Film Thoughts: Vanaprastham (1999, Malayalam - Mohanlal, Suhasini)

Saturday, November 6, 2010
After I finished watching Vanaprastham recently, I felt like I had not just watched a movie but rather had an experience.  A viewing experience which completely transported me to lush 1950s Kerala for over two hours.  When I rewatched the film a few days later to gather some more screencaps, I felt like I was revisiting long lost friends whose lives I cared deeply about, and I wished to know more about them beyond the constraints of the film. I didn't feel like I was watching Mohanlal act in this film--I was watching his character, Kunhikuttan.  That said, writing a review of such an excellent film has been extremely difficult as I feel I have only scratched the surface of what this film has to offer.

Vanaprastham is a complete work of art.  Many shots are framed deliberately with beautiful aesthetics and angles, and it’s done in a way that adds to the film rather than detracting from it by drawing unnecessary attention to itself.  This seems to be credited to the presence of the film's photographers (one of whom is Santosh Sivan) and a separate art director.

The sounds of nature come to life in the film; the crackles of gentle thunderstorms and the chirping of birds have such a soft, organic quality.  The background sound editing was truly stunning; as I listened with my headphones on, I heard the sounds appropriately shifting from the left to right audio fields depending upon their source on screen.  The sound editing coupled with the gorgeous but understated cinematography felt completely real- I wasn’t watching a movie on my laptop, I was there!  However, while the background sounds were expertly mixed, the dubbing in the film was atrocious at times with characters mouths not always matching their speech.  This is probably my biggest pet peeve in Indian films, and it seemed to echo the way the film was produced; a  French-Indian production, the background sound meticulous (French influence), the speaking parts dubbed later off camera with inevitable mismatches here and there (Indian influence).

*General Spoilers Ahead!*

The plot essentially focuses on Kunhikuttan (Mohanlal), a Kathakali artist who becomes the object of desire and seeming delusion of Subhadra (Suhasini), the Maharaja’s niece.  Subhadra is a playwright who earnestly wishes to write a play portaying Arjuna’s ardour in the mythological story of the kidnapping of Subhadra, one of her favorite pieces.  When she sees Kunhikuttan portay Arjuna during a Kathakali performance for the King, she is mesmerized.  As the story goes on, we see that she is clearly confusing Kunhikuttan playing Arjuna with the real Arjuna.  A romantic liason between the two produces a child that Subhadra withholds from Kunhikuttan, cruely adding insult to injury of a man who was denied legitimate recognition by his landlord father and now is being denied access to his only son. 

What  most impressed upon me after watching the film was how bleak and somber it was.  I have always romanticized the lives of people who live and breathe their artistic dream, whether it be ballet dancers performing in a troupe or classical dancers living at the "dance village" Nrityagram in Bangalore.  How wonderful to completely dedicate ones life and every moment to the perfecting of one's favorite art form.  Or is it truly wonderful?  Might it be more akin to the plight of a doctoral student who comes to hate the formerly-beloved subject of his dissertation by the time he completes it?  And beyond simply "overdoing" one's contact with a subject, what about practical considerations?  How does one sustain oneself financially?  Does the environment support ones basic and emotional needs?

It is these practical aspects that Vanaprastham touched on which beckoned me to remove my rose-colored glasses.  In the film, the group of Kathakali artists live in such poverty that the tearing of a Chenda (traditional drum) is a catastrophic event.  They receive a pittance in compensation for their immense efforts at performing the art form.  Despite being the only ones carrying forth an ancient traditional dance form that could easily be lost to history and is considered a source of pride to its people, the artists are not provided the support they need.  When Kunhikuttan and the group give a performance for the Maharaja in his estate, the Maharaja remarks jubilantly that the performance has "elevated his mind and made him content."  When Kunhikuttan honestly reveals that the group lives in dire poverty, all the king can do is look down and say... "what a pity."  Pity, indeed.

In addition to the economic realities of the Kathakali artists, the film shows how the form that occupies such a space in the lives of its practitioners becomes tainted with the problems of life itself: personal politics, existential crises, relationship difficulties, and health problems.  When a character falls ill with throat cancer and can no longer sing, Kunhikuttan storms off the stage during a performance in protest that his beloved friend and vocal accompanist is languishing away in a nearby room while the group is cruel and negligent of his predicament.

The form also serves as an outlet for its performers to express those emotions and feelings they keep hidden by channeling them through the characters they enact.  Kunhikuttan tries to drink away his relationship and personal problems through alcohol, and the only time he seems to be able to express his emotions publicly is during his Kathakali performances.  This is most brilliantly and stunningly demonstrated when we see the crash and burn of his relationship with Subhadra cause him to decide to play  negative roles on the stage.  In the very next shot, the camera focuses on a close-up of his meticulously-madeup face as he screams in anger.  Anger of the mythological character he is representing but most important, his own seething, unreleting anger. This scene in the film completely took my breath away.

While the film focuses on and is told from the point of view of Kunhikuttan, Subhadra’s character is really the mystery and heart of the film. As the film progressed, I found myself getting more and more irritated with her.  Was she crazy?  Could it really be true that such cruel behavior from her was solely the result of social constraints she felt placed on her as a widow and her wanting the best for her son?  I felt like the film wanted me to believe that she was at least somewhat mentally unstable.  During the scenes in which she watches Kunhikuttan's performance completely enraptured in another world and later when she expresses her desires with Mohanlal before their physical encounter, the way she laughs makes her seem off-kilter and socially distanced from reality.  When Kunhikuttan tells her that he is indeed not Arjuna, but he who wears his costume, she looks at him with a blank expression.  She is seen getting utterly lost in the world of her pen and paper and the plays she imagines.  Later, as she isolates herself in her house with her child, we see short clips of her sitting alone, listlessly staring into space or twirling a teacup on a table.  All of these things seemed to be cues to indicate she was not mentally stable.

In talking with others about Subhadra's character, I was introduced to some other points of view regarding her possible stifling position in the Maharaja’s family, the way she used plays and her imagination to yearn for what she could not have, and the unacceptable nature of the pregnancy causing her to act the way she did.  In any case, I felt that the film need at least a scene or two showing us what happened in her world.  She seemed to live in a bubble consisting of only her son and her servant.  How did she react to the other members of her family?  What really went on in her life?  Perhaps her character's state of mind was hinted at when Kunkikuttan's muses that "an artist is respected when his characterization subjugates the mind."

One detractor I found in the film was its confusing presentation of who/what/where presented via flashbacks and faces, but I attribute this mostly to my not understanding Indian/Malayalee culture or the language.  For example, when Mohanlal talks about performing the last rights for "Namboodiri", I thought he was referencing his friend who had cancer.  Then I learned via the subtitles that Namboodiri means Brahmin, which was a reference to his father.  When Kunhikuttan learns of his father will, I thought that the intercut shots of a man lying on his deathbed were of his father, but they were actually of one of the Kathakali group members, I believe. On top of that, I am not very familiar with Indian mythology and thus the story of Arjun and Subhadra and Abhimanyu didn't register with me at first as having a mythological basis (I had to google it).

There is only one song in the film--a gorgeous instrumental number played after Kunhikuttan and Subhadra make love.  The way their encounter is alluded to visually is creative and beautiful.  Two matchsticks are seen burning together followed by shots of Subhadra alone on her bed and the elements of Kunhikuttan's Kathakali uniform crumpled outside on the ground.  As the musical number begins, Subhadra touches the green makeup that has rubbed off onto her face with ecstacy.

So what are we to make of the dreary and bleak life of the protagonist, Kunhikuttan, in this film?  Is he meant to offer us any insight into life? Near the end of film as he prepares to dance with his daughter, he muses that "...some believe that all things finish in a void.  I am waiting for that glorious moment when all joys melt together with all painful moments.  Nothing matters anymore."  The men in the Kathakali group play the roles of gods and demons, yet they cannot seem to get any aid or relief from those celestial beings.

As if the film wasn't depressing enough, the end really seals the deal when Subhadra finally realizes while reading one of Kunhikuttan's old neglected letters of the damage that she did to him.  As she sinks to the floor, her son opens the door behind her and glares at her with a look of anger on his face.  The shot is frozen and lingered on.  I was left pondering its significance.  I wonder if it has anything to do with the mythological character the son's name was based on, Abhimanyu.

And what review of Vanaprastham would be complete without a discussion of the Kathakali performances in the film!  Mohanlal does a commendable job of manipulating and moving the minutia of his face; his eyebrows and cheeks rise and lower with excellent control, his eyes express the emotion of his character.

I found it very interesting that in Kathakali the musicians stand behind the performers during the entire performance which stands in contrast to the seated musicians in carnatic numbers.  This seems to be consistent with the strenuous and disciplined nature of Kathakali that I've read about that starts from the very beginning as children learn the art form through hours and hours of practice starting very early in the morning.

I think everyone would agree that the costumes of Kathakali are simply stunning.  The film shows quite a variety:

Last, some remaining screencaps and random thoughts:

Kalamandalam Gopi is an actor in the film; I've just recently learned that he is apparently a very famous Kathakali artist trained at the Kerala Kalamandalam.  A documentary about him is available on YouTube.

I wondered about the significance of the very first shot in the movie in which Kunhikuttan’s friend imagines him falling over dressed in costume.

Kunhikuttan's wife's character was given so little background, it was puzzling why their marriage was so strained and why she suffered in silence all those years.

The aging process is done a bit haphazardly in the film and seems out of sequence and sudden at times.

Remember these little "peer through" windows in the legendary song "Oru Murai Vanthe" from Manichitrathazhu?  I wonder if they are an artistic feature of some kingly estates in Kerala perhaps?

I thought that only women got to do cool things with their saris, like Bengali woman who hang their keys at the end of the pallu, but I was happy to see men doing the same in the film by tucking keys into a little "banana pouch" they tied out of their veshti/dhoti/whateveryacallit.


  1. Brilliantly written. what an awesome screencap review. Minai, I am coming slowly to the conclusion that you are the perfect classical art have the depth of feeling it takes to understand and feel tragedy without looking for resolutions or explainations, which is a mark of a wonderful writer reviewer. more film reviews please!

    one or two things here about vanaprastham. the use of metaphor in the film is stunning. Kunnhikuttan is not allowed to play male roles until relatively late in his career. he starts playing them and his father, and then his guru die(maybe he is only able to be a male charecter after their death). he has noone to prove anything to,anymore , leaving his life an unrequited search for affection. he first blows up in anger, and then goes, as he ages and his friends die, to the only source of affection he has had in his life: his daughter. The film seems to make the "art" of kathakali a metaphor for the masks that we wear everyday in our lives, and asks us: can you survive going through life wearing one mask after the other going from performance to performance?

    subhadra wanting kunhikuttan to "be" arjuna is also metaphor for some unreal expectations in relationships. why do two people need one another? to play dress up in mythological themes and pretend to be framed as heores and heroines from the mahabharata?

    I also found the portrayal of kunhikuttan's daughter very interesting. she's a magical healing figure through the film, even as her mother, aware of her power to heal kunikuttan's pain, repeatedly comes between father and daughter. (maybe she's being protective of her daughter, given that kunhikuttan is in so much pain, and therefore"sick") when she is capable of making her own decisions, his daughter quite conciously chooses to play the mythical hero's lover, thus not only rejuvinating the sick and dying kunhikuttan, but also simultaneously profaning the myth that has caused them so much grief in their lives.

    This film belongs in the canon of indian art cinema forever, even if its really french co-authored.

  2. Thank you for the appreciate words, Ramesh. What a brilliant comment! I think your comment could make an entire blog post of its own, and has my mind considering all sorts of new angles in interpreting the film. Best line of your comment: "but also simultaneously profaning the myth that has caused them so much grief in their lives." Excellent. Touches somewhat on my line about how the artists' lives are completely devoted to a religious art yet they ironically receive no help or support from those beings. I think you are spot on to point out that the ending father-daughter dance was a way of acknowledging this fact and thumbing their noses at the social constraints that also dampened their enjoyment of life (and served as the catalyst to Kunhikuttan's misery). My God, what a film.

  3. Vanaprastham occupies pride of place in my DVD shelf (both in my den and heart :)There isn't much to add after reading your appreciation of he movie, its so complete. Mohanlal was also a co-producer of the film and as a commercial release, it was a disaster. He recalled in an interview later that he never regretted that since for him, it always remains as a film for his own heart and he would commit the mistake again, if another opportunity came by. The title itself is an ironic metaphor as Vanaprastha is the third stage in a human being's ashrama dhrama according to the ancient texts, the stage in a man's life where he recognises his wrinkled skin, the fact that he has become a grandparent, content that he has performed his worldly duties and its time to leave, away from his domestic responsibilities. Here is Kunjikuttan, doing a bizarre malagamation of a life founded on his talent, aliving based on penury, and the other world that he escapes to pissed drunk, devoid of responsibilities !!

    Also the "Sound Aspect"piqued my curiosity as yours truly also has a DVD copy, and is on perfect sync. Must be the one bad apple in the whole lot had to end up in Minai's collection :)Incidently, Vanaprastham also got a State Award from the Kerala Government for the Best Sound Recordists, shared by Bruno and Laxmi Narayana !
    As you rightly said, My God, what a film.

  4. Excellent post. I'm seeing this post as a quick google result after watching this movie the second time. The first time I saw it was in 1999 from an old theater in kerala. I've been waiting to grab this DVD version and watch it since then!

  5. cinematters - Hello, OMC! I'm so glad you shared that info about Mohanlal's regard of the film- I'm happy to hear he cherishes it as much as we do. And what interesting info about the title of the film, that actually helps me better place the peaceful existentialism Kunhikuttan experienced at the end of the film. Regarding the sound, I don't remember it being an endemic problem but rather I noticed it in a couple places where the mouths weren't matching the spoken dialogue perfectly (but I have an eagle eye for this sort of thing :)).

    varun jha and anoop - thank you for your comments. Cheers!

  6. 1) Not 1950s, 1100s.
    2) The little 'peer' windows, as you call them, separate the higher-caste royal women from the performers.

    The last 2 scenes had me very confused.
    They've mentioned in two separate places that suhasini(subadhra)'s daughter is performing as 'subadhra' with mohanlal. Why is that so?
    Also, she addresses the final letter to her 'daughter'.

  7. Venkatesh - The film was set in the 50s according to a date display at the beginning. Thanks for the explanation about the "peer windows"- that makes sense now that I think back to that scene. In the film, remember that there is the character Subhadra and the mythological being Subhadra- sounds like you might need a rewatch of the film. :)

  8. @Venkatesh . It is 1100s in the Malayalam calendar ( ), not in the Roman Calendar. If I recollect correctly, the movie spans the time between 30s - 60s.

    There are very distinct social references that the director has left us to judge the period. For example, the BBC signature beep in one scene. The radio commentary at Kashi etc.

    Maybe the will that his father left Kunhikuttan was also (partially) motivated by the Land Reform Ordinace ( ) passed by the first communist government (1957).

    The attitude changes is also reflected simultaneously. During the first scene (pre-independence) when Kunhikuttan performed in front of Maharaja, the women were behind the peer window, whereas the next time the queen was sitting along side Maharaja (dismantling of social norms).

    Also the behaviour of audience changes. Towards the end of movie, general audience have little patience and are a bit unruly (the beedi smoking during the performance), when compared to the more academic and attentive audience Kunhikuttan used to get during the early years of his career. This also adds on to his depression and indifference.

  9. Last commenter (not sure what to call you! Can't read Malayalam) :) - I did not know there was a Malayalam calendar- that is very interesting. You have brought up some excellent points about the passage of time in the film and how it was reflected- I had not considered them- very interesting.

    I based my understanding of the time period from this screencap at the beginning which says 1953: The childhood scenes would have been probably in the 1930s.

  10. Good Review. It is nice to see someone reviewing the soundtrack of a film as well.

    I would agree with you that the sound design and re-recording mix of this film were splendid. Especially the music supervision, the way how the kathakali padams were selected aptly according to situations in the film is one to be mentioned. It is just like Martin Scorsese's use of popular music as background music. It contributes to the emulation of reality. The use of the padam 'Mindeedathuathu enthe' at around 76th min is an example. It does not mean that the score music is not good. In fact, the theme music by Zakir Husain is just wonderful.

    But I do not think that the dubbing is really atrocious. If you go to the 25th minute of the film, in the "Elaanga ila kattum" Scene, you'd see that Mohanlal stops thrice before saying "sheriya( that its correct)". We feel that it is a dubbing error because we don't hear the small breath sounds which we expect there. Same way about the dubbing for Suhasini. It was done by a Trichur 'AIR' presenter named Thankamani. She's just splendid. In the scene where Subhadra explains what her emotion towards Arjuna is (around 53rd min), the voice artist has played an important role in elevating the total performance of the scene. Even being a male, I just love the way she praises Arjuna's masculinity . In my opinion the voice performance is a pinch better than Suhasini's acting in that scene alone.

  11. Nikhil Varma - Thank you very much for your comment; apologies in my delay responding. Thank you for that perspective about the use of the Kathakali music; not being familiar with the medium or understanding the lyrics, it's easy for someone like me to miss. Nice to see that the film was so carefully crafted even in this aspect!

    That's a very interesting point about the dubbing and the voice performance. This is, again, another area that I often miss as someone who doesn't speak the language of the film I'm watching. I spend so much of my energies simply reading the subtitles and watching what is happening on screen that my ears can't pick up nuances of voice artistry; though, now that you mention it, I do remember the impact her voice had in that scene.... it created an almost otherwordly atmosphere. Though my issues with the dubbing in the film were with the alignment of mouths with the timing of the voices; occasionally I remember it being off, something that I always notice in many Indian films and drives me crazy! :)

    Thank you for stopping by and leaving such an informative comment. Cheers, ~Minai

  12. Saw the movie again yesterday and was looking for some info on the film when I stumbled into this blog. Very well written. Few words I would like to add.
    The movie is directed by Shaji N Karun. Vanaprastham was his third movie as director. Before turning into direction he had established himself as a cinematographer with awards like Eastman Kodak award for excellence at Hawaii film festival in 1989 and National award for best camera in 1979. In fact he had passed out from FTII Pune with Presidents medal for diploma in cinematography. The quality of cinematography in the movie is in no way accidental. His directorial debut with the movie Piravi is one of the most remarkable entre at par with Satyajit Ray’s entry with Pather Panchali. The film won awards in Cannes, Edinburgh, Locarno, Hawaii, Chicago, Bergamo, Fribourg and Fijr and screened in all major festivals in competitive section. The film won the national award for best movie also. All the major crew, in front of and behind the camera, are accomplished artists. There are two documentaries made on PadmaSri Kalamandalam Gopi, one by Adoor Gopalakrishnan and another one by Meena Das titled Making of a Maestro. PadmaSri Mattannoor Sankaran Kutty who plays Raman is a world renowned Chenda artist. Renowned percussionist, actor and author Kalamandalam Kesavan plays the role of Pisharody. Renowned Kadhakali singer late Venmani Haridas who was a teacher at Darpana Ahmedabad, an art school set up by Mrinalini Sarabhai, played the role of Namboothiri. With the eception of Mohanlal most of the actors are professional Kadhakali artists. They were present to ensure technical perfection from Mohanlal during performing scenes. Music was scored by Padmabhushan, Kalidas Samman and Grammy award winner Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.

    1. Ranjith Pillai - Thank you for the additional information about Vanaprastham, especially the names of the other artists and musicians. I think I will have to watch this film again as the talk of the excellent cinematography has me reminiscing...

  13. Hi madam,
    Your review is excellent.can i use some of the sentences you said here if i write a review of vanaprastham in my blog :)

  14. Thanks for the blog and all the reviews, helped me appreciate the movie even more after watching it last night. Wanted to share on other perspective that may have already come across in earlier comments but still thought of sharing:
    Towards the end of the movie, the protagonist says he is open to anything that life can throw at him (paraphrasing here, forgive any inaccuracies) and that nothing can affect him at this point. This is after living through one of the most adverse lifetimes that anyone could have gone through. Even then at the end he has reached a point of Grace and what one might call Samadhi.
    From this perspective, I had two takeaways: one that in-spite of the circumstances one is born into, salvation is still possible to anyone. And two that staying honest to one's dharma, in this case the chosen form of art, is the path to salvation even though life may make it difficult to pursue throughout.
    Again, thanks for all the comments. This is definitely one feast of a movie, nothing more to ask for...

  15. Hi, I had just stumbled by accident to this lovely movie called Vanaprastham because I was watching another one of Mohanlal's movie set in 1993 titled Manichitrathazu. The entire premise of the movie intrigues me however, sadly I do not understand the Malayalam language and finding a copy with english subtitles is proving to be a rather difficult task. I still hope that one day it will happen and if i may ask you, where have you procured your copy of the movie please? I noticed that some of the screenshots have english subtitles in them. thank you very much and I enjoyed myself immensely rading your take on this wonderful piece of art.

    1. I got Vanaprastham on DVD many years ago, but I'm not sure exactly where. I'd focused on finding DVD copies of it rather than online viewing, and you should be able to locate one with English subtitles. The subtitles are very important to understanding the movie! Good luck.

  16. I just watched the movie and was looking for some explanation online and this is when I stumbled upon this blog. It is beautifully written, touching various aspects of the film. I just wanted to clear some doubts about Kunhikuttan's final act. Why did he chose his daughter to play Subhadra? Is it because the only relationship he lived to his fullest was that of a father to his daughter (as he was denied as a son by his father and then father to his son) and only her daughter could bring complete solace and closure to his life on and off-stage?


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