Saturday, 17 October 2009
Pazhassi Raja Film Opens
Mammootty plays the Pazhassi Raja in a film that premièred on the 17th October 2009.
Excitement has been building for some months amongst my many Kerala friends and correspondents about a new film being made by Hariharan, a renowned Malayali film director, to a script by M T Vasudevan Nair about the Pazhassi Rajah and his struggle against the British.
At long last the film has been released and their suspense is ended.
For a fun clip turn up the volume and click on to the following...
Early reports of the film are favourable for instance....
As an Englishman, my wait before I get to see the film will be a little longer. However it will be interesting to see what the film makers have made of the Rajah's story.
This story for me however is not just any old colourful story from long ago in a far away land, but also part of my heritage, and a family legend. And one that involved my forebears to just as great an extent as it does so many modern Indian's whose descendants are alive today in the Wayanad or Thalassery.
The story of the Pazhassi Rajah has been told many times, and no doubt will continue to be told many times again as it passes through the generations for aeon's to come.
In many ways, this story has parallels with the story of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Only in this case, the Sheriff prevailed and the Raja was killed.
Because in many ways Thomas Baber was the villain or Sheriff who killed the hero.
He got "Robin Hood."
My interest in these events started about a decade ago when I first read the tale of Thomas Baber tracking down and killing of the Rajah on the 30th of November 1805.
Thomas Baber was my great great great great uncle.
Through the good services of the internet, and to my great surprise I was contacted a few years ago by local Indian's whose ancestors had also been caught up in those events, and who had been actively researching the Raja's life and times. This led to my being invited to India where visiting many of the locations where these events took place.
The story of this search is contained in the early posts on this blog.
I also had the unexpected and somewhat strange experience of meeting two young descendants of the Raja who were very kind to me, and who fortunately did not seem to hold any grudges.
There appears to be a great thirst for information about these events, and for history in general amongst many people who are living in or who originate from Kerala. There is however also great difficultly for most of these people who would like to be able to get at real historical information about these events, because so little is available in books or film.
Many have been extremely surprised at just how much I have been able to discover and which is available in the British Library here in London. These records have survived because the East India Company had shareholders and auditors, was a commercial concern, and just like any modern multinational, its management had to send in reports to head office every month or so.
This enables a modern researcher to unearth really detailed accounts of the events surrounding the Pazhassi Rajah.
My great concern about this new film, is that although it's publicity makes much of it's accuracy, I am concerned that it has in-fact been written in large part with an eye to increasing its audience.
I hope that Vasudevan Nair has been as accurate in his script as the publicity would have us believe.
I have my concerns, for instance as IndiaGlitz wrote on the 15th of October..
"The historical which also present a true love story of ‘Pazhassi Raja’ with Kaitheri Makkam will give further lights to the first ever Indian freedom fight against the British," 
The Raja's Queen played by Kaniha Subamaniam
Early reports before the film was released suggested that the film depicts the Rani leading her own fierce band of Amazon archers into battle.
Padmapriya plays Neeli, Thalakkal Chandu's fiancée and the leader of women Kurichya soldiers.
Events surrounding the Raja's rebellion are extremely well documented, and anything as unusual in the eyes of the soldiers or officials fighting the Raja as a band of female warriors, would surely have appeared somewhere in the records. In ten years of extensive research, I have not come across a single suggestion of any women taking an active part in these fights.
It would be fascinating to be proved wrong. Where did Vasudevan Nair find this documented?
The Rani was certainly present at the Raja's final camp. Thomas Baber makes this clear in his report.
"And from the accounts of the Raja’s lady, they had been reduced to the greatest distresses in particular for the last ten days. The Raja’s body was taken up and put in my palanquin, while the lady who was dreadfully reduced from sickness was put into Captain Clapham’s." 
Thomas Baber appears to have exercised considerable care for the Rani in the years following the Raja's death. Local legend in the Wayanad has it that he was having an affair with her, because he visited her so often. This appears unlikely given Thomas Baber's relationship with his wife Helen.
In the film Thomas Hervey Baber is played by a young Australian Harry Key.
Thomas Baber's wife appears in the film, however she is incorrectly called Dora. Her real name was in fact Helen Baber.
Linda Arsenio plays Helen Baber
Helen Baber been a victim of one of the Raja's earliest victories over the British.
This was no doubt a very tough war for her. Her second husbands fight with her former husbands killer must have had an edge all of its own.
What must it of been like to know that her second husband was up in the Wayanad going after the Raja on his home territory?
Her maiden name was Helen Somerville Fearon, and she came from Edinburgh. She had married in 1795 aged just 15 to Captain Donald Cameron, of the Bombay Army at Portsmouth. The East India Company depot on the Isle of Wight was nearby, this many have been a last minute affair prior to Cameron boarding an East Indiamen before setting out on the long journey east.
Helen will have arrived in India in 1796, and must have presumably travelled with the Major to Tellicherry shortly afterwards. On the 17th March 1797 the Major was leading a force down the Periah Pass when he was killed. Aged 17 she was already a widow.
Thomas Baber had married her at Tellicherry the following year.
Helen Baber's tomb at Thalaserry
Thomas Baber was profoundly affected by these events. He seems to have recognised the Raja's role and stature.
The Raja had played an outstanding role in trying to defeat Tipu Sultan's invasion. When the more senior Rajah's had taken fright in the face of Tipu's onslaught, and had fled to Calicut or Cochin, the younger and more junior Raja had stepped into their place. These older disgraced Raja's had resented the Pazhassi Raja's success in this campaign, and his growing stature as the outstanding local leader. Jealously on the part of his uncle, would lead that same uncle to betray his nephew several times in 1797 to 1805.
Thomas Baber probably thought that by killing the Raja he would bring to an end the insurgency, and that under British rule things would become much better for the local inhabitants, with whom he seems to have established quite a rapport.
It was his rapport with the lower castes of this deeply fractured and divided local community, that gave Thomas Baber the intelligence on the ground that allowed him to defeat the Raja where others including the future Duke of Wellington failed.
To his horror, after a few years had passed, it became obvious to Thomas Baber that many of the British officials were incapable of running the region effectively.
Most could not understand the local languages well enough to be able communicate. They didn't understand the culture either. Many were lazy and others were corrupt. Baber used his position as a Magistrate and later as a Judge over many years to try to correct this mismanagement. He campaigned for year after year against his colleagues and the higher authorities in Madras. I have found nearly three hundred of these letters.
His constant criticism of his colleagues, and his defence of the rights of the local Indian's cost him promotion, and nearly his life as well. He fought a duel against a British officer over slavery, and was challenged to a second one.
He was eventually thrown out of his post in 1829,by a reactionary new governor Stephen Lushington and went back to Britain where he campaigned to Parliament and the House of Lords to stop slavery in Kerala. Later he returned to India, knowing full well that he would never see Britain again. He had come to love India and Indian's more than Britain.
He wanted the East India Company to rule through Indian's, which is why he built a school opposite the Pearl Hotel in Tellicherry that is still in use today.
I believe he felt that the Raja had been the rightful leader of the region, and that the EIC officials in the Malabar had abused their position, in order to frustrate an agreement that Governor Duncan was trying to reach with the Raja.
It was Handley, Stevens, Torin and Murdoch Brown together with the Raja's uncle who manipulated events in order to see the Pazhassi Raja removed from his position, so that they could engross the pepper trade for their private gain.
Thomas Baber appears to me have felt that because he had removed the Raja, the natural projector of the local inhabitants, that he was somehow morally responsible for assuming that mantle. This belief affected the way he undertook his duties for most of the rest of his life.
The real story is probably even more fascinating than the film version, but until I see the film, I will not know.
Here's a clip from the film.. http://video.google.co.uk/videosearch?hl=en&source=hp&q=pazhassi+raja&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=Ls7ZSo_DIdbOjAe86fnhCA&sa=X&oi=video_result_group&ct=title&resnum=7&ved=0CDQQqwQwBg#
It would be great to make a sequel with this team telling the subsequent story.
In the coming weeks I will post more transcripts and accounts of the events leading up to November 1805.
I would like to acknowledge the help that I have had from Jissu Jacob and Vivish George in writing this blog.
 See http://www.indiaglitz.com/channels/malayalam/article/50820.html
 See http://movies.rediff.com/slide-show/2009/sep/29/slide-show-1-south-interview-with-kaniha.htm
 See my blog http://malabardays.blogspot.com/2007/08/thomas-babers-account-of-end-of-pyche_12.html
 See http://malabardays.blogspot.com/2006/12/death-of-major-cameron.html