The novel as well as the film depicts the events from the life of Marthanda Varma born in 1706, who was the crown prince of the princely state of Travancore from 1729 until his death in 1758. The film narrates the peculiar political and social structure, the rivalries between the king and the local chieftains and the trade and other economic processes of the period.
The eight Nair noble houses of Pillais (Ettuveettil Pillamar) conspire to kill the king under the leadership of the king’s son Padmanabhan Thampi for Thampi to ascend to the crown. The king on the other hand wants his nephew, Marthanda Varma, to inherit the crown after him, according to the prevalent matrilineal norms of the time. Anandapadmanabhan is a brave warrior and supporter of Marthanda Varma who constantly safeguards and rescues the king. Subhadra, the female protagonist is the niece of Kudaman Pillai, one of the Nair lords who is up in arms against the king. Nevertheless, Subhadra supports Marthanda and helps him several times by secretly spying for him. Subhadra is Anandapadmanabhan’s sister and is estranged from her husband who has joined the Muslim trading group camped in the state. Anandapadmanabhan is in love with Parukutty. She falls sick when she hears reports of his death while he is in disguise as a lunatic, waging battles for the prince. Eventually, Marthanda Varma vanquishes all his enemies with Anandapadmanabhan’s help.
Marthandavarma was based on the eponymous novel by the eminent Malayalam writer CV Raman Pillai, published in 1891. It is considered a historical novel, the first of its kind in the language and a landmark work in the history of fiction writing in Malayalam. The film could not be released after its completion in 1931 as the copyright holders of the novel, Kamalalayam Book Depot, filed a lawsuit against the producer of the film. The producer lost the case. The film was released only after the trial in 1933 and by then sound films were already available to the audience. The film was a failure at the box office and the producer Sunder Raj went bankrupt.
Since the film footage of the first-ever Malayalam film Vigathakumaran was never discovered, Marthandavarma is the earliest Malayalam feature film available now. It is preserved by the National Film Archives of India in Pune.