8 best documentaries on kalarippayattu

If one picture is worth a thousand words, what about eight pictures? What’s more, 8 pictures in motion? We can write and say a lot about kalarippayattu, but when the subject is still little known and its essence – the movement – is difficult to describe, sometimes it is just better to just see a video.

It is also good to do this if one has attended some kalari trainings but has never been to Kerala and has not experienced the practice in the cradle of this art, as well as even when we have experience from India but need to refresh our energy and approach. Seeing and listening to a master is always valuable (even on YouTube).

Of course, there are plenty of longer and shorter videos on the web: documentaries, tutorials, presentations, online lessons and so on. My personal selection includes documentaries I consider the most interesting; through which one can get to know more about the system itself and the culture from which it originates. They are not tutorials or feature films that use, for example, staged fights (i.e. old Kerala/Mollywood films or action films with Jack Khan, Vidyut Jamwal, etc. – it’s a topic for another article).  

The older documentaries, recorded between ca. 1958–1990, mentioned here show exercises and sequences, contain interviews with masters and students, as well as additional information given by a voiceover. Their value is in showing the past of Kerala and the old style of practice, as well as the statements of the masters – this aspect is particularly valuable.

The documentaries made in the 1990s and the 21st century are made in a different style: we accompany their main characters (foreigners), who often are the authors and producers of the films, on their journey to Kerala and their first steps in kalari. We follow them in their practice, observing often hard experiences and at the same time we learn various details about both the system’s past and present.

Each film touches on similar topics (history of kalari, elements of the system, links with performing arts and natural South Indian medical systems), yet is unique in its own way and presents kalari from a slightly different perspective. 

Next to each film, I provide basic information about the film and its duration, so that you can plan your screening or immediately switch on one after the other…

1. Martial Dances of Malabar

Year of production: 1985 (includes footage from 1957)
Language: English
Duration: 13’57

The linked video is an excerpt from a 1985 documentary, which in turn features extracts from the 1957 film “Martial Dances of Malabar”, directed by Paul Zils. One can see there what the practice looked like in the mid-20th century. The footage captures movement and combat sequences performed by children and older students, men and women, as well as foot massage in a school stemming from the CVN Kalari lineage.

The last few minutes of the recording take us back to 1985 to CVN Kalari Sangham in Trivandrum, where a fragment of training and an interview with master Govindankutty Nair was also recorded (for more on this school, see the interview with Govindankutty Nair’s son, Master Sathyanarayanan G. Nair).

2. The Way of the Malabar Warrior

Year of production: 1982
Language: English
Duration: 35’15
Direction: Pervez Merwanji

The film tells the story of kalarippajattu based on one of the most famous masters: Shri Chirakkal T. Shreedharan Nair and his school. We learn about the next elements of training, massage, history and art of Kerala, among others.

3. The Way of the Warrior: Kalari, the Indian Way

Year of production: 1983
Language: English
Duration: 39’42
Series authors: Michael Croucher and Howard Reid

The film is one episode in a series of films produced by the BBC on Asian martial arts. 

The documentary introduces the different styles and schools of kalarippayattu, includes interviews with masters (including Vasudevan Gurukkal and Madhavan Asan, with whom Sankar studied), shows the reality of kalari practice in the 1980s, both in the countryside and in the city, and a large part is also devoted to the medical aspect.

4. Die Kämpfer der Kriegsgöttin

Title translation: Warriors of the God of War
Year of production: 1996
Language: German
Duration: 48’29
Direction: Thomas Wartmann

In the documentary produced by German TV Kabel 1/Pro 7, we accompany kickboxer Joppe Lemmens on his trip to Kerala and his study of kalari with master Sherif Gurukkal in Kannur.

Apart from training and the various customs associated with kalari, we also watch, among other things, a spectacular theyyam ritual and take part in a competition. Apart from the value of information provided, the film is well made from an aesthetic point of view.

5. Kalarippayattu. The Art of Payattu (Fight)

Year of production: 2002
Language: English
Duration: 17’31
Direction: Sajeev Pillai

The film was produced by the CCRT (Centre for Cultural Resources and Training), an Indian government organisation that promotes indigenous culture and traditions.

We visit several kalarippayattu schools where we watch both some training and fight demonstrations, listen to interviewed masters (including Govindankutty Nair of CVN Kalari Sangham, Balanchandran Gurukkal of the Indian School of Martial Arts), watch a Kerala theyyam ritual and a kathakali performance, as well as fragments of kathakali training (kalarippayattu students will immediately recognize some exercises) and full body massage.

6. Les arts martiaux

Title translation: The Martial Arts
Year of production: 2015
Language: French
Duration: 22’31
Direction: Mélanie Dion

A documentary made for French TV5 Monde as part of the programme series ‘Des ecoles pas comme les autres’ (‘Schools like no other’). Together with the host of the programme, Julie Laferrière, we visit the Kalari Gurukulam school in Bengaluru, where Ranjan Mullarat is the master.

Apart from presenting the various elements of training and massage and explaining their details, the film includes many statements from the master and his students, showing the functioning of the school and its importance to the community around it.

7. 30 Days Training Kalaripayattu In India [kicks]

Year of production: 2018
Language: English
Duration: 11’03
Authors: Dragons Warriors

Another video where we have guides on a journey to Kerala and exploring kalarippayattu. They are Basia and Dani, a Polish-Colombian couple who travel, train and b/vlog.

They have created a series of videos dedicated to kalarippayattu (see links below) and Basia is also the author of blog articles based on them. In each episode, they focus on a different aspect of the practice, but mostly they test, show and explain the different elements of the training: exercises, positions and movement sequences, as well as some rituals and customs that accompany the practice. The authors trained kalari at a school belonging to the CVN Kalari lineage and among the videos there is also an interview with one of the descendants of the famous master C.V. Narayan Nair.

Other films by Basia and Dani dedicated to their kalari experience in Kerala:

Kalari animal exercises LINK
Puttara salutation (thozhal) LINK
Interview with master Raam Kumar LINK
General experience LINK

8. Kalaripayattu Documentary | A visit to Ayodhana Kalari Bangalore

Year of production: 2022
Language: English
Duration: 55’24
Author: The Flowing Dutchman

The latest of the films in this set is also made as participant observation, i.e. we come to a kalari with the filmmaker, talk to the master and start the practice. This time we accompany Harbert Ekberts, known as The Flowing Dutchman, popular for his commitment in reviving old training practices that use various types of mace (new incarnations of the old Indian and Persian traditions are coming back to gyms).

The Dutchman visits the Ayodhana Kalari school in Bengaluru, where he conducts an interesting interview with the school’s master, Manoj Kumar, and also takes his first steps in training.

This list certainly doesn’t exhaust the cinematic resources of the internet or the TV and private archives, but I think it provides a deeper look into kalari as a profound, holistic system of body work, of which the martial aspect is just one of many that it includes.

If you want to share your opinion on any of these documentaries, or know of another worthwhile film on kalarippayattu, please leave a comment below.