The last time writer-director Priyadarshan made a large-scale epic in Malayalam was in 1996's Kalapani, starring his usual collaborator Mohanlal. While it doesn't boast of a huge budget in current numbers, Rs. 2.5 crores back in 1996 was a huge number if you take inflation into consideration. It was also a risky venture as this wasn't the usual period piece we were accustomed to, Kalapani was based on the lives of Indian freedom fighters incarcerated in the infamous Cellular Jail a.k.a. Kalapani located at Port Blair, Andaman who faced unflinchingly brutal treatment from the British jailers. The film which celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this year has become a milestone not only in Malayalam cinema but also once was the widest Indian film released worldwide with 450 screens. So, when it was announced that Priyadarshan is reuniting with Mohanlal for his biggest project to date, Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea, on paper it seemed right. After all, they gave us Kalapani, one of the most celebrated Malayalam cinema classics. And even months before release, it bagged the most prestigious award bestowed upon, The National Award for Best Feature Film of the year along with 2 other wins in other categories. That's a huge achievement making it the second high-budget flick which has received this honor, (Bahubali: The Beginning won in 2015, whereas this is Priyadarshan's second win since 2007's Kanchivaram).
But with all the hype and wins galore, it had a stormy path to reach the audiences. For one, the COVID-19 hit last year, and the theatres were shut in the same month when it was first supposed to be released. It was delayed further till May of 2021 when suddenly the infected cases were exponentially rising along with deaths during the end of the April-June period. And the developments of releasing it in OTT platforms led to lots of back and forth discussion on whether a big-budgeted flick could get back the ROI it desperately needed on small screens as Fahadh Faasil-starrer Malik and Mohanlal's own Drishyam 2 did before it. But when the producer Antony Perumbavoor was contemplating releasing it on an OTT platform, Kurup did great business at the box office thereby finally confirming it would release it in theatres as planned. But now it's been 2 weeks since release and it has now been released on Amazon Prime, does that mean it bombed? Well, it kinda did as the responses from both the critics and the audiences was harsh. Yes, it opened big but poor word-of-mouth turned out to be the film's downfall. So was the criticism warranted? Did it deserve the harsh rejection from the audiences? The answer is yes... but not because the movie is really awful. It's a bafflingly mediocre movie and the key reason as to why it got such a brutal reaction is that it got the most prestigious award in the country for Best Feature Film of the year. To put it metaphorically, the award is the dead albatross hanging on the film's neck.
...it got the most prestigious award in the country for Best Feature Film of the year. To put it metaphorically, the award is the dead albatross hanging on the film's neck...
The movie claims to be taken from historical anecdotes but the story has been largely fictionalized. That's fine as some of the great movies like Inglorious Bastards happens to be just fictional movie based on history. But that doesn't mean it could rip off some other movies' core structure like other history-based films. Here, Marakkar has the distinction of being the most unoriginal historical epic, which takes great story elements from different movies and blended them into a bland, disappointing misfire. The movie feels off as the movie progresses not because of its gargantuan runtime of 3 hours, but the viewers have to endure some bafflingly poor writing. While great actors can overcome such issues with their performances, some instances could be an exception here and unfortunately, Mohanlal's performance succumbs to just that. Not only does he have to tell some really cringy lines but also they're filtered through his Kozhikode-dialect, they really remind you of his performance in Kilichundan Mambaram. It's as if he's like he's lost as he tries to emote with his big speeches or the big emotional outbursts but eventually they all fall flat. In fact, almost all of the supporting cast alongside him also do not fare well too. With the exception of Arjun Sarja and Pranav Mohanlal (who plays the younger Kunjali), everyone is either one-dimensional or they are highly caricaturish like the foreign villains here. The women especially are wasted here, they only provide weight when they want to love or to be loved.
Oh, I have to mention this isn't structured as any historic patriotic film but in fact, this is a love story. And the love story is the catalyst for the big war scenes which admittedly is decently staged. Yup, as I mentioned before about its originality, this movie's core story reminds you of Troy with a dash of Braveheart and an additional bonus: the two lovebirds when they meet reminds you of another Priyadarshan classic Thenmavin Kombathu.
There is some great stuff though, which elevate this movie. Pranav Mohanlal seems more confident here than his father when it comes to action sequences and emotional scenes (Not that Mohanlal can do action, watch Kayamkulam Kochunni, or even better, Pulimurugan). Cinematographer Tirru stages the movie with a grey palette and it does look amazing. The production design, the score (although the main theme keeps repeating all the time) all stand out and even the editing keeps the movie brisk. The movie could've been dismissed as disappointing if not a mediocre film (It's better than Odiyan, thank God) but if only it didn't win the big award and the high expectations it generated, things wouldn't have been this bad.