A thunder. A beat on the chenda. Two beats and organic percussion. That’s how Vanaprastham starts. A parallel film, but with brilliant cinematography, soulful yet haunting music, and focused direction. Shaji N Karun, the director truly deserves all the applause he got for this work. He, along with a few others in India are the ones who have restored faith in people that cinema is also a piece of art. Karun, himself a cinematographer had both Santosh Sivan and Renato Berta in his crew and both of them simply transport us to Kerala where the story unfolds.
What can I write about the story? We have Kunhikutan, a Kathakali artist and Subadra, the King’s niece. Kunhikuttan, is a depressed man and the only thing adding colour to his life is Kathakali. He is denied acceptance by his father who is superior because he was born to a maid, he is entangled in a marriage that bears happiness to neither, he is essentially an Antarmukhi, and is very introspective about his life. His dance and his daughter are the only things he finds solace in.
Subadra, a writer, lives in a mirage she has formed for herself. Filled with stories of Arjuna told by her grandmother, she is so into it that she believes herself to be the mythological Subadra.
When Kunhikuttan plays Arjuna in front of her, Subadra is lost. He is the apparition of Arjuna – her hero. She yearns for the Arjuna in Kunhikuttan and this leads to an expected intimacy between them. She has his child – her Abhimanyu – the seed of the valiant, evergreen Arjuna. When once Kunhikuttan removes his mask, Subadra does not respect him. For her, it is only Arjuna she was with, and Arjuna who has fathered her child. Now Kuttan is in more pain. For a moment, I too believed that he had found someone who could respect him, both as an artist and a human, not unlike Kunhikuttan himself.
So, his quest continues. In essence, he is searching for his identity – as a son, a student, a husband, a father, an artist, a friend throughout his life. It is of course very simple to say that he is he and that is all. But that is never the case, is it? We are we, but we want to be accepted by our people as we, and that is all Kunhikuttan also wishes for. By refusing him to see his child because he is not Arjuna, Subadra wipes out the very existence of the man, which is very painful and distressing.
I liked the metaphors in the film the most. One, the metaphors in the film for the story and the metaphors in the story for us. Subadra wanting Kunhikuttan to be Arjuna for him to interact with her and her son is a showcase of many of our wantings for someone to be someone else with stretched modifications in their character for us to accept them; and Kunhikuttan is an icon for many artistes. Sacrifice your life for our art. You shall hear applause. You shall have appreciation. You will be praised. But we do not know about your life! That is, usually and unfortunately, an artist’s state. This is further probed into when Kunhikuttan storms out in the middle of a performance because his friend, the vocalist is suffering from cancer and the group of people there are so unmoved by it and talk about the alcoholic company his friend preferred to have!
Showing art as a medium to let out your emotions is there too with Kuttan switching to play demonic roles when he realizes Subadra loved only his character and not him. He pushes out all the anger he has through the character. Because in his life, he doesn’t let it out – he puts it to the alcohol! But this leads to a question. When Kunhikuttan can become a character to let out his emotions, is it really Subadra’s flaw to actually love the character he becomes? A different dimension. This also leads to thinking why Subadra did what she did? Was it just the illusion, the imagination? Or constraints from her larger family? Or her widowed life?
The title is justified when Kuttan reaches a mindset where he lets his miseries down and rises above. He is unaffected by anything – all happiness and sorrow come together and fall into a shunya. His final performance – with his daughter as Subadra is a divine show. Subadra comes there, who is informed through a letter of this performance and realises her mistakes. In the end, she is ready to acknowledge Kunhikuttan as her companion and her child’s father, and the very next moment she learns about Kunhikuttan’s demise.
He must have attained salvation. To leave all miseries and treat happiness and sorrow equally is way above. Kunhikuttan had let go of the quest or probably found an answer – I am me. A beautiful film indeed.
I have not once mentioned the actors’ names because if I probably didn’t know their names, I’d have presumed them to be the characters. Mohanlal and Suhasini, in the lead have lived their roles. Mohanlal, with his subtle eye movements and mannerisms, is live before us as Kunhikuttan. Suhasini is completely in Subadra’s character, very much like her character – dreamy eyes, unnatural laughs, unvarying thought. Watching the film makes you each character’s friend and you shall want to keep visiting them whenever you feel like.
To make this film in 1999, with that elaborate makeup and unique story is not an easy chance. Both the production and direction team deserve all our admiration.
I also found a few of similarities of this film with Uttama Villain, but that will take another post.
Given a chance, I would like to write a thesis on this film, and it is worth it.I have only touched very few points concerned to this film. It is, and will remain a classic. Although I wish to write more about this, this post, like all others has to end, now or ever. Very similar to the very last dialogue of the film – ‘this birth has to end one or the other day.‘