While discovery of huge treasures from vaults of the famed Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala's capital has revived interest in history and culture of Travancore, a silent film made in 1933 focussing on a turbulent phase in the princely state's history has been taken out of the box where it has been lying unseen for decades.
The film, which tells the story of Anizham Tirunal Marthanda Varama (1706-1758), creator of modern Travancore, also has prefixed to it rare footage of the 'arattu festival' shot in 1930s; perhaps the only motion picture documentation of the temple and its customs as existed in the early 20th century.
Titled Marthandavarma, it is an adaptation of the famous novel by Malayalam's literary icon C V Raman Pillai, published in 1891.
The literary classic, which followed the style of 'historical romances' of English novelist Walter Scott, narrates the story of Marthanda Varma, who renovated the temple in the present form and dedicated his kingdom to the presiding deity and declared himself and his descendants to be 'Padmanabhadasas' (servants of Lord Padmanabha).
His assumption of power was preceded by a gory phase of power struggle and civil war in Travancore as he had to suppress open rebellion by a clique of powerful Nair chieftains, the 'Ettuveettil Pillamar', who wanted a puppet to be enthroned in place of a farsighted statesman of great courage like Mathanda Varma.
According to Dr M K P Nair, general secretary of Filca film society, the movie version was made by R Sundararaj in 1933 and directed by south Indian film veteran P V Rao.
The 110-minute film, however, was jinxed right from the day of release as its fate was to remain canned after running into a legal suit over title rights claimed by the publisher of the novel.
Decades later in 1974, the lone surviving print was traced by former Curator of National Film Archives P K Nair and preserved in the Pune archives.
Recently, a DVD version was made and screened, after eight decades, at the Filca international film festival held here a couple of months back, Nair said.
"It was an absorbing, full-length feature film that can be enjoyed scene by scene without getting bored. English subtitles were added recently to enable viewers unfamiliar with the history of Travancore follow the storyline easily," he said.
The film has one of the earliest documentaries in Indian motion picture history with a 10 minute sequence showing the 'arattu procession' of the temple with the last Maharaja of Travancore, Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma, leading soldiers, policemen and officials with a raised sword.
The documentation provides vivid scenes of streets around the temple, the vast pond in front and the whole fortified area where the temple and allied buildings are located.
Nair said the film was screened only a single day at the then Capitol theatre in Thiruvananthapuram as the very next day screening was stopped through a court order and the print confiscated after a title suit filed by the novel's publisher.
When retraced, some part of the print was damaged beyond repair and the remaining part in brittle shape.It was taken to the National Film Archives and restored and preserved with the help of modern technology. "Perhaps this is one of the very few Indian films of the silent era whose prints have survived the ravages of time," Dr Nair said.
Balagopalan, freelance film historian and antique buff, said it is an interesting film not simply due to its antiquity, but due to powerful portrayal of characters and vivid narration of situations.
It was also the first time a Malayalam literary classic had its movie version and the director had taken great care to do justice to the original as narrated by Raman Pillai.
It offers glimpses of state craft, power struggles and intrigues of the day as well as martial art forms and costumes of men and women in the 18th century. It also throws valuable insight into the lifestyle of not only royals and nobles of the day, but also the common man, Balagopalan said.