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18 April 2024

UAE-based Indian businessmen make waves by playing lead roles in royal movie

By V M Sathish

Travancore dynasty members Marthanda Varma and Dharma Raja played by the Sudhir Kumar Shetty and B R Shetty respectively

Two leading Indian businessmen from the UAE are making waves on the silver screen by playing major roles in a new movie depicting the historical past of Kerala’s Travancore royal family, which attracted global media attention after treasures worth billions of dollars was found in the vaults of the Shri Padmanabha Swami Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

 “Saga of Benevolence”, a docu-film that offers a historical account of the royal family of Tranvancore which ruled the southern half of Kerala for centuries, is made by photographer  Jayachandran who has casted Sudhir Kumar Shetty, Chief Operating Officer of the Abu Dhabi- based UAE Exchange Company, as  Marthanda Varma, the popular ruler of yesteryears. B R Shetty, founder and chairman of the NMC Group, acts as Dharmaraja (king of Travancore from 1758-1790). The docu-film of 138 minutes has been reduced to 105 minutes for a premier show in Abu Dhabi on January 14 and January 15 at the Dubai Women’s College.

“It was by accident that I met Sudhir Kumar Shetty during his pilgrimage to the Shabarimala temple. I was looking for an actor to play the role of Marthanda Varma  who was above 6 feet in height. The tall Shetty was coming out of a small door with much difficulty and I was impressed with his royal look. I took his photographs and I asked him whether you can play a role in a movie,” says Jayachandran, photo editor with the Malayala Manorama newspaper.

“I did not know that he was a big businessman from the UAE. He agreed and the project, which was started six years ago, was completed only last year, just before the Travancore dynasty was again in the news because of the temple treasure,” said Jayachandran.

There are 13 characters in the movie, most of them members of the Travancore royal family, who lend a touch of originality to the film.

The docu-film was adjudged as the best documentary of 2011 at the Kerala State Film Awards. Marthanda Varma, who ruled Travancore around 1750, donated all the family wealth to the Shree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.

According to preliminary reports, the Padmanabha Swami temple in Trivandrum, which is under the trusteeship of the royal family, has treasures estimated at about $21 billion, making it the world’s richest temple.

Sudhir Kumar Shetty, who hails from a business family of Yenmakaje Village, Perla, Kasargod district, Kerala, said he took up the assignment immediately because of his knowledge about the Travancore dynasty and about Marthanda Varma, whom he adored from his childhood.

“I would take a flight from Abu Dhabi on Thursday evening to Travancore and used to shoot for the film at various palaces belonging to the Travancore dynasty. I had to ride a horse in many scenes and play action roles in ‘kalaripayattu’ (traditional form of sword fight), in which the erstwhile kings excelled.” 

The royal family did not endorse many films and documentaries produced about them. ‘Saga of Benevolance’, however, is based on the story narrated by the royal family members and historical palace archives.

The traditional royal costumes in the movie were developed from paintings kept in the royal archives and these images date back to the period before modern photography was born. “I found a lot of time to shoot for the film. Taking time from my busy schedule here, I have followed the script provided by the director. I have adored the royal family of Travancore for their benevolence. In the movie, I had to take out my sword when the country was invaded by Tipu,” said B R Shetty, whose role as Dharmaraja has received much applause. “I have acted in this cinema out of my love and respect for the royal family.”

“After the discovery of the big treasure at the Shri Padmanabha Swami temple, there is a worldwide interest in the movie. We will be showing the movie in all the Gulf countries, USA, Europe, Malaysia and other countries where we have operations,” Shetty said.

On some days, Sudhir was shooting for 18 to 20 hours for the movie at different palaces. There are twelve places belonging to the royal family and the royal family members will be visiting Dubai for the show.

“I am fortunate that the royal treasure worth billions of dollars was discovered before I completed the film. If it was announced earlier, I would not have been allowed to enter the royal premises or the Shree Padmanabha Swami Temple and the royal family would have been reluctant to act in the movie,” said Jayachandran, who has a huge collection of historical paintings, photographs and other resources handed over by the current head of the royal family.

“The script is based on historical documents written on dried palm leaves and the Malayalam language used there is highly influenced by Sanskrit,” he said. “I have taken 56 hours visuals and 1,00,000 still pictures for the film. When I got some money as award for the movie, I gave it to the Shree Padmanabha Swami Temple. Whenever the royal family members get an offering, they would submit it to the temple. That is how so much wealth was accumulated there,” he said.

Addressing a media gathering, the director of the movie said the docu-cinema was a chronicle based on factual compilations of information on the Travancore dynasty until India’s independence in 1947.

“The film gives insights into the lives of the kings of Travancore,” Jayachandran said, adding that the conceptualisation and production of the film came after arduous research and references.

The docu-cinema is penned by Kerala-based writer Madambu Kunjukuttan, drawing inspiration from Mathilakam records – reference papers that tell the story of the Travancore royal dynasty. “Some of the characters lived 300 years ago and their costume and other details were worked out from a small painting or photograph,” Jayanchandran said.

Hailing from Thiruvananthapuram, his wife Shashikala also helped him in the film project. 50 paintings and photographs of Jayachandran will be exhibited in Dubai at Down Town Lotus.

The film’s introduction is done by Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma - the current titular Maharaja of Travancore while other members of the royal family including Pooyam Thirunal Gowri Parvathy Bai, Ashwathy Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bai, Ashwathy Thirunal Rama Varma and Avittom Thirunal Aadithya Varma have played the roles of their ancestors in the film.

English narration in the movie is done by prominent media personality Sashi Kumar and Malayalam by Prof. Aliyar who heads the Malayalam department of the University of Kerala. The making of the docu-cinema was under the supervision of the renowned film director Shaji N. Karun. Popular playback singers of South India K S Chithra and G Venugopal rendered their voices for the songs set to music by Kavalam Sreekumar.