The Indian director talks about his new project, Urumi, a period fantasy epic which is being made in English, Hindi and Malayalam versions.

A filmmaker from the south Indian state of Kerala, Sivan has earned international recognition with films such as The Terrorist, Before The Rains, co-produced with US-based Echo Lake Entertainment, and Kashmir-set Tahaan: A Boy With A Grenade.

He is currently working on an English-language international version of his new project, Urumi, a period epic about the fictional attempts of a group of Keralans – led by a local warrior and Muslim princess – to assassinate the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. It’s one of the first films to feature the ancient south Indian style of martial arts, Kalari, which uses several weapons including a flexible metal sword.

The film is produced by Sivan, the film’s star Prithviraj, Shaji Nadesan and Mubina Rattonsey under their August Cinema banner. The cast also includes Genelia D’Souza, India-based US actor Alexx O’Nell and UK actor Robin Pratt. The Malayalam version was released in Kerala in April to strong box office and positive reviews.

So why did the Keralans want to assassinate Vasco da Gama?

Few people know that the history of India was changed because of a peppercorn. The Arabs were good traders in those days, but then Europe discovered that India had pepper and started fighting with the Muslim traders.

When Vasco da Gama came here he committed a lot of atrocities against Muslim traders. Even though there were warrior clans in India in those days, these people had a code of war and didn’t know how to fight like Europeans.

But finally European war was upon them – the Portuguese were the first to come – and they came face-to-face with the gun and the cannon. So the movie is about that, and also the fact that Western people think of him as the man who discovered India, but for us he’s an invader.

What’s the budget of the film and how did you finance it?

It’s quite high, but I don’t want to put a figure on it, as we worked with people like Sony and Fuji who helped us out with in-kind services. When you have big stars and songs in the movie, the finance becomes easy. But within that you can also make an international version which can travel.

What is different about the international version?

It has a different story – you have a character from modern-day Britain who is researching Kalari warriors and discovers the true story of this first white man to come to India. It will be in Malayalam and English and we’ll shoot some parts separately. Alexx O’Nell plays the researcher and Da Gama’s son and Robin Pratt plays the older Vasco da Gama.

We were thinking that to make this interesting in the West, we shouldn’t have songs, but keep to a bare bones point-of-view that is as close to the original movie as possible. We’ve already shot 60% of the international version including all the big war scenes with thousands of horses. Neil Cunningham at Reliance MediaWorks is working on the CGI for all the versions.

Has Kalari been featured in movies before?

Not too much – Kalari is actually the mother of all martial arts and it’s very interesting and indigenous but difficult to show properly. Also we have to be careful because when you go to the international market there is this perception – if you say my film has martial arts, people assume it’s Chinese, just like when you say you have songs, people assume it’s very Indian. So we don’t want to overplay that element, just show what is real.

How will you release the international version?

We’re talking to distribution partners. The international market is only really interested in certain types of films from India – like Deepa Mehta films or arthouse films with a colonial setting. With this one we’re thinking we can take it to festivals. I’ve managed to release most of my films overseas, but for example with Before The Rains, the pirate DVD was out before we could release it in India.

What is the current state of Malayalam cinema?

Malayalam cinema is interesting because like Bengali cinema it used to have a lot of literary adaptations. Then theatre moved in and it’s now in the hands of people who do mimicry and make fun of people. But I’d say it’s the most subtle of all the south Indian cinemas – Tamil cinema is loud but Malayalam is more subtle. It also has big stars like Mohanlal, Mammootty and now Prithviraj who stars in my film.

I think it’s doing well because our budgets are much smaller than Tamil and Telugu films and we work very fast. You can make any kind of film, but like everywhere else in India, there is a trend of the big stars dominating everything. You can make a film without a star, but of course no-one will release it.