Many tribal societies have been patriarchal, where the concepts like female chief or leader is considered as abominable and an insult to Gods. In the modernized world, men from these societies have mostly forgotten their tradition and proud ancestry, embracing all the good’s and bad’s (alcohol) of Western world, but still view the idea of female empowerment as unthinkable. Ancient Maori tribes of New Zealand follow a religious custom to look for a boy, gifted with mystic abilities, to be their chieftain. Although the desolate Maori lands have fallen into the hands of colonizers, some of them fiercely believe in the 1,000 year old legend. A chief may not really descend from a whale to crusade against the invaders, but these were the only few ancient customs that might impart the next generation with the information of who they were and where did they came from?
Lee Tamohari’s highly successful 1994 film “Once Were Warriors” painted a grim portrait about the Maori men, who have deigned from being great warriors to alcoholics and wife-beaters. However, director Niki Caro’s adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s 1986 novel “Whale Rider” (2002) possesses a deeply spiritual message about powerful patriarchal tradition and feel-good factor that might resonate with women all over the universe. It addresses the subject of the modern survival of indigenous people by presenting a more optimistic point-of-view than “Once Were Warriors.” The story takes place in a small fishing village in the eastern coast of New Zealand. The people are called ‘Whangara’, who believe in the legend of Paikea – demi-god ancestor arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale. Since then, the first born of the Paikea descendant is considered as Whangara chieftain.
Koro aka Paka (Rawiri Paratene) is the chief of this tribe, who is fed up with the hard modern times. He becomes extremely disappointed when his first-born son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) exhibits no interest in becoming the next chief. When his son’s wife gets pregnant he hopes for a grandson to lead his tribe. But, unfortunately the still-born baby boy and his mother dies, leaving out a twin sister. Porourangi against his father’s wish names the girl Paikea. Grief-stricken Porourangi leaves Pai in the care of his father and mother Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), and leaves abroad to continue his sculpting works. Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), now aged 12, often feels Koro's disappointment that she survived. But, Koro, in his own way loves Pai. Considering his early frustrations, he has bonded well with Pai, since he picks her up every day from school on his bicycle.
Grandma Flowers provides all the moral support Pai needs and often jokes about divorcing Koro. Porourangi’s return from Germany flares all the old conflicts. He seems estranged and makes clear that he has no intention of becoming Koro’s successor. He also reveals that he is now expecting a child with a German girlfriend and also convinces Pai to come with him to Germany. Pai gets ready to take the trip with her father, but the mystic beauty of her coastal village pulls her back. She joyously stands before Paka saying “I’m Back”, but her craggy granddad only concentrates on opening a sacred school to educate local boys in the old ways. For Koro, tradition outweighs affection and so he ignores her. But, the strong-willed Pai defy all the odds to break Koro’s rigidity.
The success of an under-dog story is determined by the characters with whom we must empathize, and the harsh environment he/she overcomes. Niki Caro’s script and her actors own all these fine attributes. The script deftly balances domestic drama, humor and the fantasy element. Although the key events in an under-dog story are fairly predictable, Caro retains the emotional and intellectual honesty till the end, so that most of the time, things don’t get formulaic. Writer/director Caro is not a Maori but her respect for the culture is evident, as she is said to have taken great pains to ensure the authenticity of the film, by hiring Maori advisors and indigenous extras, and by filming in the actual place where the book is set. The important theme of the novel and film is female empowerment, but there is no feminist smugness, which might have showcased that all men are villains. Since all the characters are three-dimensional, we get to regard the story from their point-of-view. The story also has a perfect ending, where the magical presence of majestic Whales merges the thousand year old legend with the new, contemporary beliefs.
Keisha Castle Hughes’s (who has never acted before) Pai is one of the best, nuanced child performances you might have ever seen on-screen. She is confident and strongly motivated, and yet locks in the fragility of a child. Keisha’s speech in the school event may wring some tears out of your eyes, since her emotional withdrawal is entirely believable. Her subtle vocal cues, predicament and expressive eyes are what make the movie more touching. Rawiri Paratene as Koro makes us picture our own granddads or great granddads who all had enough love in their hearts but rather got fiercely attached to old values and beliefs. Rawiri impeccably depicts an old man who couldn’t escape the rigidity of his upbringing.
“Whale Rider” (97 minutes) is an uplifting, universal tale that richly conveys how a little girl finds her true place among her people. It embraces both the fanciful beliefs of past-times and the new paths of modern world.