battlefield sequences with sound.
“There were several things to keep in mind about the atmosphere of [the] mamangam [festival]. You have merchants from world over selling wares — the different languages, the vendors’ calls, the accent of the period. It was a tough task getting everything right,” Satheesh says. “And in the midst of this festival there was shadow puppetry and percussion instruments being played. Simulating the drumming sounds of that era was not easy with different types of instruments used then.”
Not new to period films, this Indian National Award winner (for ‘Kumar Talkies) has worked in Hollywood, Hindi, Malayalam and Telugu including acclaimed films such as ‘Baahubali’ (part one and two) and ‘Mangal Pandey.’
“For a sequence showing urumi [double edge long swords] fighters we had to match with the computer graphics team who could create it in any speed. Our challenge was to match sound with that speed,” he recalls.
Malayalam cinema debutants
A former captain of Indian netball and a basketball player, Prachi Tehlan’s acting career began with television shows. She was working on her last television show ‘Ikyawann’ when she got a call from the producer’s office. She was surprised when offered a role in a Malayalam film with Mammootty. After an audition in Kochi, she got the role of Unni Maya, marking her first Malayalam film.
“Unni Maya is a warrior and belongs to Valluvanadu,” she says. “She represents strong women from Kerala. All the men of her land have died during the mamangam festival, leaving behind the women folk. Unni Maya builds a palace and brings these women to become devadasis [women dedicated to God].”
Besides learning a new language, Tehlan’s role required strong performances as well as action sequences.
“There was no time for training. I did the action sequences without a double. My sports background helped me,” she says.
Tarun Arora also makes his Malayalam debut. Arora, who entered South Indian cinema with Tamil film ‘Kanithan’, plays Samar Koya, an administrative official in the kingdom of Thirunavaya. He trained in kalaripayattu and sword fighting for his action scenes opposite Mammootty.
“I was familiar with horse riding, but I guess the horse did not like me much, so it took some time taming it,” he says, adding that unlike Tamil and Telugu languages, he found Malayalam difficult. He was impressed with the working style of the industry where the unit bonded as a family.
“My only reason to sign this film was Mammuka, I had no idea it will be this big,” he adds.
Bollywood’s well known action director Sham Kaushal (of ‘Bajirao Mastani’ and ‘Dangal’ fame) is back to Malayalam cinema after 22 years. It was Malayalam film ‘Indrajalam’ that established Kushal as an action director in 1990.
“Having worked on period dramas earlier [Mammootty] was familiar with horse riding and sword fighting. While I was hesitant, he inspired me saying ‘I can do this.’ He was so committed. Every action sequence will connect with viewers emotionally, especially the ones with Achuthan,” he says, adding that Mammootty performed all his stunts.
Don’t miss it!
‘Mamangam’ is now showing across the UAE. The film has also been dubbed in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Watch the trailer below: