Vanaprastham

Vanaprastham(1999)
Director: Shaji Neelakantan Karun
Stars: Mohanlal, Suhasini, Venmani Haridas, Kukku Parameshwaram and others

Vanaprastham is a dark cultural drama which illustrates a tragic saga through a “Kathakali”(a traditional dance form native to Kerala of south India) artist and his journey through art and caste-ism. Shaji N Karun’s vivid story telling offers an immersive taboo breaking experience of artistic tradition.

Kunhikuttan (played by Mohanlal) is a Kathakali dancer hailed for his virtuosic reputation as a performer in his village. Despite his reputation as a brilliant artist, Kunhikuttan suffers from poverty and psychological trauma due to the isolation by his father. Kunhikuttan’s father (who belongs to the upper-caste) rejects him for reasons concerning caste-ism. His dull marital life fails to offer him any form of consolation from his misery. As he grimaces, making his ends meet, Kunhikuttan is commissioned to play the role of Arjuna from the mythological epic, Mahabharata. Impressed by his prodigious performance, Subhadra (played by Suhasini) a woman from an aristocratic upper-caste background, befriends him. Infatuation and admiration springs between both and they bear a child. However, after a brief amount of time, Subhadra expresses that she fell for Arjuna the character and not Kunhikuttan the artist. Facing isolation once again, this time from Subhadra and his infant son, Kunhikuttan is fuelled with agony and despair. Kunhikuttan, after a series of rage filled performances, brings a sudden halt to his career. His artistic passion is revived by his daughter and he plans for a final performance to play Arjuna.

Vanaprastham is rich with thematic allegory. The mythical romance of Arjuna and Subhadra in Mahabharata and the taboo filled intimacy between Kunhikuttan and Subhadra on the backdrop of caste-ism is immaculate.  Mohanlal gives a standalone performance through physical expressiveness, both as a dancer and a grief stricken human being.  Sound and dance form the most prominent features in the film and both have been rendered with perfection. Zakir Hussain combines the elements of Carnatic dance music and Hindustani music to produce a dark and powerful score. Shaji N Karun revisits the traditional stage form of narration and blends music with visual poetry.

Though the film doesn’t oppose the evil of caste-ism vehemently, it gives a negative perspective of the evil through the complex social scenarios depicted. As much as it celebrates the artistic significance of culture, it condemns the norms which arouse tragedies with their opposing and appalling disregard towards the delicate desires of an average human.  Highlighting this important message with subtlety, Vanaprastham can be regarded as an ideal piece of a modern Greek tragedy in the face of cultural backwardness.              

 

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