Synopsis: The valorous tale of Veerapandiya Kattabomman, the chieftain of Panchalankurichi, who was among the earliest Indian rulers to oppose the British.
Review: By the time they started Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Sivaji Ganesan and director BR Panthulu had become a formidable team, having worked on successful films like Thangamalai Ragasiyam and Sabhash Meena. Kattabomman was a passion project for the actor, and it was on his request that writer Sakthi Krishnaswamy wrote it as a play, which was then adapted into this film. This digitally restored version is far from perfect — there are instances when in the same scene, the colours seem to have been leached of the frames. The sound, too, feels a bit contemporary. And the casting of Indian actors to play the British characters (their faces are painted white and their diction has a faux anglicised accent) feels dated and even amusing. But set these niggles aside and the film still retains its dramatic force.
Historical accuracy isn't a strong point here and the goal of Panthulu is to glorify Kattabomman and project him as a larger-than-life character who was so fearless that even the British feared him. So, the supporting cast exists mostly for this purpose, the narrative lacks any complexity, and acts mainly as a clothesline for incidents, small and big — Kattabomman capturing robbers, Kattabomman being just, Kattabomman being caring, Kattabomman being playful, Kattabomman taking on Lord WC Jackson, Kattabomman standing up to Major Bannerman and so on. There is also an apparent effort to satisfy all sections of the audience (the character of Meena, Kattabomman's niece, comes across as a sop to the women audience) which only adds to the screen time and makes some scenes even more melodramatic than required. But, to Panthulu's credit, he doesn't compromise on scale and makes these scenes rousing and engaging. Even the sub-plot involving the romance of Vellaiyathevan (Gemini Ganesan), his commander, and Vellaiyammal (a somewhat miscast Padmini, who looks too sophisticated for this role) has a proper arc with a beginning, middle and end. The two crucial scenes, Kattabomman's fiery outbursts against Lord WC Jackson (CR Parthiban) and Major Bannerman (Javar Seetharaman) respectively, are fittingly placed at the end of the two halves of the film, to ensure that we are left on a high.
But none of these would have mattered if not for Sivaji Ganesan. The role doesn't require a layered performance (unlike Karnan, to invoke a similar character) and largely calls for only one note — majesty. Today, it might be easy to dismiss this as scenery-chewing, but calling it so would be way off the mark. So brilliantly does the actor pitch this performance, that it is this performance (which won him the Best Actor award at the 1960 Afro-Asian Film Festival, the first international award received by any Indian actor) that sets the tone of the film. He not only captures the regality of the character in his body language, but also enhances it with his dialogue delivery — the lines come across as not words written by someone but as emotions that flow out of the actor's body. And that is why it is the stuff of legends.