The film won National Film Award for Best Background Score, Best Audiography and Special Jury Award (for Padmapriya). It received numerous other accolades including eight Kerala State Film Awards and seven Filmfare Awards South.
The film starts in 1796, four years after the occupation of Malabar by the English East India Company and towards the end of the First Pazhassi Revolt (1793–1797). The revolt is led by Kerala Varma (Mammootty), the Raja of Pazassi Palace, of Kottayam house. The exploitation of the native Indian resources by the Company had culminated in popular revolts against its authority across the district. With the help of Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja's uncle Kurumbranadu ruler Veeravarma (Thilakan), who is jealous of Pazhassi Raja for his success and influence, and Raja's old companion Pazhayamveedan Chandhu (Suman), the Company act against Pazhassi Raja. This forces Pazhassi Raja to escape to the forests of Wayanad. The tribal force led by Neeli captures Assistant Collector Thomas Hervey Baber (Harry Key) and his fiancée Dora (Linda Arsenio) in the jungle, in spite of his commander's objection. The Raja treats Thomas Baber and Dora as his guest and releases them.
From there he begins a guerrilla battles against the Company. He is supported by his army chief Edachena Kunkan (Sarathkumar) and his brother-in-law Kaitheri Ambu (Suresh Krishna). In the guerrilla battle-front, Pazhassi Raja uses the expertise of Thalakkal Chandu (Manoj K. Jayan), a Kurichya soldier, and Chandu's fiancée Neeli (Padmapriya).
During the initial phases of the battle, the Company lose lots of men and money. This compels them to make a peace treaty with Pazhassi Raja. Raja agrees, hoping that this move will bring peace to the area and his people. However, the conditions of the treaty are never observed by the Company. This prompts Raja to start the battle again. Similarly, Dora leaves Thomas Baber for England, having learned the betrayal done by the Company to the Raja and despite her objection to the hanging of a father and son, who refused to reveal the location of the Raja to the Company. He forms useful alliances with many rulers and powerful families in the nearby places like Unni Mootha (Captain Raju) and his men.
Pazhassi Raja and his army successfully start the battle again. But the Company use heavily armed forces against him and succeed in luring many tribal leaders. This leads to the capture and subsequent hanging of Thalakkal Chandu as he was cheated by a tribal head (Nedumudi Venu).
The Company start hunting for Pazhassi and his army chief Edachena Kunkan. In a bloody fight, Edachena Kunkan kills Pazhayamveedan Chandhu. But he is surrounded by the Company. Instead of surrendering before them, he commits suicide. This makes Raja's army weaker. But Pazhassi Raja, even though knowing that he is going to die, goes for a last fight against the Company. After a glorious fight Pazhassi Raja is killed by the Company. The film ends with the assistant collector Thomas Baber placing the body of the Raja in a litter and his famous words: "He was our enemy. But he was a great warrior, a great man and we honour him." The Company officers respond by saluting the corpse of the Raja and acting as Pall-bearers.
M. T. Vasudevan Nair, Hariharan and Mammootty are working together after two decades; their previous association was Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, which turned out into a landmark film in Malayalam. It was about Chanthu, a legendary warrior in the Northern Ballads. Through Pazhassi Raja, they made another biopic, on the life of Pazhassi Raja. Gokulam Gopalan was the film's producer. The total budget of the film is about ₹27 crores, which makes it the most expensive Malayalam film ever made. The sounds in the battle scenes of the film were recreated under Academy Award winner Resul Pookutty as he joined in the project only after its completion.
The Kerala High Court ordered the producers of the film to avail the benefit of entertainment tax concession for viewers of Pazhassi Raja.
Mammootty plays the title role of Pazhassi Raja. There are three heroines: Padmapriya appearing as a tribal girl, Kanika as Pazhassi's wife and Linda Arsenio as Dora Baber, fiancée of Assistant Collector Thomas Baber. Linda is a theatre artist in New York who also acted in the film Kabul Express.
Through this film, Sarath Kumar makes his debut in Malayalam cinema. He portrays Edachena Kunkan, the chief lieutenant to Pazhashi Raja. Suresh Gopi was originally cast for the role, however he refused to accept. Later, he clarified that he couldn't act in the film due to personal reasons and it would always be a loss for him. Suman plays Pazhayamveedan Chandu. Biju Menon was originally cast for the role but he opted out after a few days of shooting, citing physical difficulties in shooting fight scenes.
The filming began on February 2007 from Palakkad. The filming lasted for two and a half years and was completed in August 2009. Sound mixer Resul Pookutty recreated all location scenes to ensure perfection. About the delay in making, Hariharan said: "The film's shoot took two years to complete, when it should have been completed in eight months. The delay was not because of me. Neither was it because my producer, Gokulam Gopalan, was short of money; I must really thank my producer, without whom a film like Pazhassi Raja would never have been made. The delay was because some of the stars were not willing to allot the extra time that was required for the film. They probably didn't realise this film would become a milestone in their careers. Making Pazhassi Raja was a great challenge for me. Directing Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha was a cakewalk, compared to this."
The film features six original songs composed by Ilaiyaraaja. The original background score was composed by Ilaiyaraaja, conducted by László Kovács and performed by the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest. It took three months for Ilaiyaraaja to complete the background score. On 25 September, Think Music released a soundtrack album, featuring only the songs. The songs received mixed to negative critical reviews and "did not go the way that it was expected". Following the setback of the soundtrack album, Ilaiyaraaja stated that he was not satisfied with the lyrics of poet O. N. V. Kurup, who penned two songs for the film. Ilaiyaraaja won the National Film Award for Best Background Score Original version
All lyrics written by O. N. V. Kurup, Gireesh Puthenchery and Kanesh Punoor; all music composed by Ilaiyaraaja.Tamil version (Dubbed)
All lyrics written by Vaali; all music composed by Ilaiyaraaja.
Hindi version (Dubbed)
All lyrics written by Manoj Santoshi and Manisha Korde; all music composed by Ilaiyaraaja.
The film was released on 16 October as a Diwali release with 130 prints in the original Malayalam version and later on 17 November with 150 prints in Tamil. Later, on 27 September 2013, Goldmines Telefilms launched the trailer of the Hindi dubbed version of the film, at their YouTube channel. The full Hindi version of the film was digitally released on YouTube on 11 October 2013.
Moser Baer Home Entertainment released the film on Blu-ray Disc, DVD, SuperDVD and VCD in India. The home video rights was bought by Moser Baer for a record sum of ₹ 62 lakhs. Pazhassi Raja was the first regional language film to be released in the Blu-ray format. The DVD version of the film was released on 1 May 2010 as a two-DVD set. It is available in 16:9 Anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, progressive 24 FPS, widescreen and NTSC format. Within two days of its release, Pazhassi Raja broke all existing records in Malayalam home video sales by selling over two lakh units.
Nowrunning comments that the film is an "exotic chronicle that stuns us with its fascinating tale", and that "this is the stuff that tours de force are made of". Rediff gave the film 3.5 stars out of 5, praising the script and the technical brilliance of the film. Sify described the film as one "that will be treasured for years to come".
However, Rediff also stated that "sentimentalism bogs down the pace [of the film]" at several occasions of the story. Ilayaraja's music also received criticism and the critics further accused the film of taking some cinematic liberties on history. The Hindu said, "the host of people who play English Lords and East India Company chiefs appears theatrical. Even Linda Arsenio, the English Lady Dora Baber, isn't spontaneous" and "while on editing, certain parts seem to have been trimmed in haste and hence hang without relevance. Strangely, despite an action-oriented story and mind-boggling stunts, the film sags at points." Other critics pointed the sloppy fight scenes and the English accent of Padmapriya who has dubbed for herself in the film.
Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja collected around ₹82 lakh from first day over the 125 releasing centres. The film had a record opening, collecting ₹2.72 crore in its first weekend, which was the highest ever weekend recorded for a film in Kerala, at the time it was released. By the sixth week (42 days) of release, the film had collected ₹13 crore in Kerala. The film grossed ₹18 crore (US$2.8 million) in 70 days run in Kerala. Producer Gopalan said at a press meet in Kochi a year after the release that the film grossed a total of ₹20 crore worldwide.