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.