In a culture obsessed with "entertaining" commercial cinema and superstars playing "the macho hero" role, seldom do big stars break free from their enslaving larger-than-life persona and dive into the world of serious and realistic cinema. But the biggest star of Malayalam cinema, Mohanlal (my apologies to Mammootty fans!), defied the norm with his 1999 arthouse film Vanaprastham: The Last Dance, by not only featuring in it but also co-producing it. Although I have to admit that Mammootty has done more meaningful films and challenging characters than his biggest competitor (I hope this pacifies Mammootty loyalists).
An Indo-French production, Vanaprastham stands as the crowning glory in Mohanlal's career as he delivers a tour-de-force performance, regarded as one of the best in Indian cinema. He completely slips into the skin of his character Kunhikuttan, a respected and famous Kathakali dancer who is unable to escape from a life of endless pain and suffering. Born out of an illegitimate relationship between an upper-caste landlord and a lower-caste woman, Kunhikuttan is never acknowledged as a son by his estranged father. Struggling to come to terms with this rejection since his childhood, Kunhikuttan finds solace in donning different identities by playing various mythological characters in Kathakali. Stuck in a loveless arranged marriage, spending time with his small daughter offers him some respite from an otherwise miserable life.
For a brief period in his life, he experiences happiness when he befriends Subhadra, the daughter-in-law of the dewan (ruler) of a neighbouring region, who has invited him to perform in the temple festival. Enamoured of Kunhikuttan's brilliant performance of the Mahabharata character of Arjuna, Subhadra falls in love with him and bears him an illegitimate son. Soon the illusion fades away, and we learn that she never loved Kunhikuttan but the valiant character of Arjuna played by him. She denies him access to their son Abhimanyu and doesn't respond to his countless letters addressed to her. Eventually, an increasingly resentful Kunhikuttan vows to stop playing calmer characters and turns to express his inner demons through aggressive characters. The climax of Vanaprastham remains one of my favorite movie endings as the emotional variations in Mohanlal's pain-ridden voice continued to haunt my mind even after the end credits had rolled.
Vanaprastham spotlights the plight of Kathakali artists in a newly independent India who despite having some fame lived in penury. Kunhikuttan and his troupe can barely make ends meet to support their families as they are paid a measly sum for a performance. The dewan sympathises with their plight but does not offer financial assistance to them. Beyond their live performances, nobody cares a damn about their living conditions and state of being. This is evident when Kunhikuttan's friend-cum-troupe member who loses his voice to throat cancer is neglected by everyone once he is bedridden. A disturbed Kunhikuttan, unable to digest this apathetic attitude of his fellow-men, walks off from a play right in the middle. On being heckled by the programme managers, he lashes out at them for not even visiting his ailing troupe member. The film also highlights the rigidity and oppressive nature of India's caste system, which doesn't allow the lower-caste Kunhikuttan to perform the funeral rites of his upper-caste Namboothiri father. Even his mother dissuades him from going to Kashi for this as it would be akin to committing a grave sin. A wounded Kunhikuttan laments that his father's soul would have no option but to accept him as his son when he performs the rites in the Ganges of Kashi.
Apart from the brilliant storyline and superlative acting performances from its entire cast, Vanaprastham achieves world-class standards in every aspect of filmmaking. The cinematography by Santosh Sivan and Renato Berta employs natural lights and aesthetic shots to create beautiful imagery. I'm sure that being an ace cinematographer in his own right, the director Shaji N. Karun would have contributed immensely to the visual appeal. A. Sreekar Prasad won his fifth National Award for Editing for his work in the film. The sound design and mixing were way ahead of their time for an Indian film and blend the distinct sounds of nature organically into the scenes. No review of Vanaprastham can be complete without mentioning its mesmerizing music, provided by tabla maestro, Ustad Zakir Hussain. The song 'Kunhikuttan' is one of the deepest and most haunting ones I've ever heard. It manages to encapsulate the pain and existential crisis of Mohanlal's character perfectly. The other tracks like 'Subhadra' or 'Dark Melody' are equally amazing and showcase Zakir Hussain's brilliance as a music composer.
And now to talk about the captain of the ship, Shaji N. Karun, who co-wrote the film with Raghunath Paleri from a story by Pierre Assouline. There are very few filmmakers in India who portray the deepest yearnings of our species as poetically and artistically as Shaji does in his films. Vanaprastham, like his previous films, was screened to a positive response at the Cannes Film Festival and was widely appreciated at many other film festivals as well. The film was quite popular in Europe and even ran for 10 weeks in a small Austrian village, says Shaji! Sadly, the culture of watching arthouse cinema in India has not been able to transcend the class of serious cinephiles and absorb the mainstream movie buffs. For that to happen in the future, we need more superstars from across the country including the giants of Hindi cinema to regularly take on serious and mature projects in their respective film industries.