Lenin Rajendran made his debut in 1981 with Venal , a campus love story that immediately caught the imagination of the youth. In the next three decades, he went on making films on a variety of themes, and drawing inspiration from diverse sources: art, poetry, music, painting, history and politics. A cultural activist with strong left leanings, in his film narratives, he combined the popular and the progressive, the lyrical and the realist to find a niche of his own in Malayalam cinema.
Women and their struggles of love were always at the centre of his narratives; they were not mere objects of desire or figments of male imagination; but were individuals with moods and obsessions, likes and dislikes, opinions and preferences of their own.
When one looks back at his body of work, Lenin Rajendran’s third film Premnazirine Kanmanilla (Premnazir is Missing) made in 1983 in various ways, indicate the trajectory of Lenin’s oeuvre to come. It is about the popular film actor and super star of the time, Prem Nazir (who himself plays the eponymous role) being abducted by four angry youngsters. It turns out to be a desperate act by these educated young men from different social backgrounds to express their discontent and protest against an unjust society. To get their point across, they target the icon of mainstream culture, the darling of the masses. Though their messages to the powers-that-be are ignored, their encounter in captivity transforms both: after the initial tension, fear and animosity transforms into mutual understanding and sympathy for each other. The film ends with the young men, while taking Nazir back to the city, being forcibly captured by the police and rudely pushed into the van while a pensive Prem Nazir looks upon the whole scene. Though Nazir looks concerned, he never prevents the police or attempts to explain things. In a way it is the detached curiosity of the Establishment or System; or the condescending gaze of commercial film industry upon social reality. Anyway, the strange chemistry of opposites that worked between the angry youth and the aging star, between rebellion and establishment, is something that also defines Lenin’s future cinematic oeuvre. It always traversed that thin line between art house cinema and the commercial-popular, adapting from both while rejecting certain elements. He shunned the obscure understatements of parallel cinema as well as the melodrama of the mainstream, while trying to find a poetic and romantic visual idiom of his own. He drew from classical and contemporary literature, and always blended his narratives with poignant songs and music. Classical poetry of Kumaran Asan and Edasseri Govindan Nair, and contemporary poems of Ayyappa Panicker, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, Kavalam Narayana Panicker, Sugathakumari , ONV Kurup and Madhusudhanan Nair that the youth of the day loved and recited across the campuses added certain emotional resonance to his film narratives.
In a career spanning three decades consisting of 14 feature films and several documentaries, Lenin dealt with a variety of themes and narrative formats. A lover of literature, many of his films were based on renowned literary works, and there were artists – poets, singers, painters, writers, and dancers – at the centre of many of his films. True to his links with progressive movements (he was Left Front candidate against KR Narayanan in Ottappalam Lok Sabha constituency in 1989 and 1991; though he lost the battle both times, he could increase his vote share during the second election despite the fact that it was fought after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi) he made films based on communist and anti-feudal struggles and martyrdom (Meenamasathile Suryan and Puravrittham), and consistently revisited the history of the royal family of Travancore (Swathi Thirunal (1987), Kulam (The Clan/1997) and Makaramanju (The Mist of Capricon/2010).
Lenin entered the scene in the early 1980s under the tutelage of a socially committed filmmaker like P A Backer and on the wake of the ‘new wave’ which saw the entry of filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan. But he never followed any of their formal-experimentalist moulds and narrative modes. Like them, he was never averse to songs, music and humour, and creatively used them in his films, but was fascinated by their delineation of characters exuding a certain kind of intense interiority. He was interested in politically relevant themes and historical figures, to which he returned intermittently. Many of the songs in his films were popular hits of the time and still remain hot favourites. M B Sreenivasan was his favourite music director who worked in all the films of Lenin till his death.
His first works – Venal (Summer/1981) and Chillu (The Fragments/1982) – were campus films that dealt with the emotional complexities of love relationships in an atmosphere of the times that was charged with poetry, and vague ideas about existentialism and revolt. Women and their struggles of love were always at the centre of his narratives; they were not mere objects of desire or figments of male imagination; but were individuals with moods and obsessions, likes and dislikes, opinions and preferences of their own. They range from the middle class girl students of Venal and Chillu, the urbane and sophisticated Bhadra in Mazha, the belligerent journalist Razia Bhanu in Anyar, to the proud and regal Subhadra in Kulam. If Mazha (The Rain/2000) was based on a story by Madhavikkutty that dealt with the unrequited but lifelong love affair of a woman with her music teacher, Rathrimazha (Night Rain/2007) is about a love affair that blossoms between a woman and a dancer who is paralyzed and wheel chair-bound; their love develops in the virtual realm and spills over into reality, synergising both. If music is the binding force of love in Mazha, it is dance in the latter. Makaramanju is about another art and artist: it is about the Travancore prince and illustrious painter Raja Ravivarma, and his tumultuous relationship with his model and muse, which is told by invoking the mythic love story of Urvashi and Pururavas.
Politics has been an abiding concern of his: Meenamasathile Suryan (Mid-summer Sun/1985) dealt with the communist uprising of the 1940s in Kayyur in northern Kerala that led to the capital punishment of four young militants. Puravrittham (The Past/1988) featuring Om Puri in the lead role, was about another revolt, this time by a young peasant against the feudal oppression. Vachanam (The Word) made in 1989 is a prophetic film of sorts about the increasing influence of god men and their criminal nexus with powers that be to establish and expand their ‘spiritual’ empires. Anyar (The Outsiders/2003) follows the journey of Razia Banu, a woman journalist whose visit to Gujarat for a wedding is rudely jolted by the Godhra incident; but for Lenin it is not something that happens faraway from ‘progressive’ Kerala. For, when she returns to Kerala the trail of communal violence and intolerance towards women continue to haunt her with all its vengeance and local venom.
Daivathinte Vikrithikal (The Ways of God/1992) based on a novel by M Mukundan, is set in the French colony of Mayazhi in Kerala. It revolves around the travails of Alfonsachan, a magician who refuses to go to France unlike everyone else in his community who believed they were part and parcel of the Francophone culture. For him, Mayyazhi is his land, and the people there his own people. But, as the power of colonial legacy and the charm of his magic wears off, he finds himself out of place; the locals consider him a foreigner, and his own family falls into economic and moral ruin. Even when his compatriots have left and he is all alone, his racial and colonial legacy persists and haunts him. Lenin’s last film Edavapathi (The Monsoon/2016) returns to the question of belonging and exile. It is about the Tibetans in an Indian colony who cannot return to their homeland and live for generations in a ‘foreign’ land. But can universal spiritual legacies like that of Buddha be circumscribed and bound within national boundaries? In the film, the encounter between the Tibetan monk and the Malayalee dancer rekindles the humanist legacy of Buddhism and its ideals of compassion and universal brotherhood. Their relationship transpires into the story of Vasavadatta and the Buddhist monk, that was immortalised by the verses of Kumaran Asan, the great Malayalam poet.
Lenin Rajendran also had the penchant for casting actors and actresses from across the linguistic borders to give a certain additional charm to his film narratives. To play the role of Swathi Tirunal he chose Anant Nag, who infused the character with a curious kind of sophistication and distance. The rebellious peasant in Puravrittham was played by Om Puri, whose role resonated with the fire of all the rustic and angry roles he had played in films like Aakrosh, Aarohan and Ardh Sathya. The francophone magician was played by the flamboyant actor from Tamil Nadu Raghuvaran, whose mannerisms and gait perfectly jelled with that role. The vicious god man in Vachanam was played by Charu Haasan, whose tall figure and malicious glint in the eyes combined the divine and the wicked. Similarly Manisha Koirala in Edavapathi and Bhanupriya in Kulam adds to the charm and density of the films.
If romanticism, in a way, is about disquiet and anger against the status quo and the compulsive urge to think of other ways of life and being, Lenin Rajendran was a die-hard romantic. All his films grappled with the dark shadows of power that loomed over social life and human relationships, and tried to crush the yearning for love and belonging; and at the core of his narratives were lovers who defied rules and strictures to achieve different states of aesthetic ecstasy, forms of personal freedom, practices of love in personal lives and conditions of being together in society. Seen that way, one could call him the chronicler of love in all its forms and diverse manifestations.