Explained | War heroes who resisted Portuguese: The mega film Kerala is talking about

Vishnu Varma
Explained | War heroes who resisted Portuguese: the mega film Kerala is talking about

Directed by Priyadarshan, it features the popular actor Mohanlal and was reportedly made on a budget of Rs 100 crore, making it the most expensive Malayalam film ever.

On March 26, the big-budget film Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham (Marakkar: The Lion of the Arabian Sea) will release in Kerala and elsewhere. Directed by Priyadarshan, it features the popular actor Mohanlal and was reportedly made on a budget of Rs 100 crore, making it the most expensive Malayalam film ever.

Last month, a petition was filed in the Kerala High Court against the film, alleging ‘distortion of history’ and demanding a stay on the release. The court declined.

What is the film about?

It is a war film depicting the heroics of the Marakkar clan, whose leaders were naval chieftains of the Zamorin of Calicut during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Zamorin, Samoothiri in Malayalam, was the title given to rulers of the Calicut kingdom on the Malabar coast. The Marakkars fought against Portuguese invaders for nearly a century.

Who were the Marakkars?

By some accounts, they were of Arab origin and had migrated from Tunisia to Panthalayani near Koyilandy in present-day Kozhikode, and later moved to the region around present-day Kottakkal and Thikkodi near Payyoli. By other accounts, the Marakkars were descendants of affluent businessman from the Cochin kingdom who migrated later to Calicut.

Historian M G S Narayanan said the name ‘Marakkar’ could have originated from maram or marakkalam, meaning ship, as these families lived along the coast and used ships. Alternatively, it could have originated from the Arabic word markaba, meaning those who migrated via ships. “The Marakkars were mostly Muslims, but in some parts, they have been found to be Hindus as well,” Narayanan said.

What was the war against the Portuguese about?

Faced with invading Portuguese ships, the Zamorin reached out to the Marakkars to defend the coast. They were led in succession by four Marakkars, chief admirals who were appointed by the Zamorin with the title of Kunjali. Related by bloodline, they were Kuttyali Marakkar (Kunjali Marakkar I, appointed in 1507), Kutty Pokker (Kunjali Marakkar II), Pathu Marakkar (Kunjali Marakkar III) and Muhammad Ali Marakkar (Kunjali Marakkar IV, appointed in 1595).

“Their strategy was similar to guerrilla warfare. The Portuguese had massive ships which could not make easy manoeuvres in the sea. The Marakkars used small ships which could easily surround the Portuguese ships, enabling the fighters to attack at will,” Narayanan said.

In the span of 100 years, the exploits of the Kunjali Marakkars are said to have improved the naval fleet of Calicut as well as other kingdoms, stretching from Saurashtra to Ceylon along the Indian coast. War technologies and ammunition greatly improved as well.

Who is the ‘Lion of the Arabian Sea’ depicted in the film?

Mohanlal plays Kunjali Marakkar IV, who earned his reputation with his fierce onslaught on Portuguese ships, the favours he gave those who fought against the Portuguese, and his efforts to strengthen the fort at Kottakkal.

When he took charge in 1595, relations between the Zamorin and the Marakkars were deteriorating. The Zamorin was feeling threatened by Kunjali Marakkar IV’s popularity, and by reports (said to be spread by the Portuguese) that he was planning to create a Muslim empire.

In 1597, the Zamorin signed a peace treaty with the Portuguese and attacked Kottakkal fort. For months, the Marakkars resisted the attack by the Zamorin’s Nair soldiers and the Portuguese fleet. Eventually, as Portugal sent more forces and the Zamorin mounted his effort, Marakkar surrendered to the Zamorin on the assurance that their lives would be spared. But the Portuguese violated the terms, arrested him, took him to Goa and beheaded him.

Why was a petition filed against the film in the High Court?

Mufeeda Arafath Marakkar of Koyilandy, who identified herself as a descendant of the Marakkar clan, argued that the the film’s version of events could mislead students and researchers. Among the contentions is that Kunjali Marakkar IV is shown to have romantic interests when there is no such evidence in history. He is shown sporting a picture of Lord Ganesh on his turban; the petition contends that he was actually a pious Muslim who did not display Hindu imagery.

The High Court declined to impose a stay and asked the film certification Board if it had handed over the complaint to the Centre. The Board conveyed that the subject deals with art and that it cannot interfere in the freedom of expression of the filmmakers.