The National Award winning film 'The Sword of Liberty', uses art forms like Thullal and Villupaatu to tell the story of one of the first freedom fighters of the country.

The Sword of Liberty Freedom fighter Velu Thambi Dalawas story in film
Flix Cinema Monday, June 18, 2018 - 17:47

All she had was a sword and a statue. The sword that had famously returned to the home of its owner in Thiruvananthapuram a few years ago. And the statue in front of the Secretariat. But he – Velu Thambi Dalawa, one of the first to rebel against the British rule – had always been an enigma to her. The man who famously made the Kundara Proclamation against the British in 1801. So, when RC Suresh, a descendant of Velu Thambi Dalawa came to her with the idea of a film, Shiny Jacob Benjamin, said yes. She made The Sword of Liberty. It went on to win the National Award for Best Historical Film and Best Music in the non-features film section of 2017.

“There is this long history of him (Velu Thambi) and I didn’t know in what form it should be presented. There were also so many different accounts. I had to rely on my judgement on what I felt would be true,” says Shiny, hours after she premiered the film in Thiruvananthapuram, on Monday. At the Kalabhavan theatre where she screened it was also Devaki, who played her protagonist.

Shiny was figuring out a way to tell this massive story when she decided to make it a tale being narrated to a woman researching it. Devaki is, in fact, Suresh’s daughter, and this makes her a descendant of Dalawa. However, this is not mentioned in the film. 

We see her hearing the news about the sword being moved from the National Museum in Delhi to the Napier Museum in Thiruvananthapuram. She then sets out on a journey, beginning with an old man who sings about old myths. He takes her to Thalakkulam Valiya Veedu, believed to be where Dalawa had grown up, and which is now a memorial. “The British had demolished the ancestral house and killed the relatives, some went in exile. We don’t know if this house was built from the remnants or entirely from scratch,” says the old man.

He was born in 1865 as Velayudhan Chempakaraman Thambi to Valliyammai Pillai Thankachi and Kunjimayitti Pillai. Even as a teenager, he became a leader people listened to. He gathered masses to fight against the increasing tax imposed on them by outsiders in the court. He convinced the king to punish the outsiders. He was then made a manager, a minister, and later the Diwan of Travancore. But since he was also commander-in-chief, he was called ‘Dalawa’. The British of course hated him when he turned against them, the final straw coming with the Kundara Proclamation, asking people to take arms against the foreign rule. But he took his life before they could reach him. A heroic tale that Shiny outlines through various unconventional methods of storytelling.

“We had gone in search of villupaatukar in Tamil Nadu, to know what they sang about him. What they had were myths like what paananmar sing. But we wanted history,” Shiny says. Nevertheless she puts in between the narrative, performances of Villupaatu, Thullal and Tholpaavakoothu – all traditional art forms – to tell interesting bits about Dalawa. He was, for instance, infamous for the harsh punishments he gave to those who cheated or lied or stole. A Parayan Thullal (satirical solo dance form) bit in the film goes thus:

Kanakilla kapadangal paranjonte naavu vetti (The tongues of those who lied relentlessly were cut off)
mathil chaadi kadannonte kudi kaalum vetti Thambi (and the limbs of those who jumped fences were chopped off by Thambi)
mathimukimarku pinpe nunanjonte mooku vetti (the noses of those who chased after moon-faced maidens were severed)
panapetti kavarnonte karam randum udan vetti (the arms of those who stole from the coffers were chopped off)

“Ramesh Narayan had given music to the songs,” Shiny says. For the rest of the storytelling, she got Devaki to speak to historians and other experts – Prof. TP Sankarankutty Nair of the Centre for Heritage Studies, Dr AK Perumal, folklorist in Nagercoil and others.  In the film, she visits the Kilimanoor Palace too where Dalawa had sought refuge at in 1809, days before he killed himself. He had gifted his sword to the royal family and it emerged again in public view in 1957. The film ends with Devaki glancing at the sword that shines through a glass box at the Napier Museum.

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