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K R Mohanan, A Champion Of Independent Cinema

The National Award-winning Malayalam filmmaker who passed away last month dedicated his life to the cause of serious, indie cinema

CS VenkiteswaranCS Venkiteswaran

July 12, 2017 | 02:07 PM

K R Mohanan, Malayalam, director, death, obituary, International Film Festival of Kerala, Aswathamavu, Purushartham, Swaroopam, Film And Television Institute of India, FTII, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval, Visuddha Vanangal, documentary, indie cinema

K R Mohanan, one of the finest Malayalam filmmakers, died on June 25, following an intestinal ailment. The last feature film he made was Swaroopam (1992). That means, Mohananettan (as he was called by everyone, for he was like an elder brother to all) couldn’t make a single feature film during the last 25 years of his life! 

It’s not that he didn’t want to or that he became inactive in the film field. In fact, after a long stint at the Kerala State Film Development Corporation, Mohananettan became the Chairman of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, and Vice Chairman of Federation of Film Societies of India (Kerala). He was the Director of the International Film Festival of Kerala and member of international film festival juries. In every possible forum, he passionately argued the cause of serious, independent cinema. 

In a career spanning four decades, he made only three feature films: Aswathamavu (1978), Purushartham (1987) and Swaroopam (1992) - all of them won State and National awards. They were noted for their rootedness, distinct aesthetics and complex narrative style.

Graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India, he worked for a while with A Vincent before making his debut film Aswathamavu. An adaptation of a novel by Madampu Kunhukuttan (who also plays the lead role), it spoke about the existential dilemmas of a young writer, who, like the mythic character, is destined to wander the world seeking redemption from a life torn between the calls of the flesh and the spirit, carnal indulgence and transcendence. He floats through life vainly seeking himself in women, liquor, love, lust, spirituality, writing and friendships, but everything eludes his grasp.  

In the socio-economic situation that unfolded since the 1990s filmmakers like Mohanan, who worked with and within public institutions, networks, channels and forums, were lost in the din and churn of the forces of liberalization and globalization took hold of public life and social imaginary.

Purushartham (based on a story by CV Sreeraman) follows the journey of a woman who comes to her dead husband’s ancestral home to perform his last rites. It is a journey that forces her to confront ghosts from her past life, which she’s desperately trying to exorcise. For her son, it is a journey into another world. He gradually begins to connect with the roots and remains of his father’s life. In the final scene at the sea shore, he performs the last rites for his dead father. He flings the rice offerings for the dead on his mother’s young lover. His final escape from them – a la 400 Blows - is also his coming of age, a very painful one at that.

If Purushartham dealt with the conflicts between rural solidarities and rootedness on the one hand, and urban anomie on the other, Swaroopam is about the inner collapse of a man whose life is upturned by the callings of a spurious ancestry. Shekharan, a small farmer, ekes out a living from a tiny plot of land, a few fowls, and some coconut trees. His life is turned upside down when a mysterious old man, who claims to be his relative, tells him of the glorious legacy of his forefathers. Shekharan embarks on a journey in search of his past where he meets with his relatives who are living prosperous lives thanks to the blessings of Muthappan, their ancestral god. 

He returns home a changed man. He builds a small temple for Muthappan in his compound and sits there all day meditating about his illustrious forefathers. Drawn into the demonic hold of an imagined past, he is forced into sorcery and finally, suicide. The film, which came before the Babri Masjid demolition, ominously resonated with the political scenario which too was driven by imaginary pasts and dubious ancestries. 

Swaroopam (1992), starring Sreenivasan and Sandhya Rajendran, is about Shekharan, a small farmer, whose life changes when a mysterious relative reveals to him the glorious legacy of his forefathers

All his films portrayed intense conflicts with tradition, modernity, spirituality and humanism. Aswathamavu was about the inner conflicts of an individual, and the tension between existential angst of the present and the spiritual callings of the past. Purushartham was about the conflicts within family and marriage, and the havoc wreaked by greed and infidelity. And Swaroopam dealt with the inner void that sucks collective being and the human substance of people whose lives are vacated by the social. 

Mohanan’s award winning documentaries like Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval about the thespian actor, and Visuddha Vanangal (Sacred Groves) about kavus in Kerala, were noted for their visual beauty, detailing and structural elegance. His two biopics on Gowriamma, the veteran politician, and writer SK Pottekkat, reveal a filmmaker who is fired by deep humanism and social commitment. The documentary on Gowriamma portrays the human and political facets in the life of one of the most vibrant woman communist leaders of Kerala. 

In the socio-economic situation that unfolded since the 1990s filmmakers like Mohanan, who worked with and within public institutions, networks, channels and forums, were lost in the din and churn of the forces of liberalization and globalization took hold of public life and social imaginary.  

Mohanan was not a very prolific filmmaker, but whatever he did was done with utmost dedication and faith, and without compromising his political and aesthetic ideals. He lived a simple life, enjoyed friendships, and always championed the cause of independent cinema in every possible way. The film fraternity will miss his noble, endearing presence.

Watch Swaroopam (1992) here: