Greasepaint, and beyond

Print edition : July 22, 2000

With his performance in Vanaprastham, which won for him the national award for best actor, Malayalam actor Mohan Lal has reached another high point of his career.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

THE Rajat Kamal for Best Actor has come to Malayalam actor Mohan Lal for a second time, this time for his complex and emotionally supercharged portrayal in Vanaprastham of a Kathakali artist who tries to come to terms with the dichotomy (or lack o f it?) between his real self and the character he plays. Mohan Lal won the National Award for Best Actor in 1991 for his performance in Bharatam. Vanaprastham, directed by Shaji N. Karun, also won the Swarna Kamal for Best Picture and the N ational Award for Best Editing. The film had earlier won six Kerala State awards and been selected for screening at Cannes and other international festivals.

In an acting career spanning two decades, the 39-year-old "super star", who debuted in 1980 as an unconventional villain in Manjil Virinja Pookal, had so ensnared the Malayalam movie industry (and movie-goers) that some of his fellow actors often found themselves on the verge of imitating him. So much so that over a period of time Mohan Lal faced the more serious danger of himself emulating his varied roles as the dashing lover, the indulgent brother, the revengeful son, the transformed brute, th e brutalised innocent, the tough and defiant politician, or simply, the hilarious man next door.

Such perils were natural sequels to memorable roles that led to box-office triumphs. They were perhaps also a reflection of the long spells of dry fare that the Malayalam film industry was capable of, despite the presence of a wealth of outstanding actin g talent (Mammootty, Tilakan, Nedumudi Venu, Jagathy Sreekumar and Manju Warrier, to name a few). The indelible Mohan Lal cliches and imitations therefore became a necessity for the financial soundness of commercial Malayalam cinema, which faced increasi ng production costs and a string of flops. A recent blockbuster, Narasimham, directed by Shaji Kailas, ran for over 150 days, with nothing new to offer but a composite clone of Mohan Lal's rogue-hero-with-a-good-heart portrayal in an assortment of similar movies - Devasuram, The Prince, Aaraam Thampuran or Ustad- all of which were released in the past few years.

Interestingly, Mohan Lal's distinct voice, lop-sided gait, mischievous look, sly grin, trend-setting dialogue delivery and amazing versatility in terms of expressions and gestures have endeared him to movie buffs and are now a regular fare at campus and cultural festivals and television shows in Kerala.

What distinguishes Mohan Lal from other actors, however, is his trend-setting originals and the incredible range of acting skills that he has acquired through a succession of memorable roles - the gangster in Rajavinte Makan, the idealist in Pa nchagni, the farcical husband-on-hire in Chitram, the guileless youth brutalised by circumstances in Kireedom (for which he won the National Film Awards jury's Special Mention in 1989), the convict facing a death sentence in Sadayam , the native who consoles his refugee relatives in Vaastuhaara, the asylum inmate in Talavattom, the lecherous rogue hero in Devasuram, the hilarious tourist guide in Kilukkam, and the Carnatic musician burdened by the deat h of his guru and drunkard elder brother in Bharatam.

In all of them, as in Priyadarshan's Kalaapaani and Mani Ratnam's Iruvar, films which catapulted him beyond the Kerala audience, Mohan Lal lived the roles he played, an unmatched display of talent from an artist who declares in every other interview to the media: "An actor exists only momentarily, between 'Action' and 'Cut'. Most often an actor is a person, his real self. I like to be myself most of the time, not an actor. An actor's job is only to react to a particular situation."

IN Vanaprastham Mohan Lal wears the greasepaint, this time the green, red and black colours of the Kathakali artist, to make 'Kunjukkuttan Asan' a profound experience for the audience. Vanaprastham follows the poignant life of the Asan (tea cher) against the dismal backdrop of the penurious existence of a group of gifted Kathakali artists and their families. The astonishing transformation on stage of the talented Kunjukkuttan as the mythological Arjuna arouses a kind of hysterical fascinat ion in a rich upper-class connoisseur, the Dewan's daughter-in-law, Subhadra (played by Suhasini), who falls in love, not with him but with the character that he portrays.

The realisation that it is his riveting performance that drives the real-world Subhadra to passionate love-making with him (she later refuses his claim to their child), makes Kunjukkuttan resolve to give up virtuous roles for the ferocious and the villai nous ones. Kunjukkuttan's modest life, already tormented by an inability to claim his own father, is torn asunder by an unhappy marriage, and his rage pushes him further into drink and despair. Frustrated by Subhadra's refusal to let him see her or their son (symbolically named Abhimanyu, after the son of Arjuna), Kunjukkuttan seeks revenge by training his daughter to be the amorous mythological Subhadra on stage, with himself play-acting as the suitor Arjuna.

A sense of inevitability pervades the film, and the tensions are illuminated with startling effect when Subhadra eventually sheds her illusions and social pretensions and realises the injuries that she had inflicted on the real Kunjukkuttan. But by then, the Asan, having exhausted all his roles, had performed his last dance.

Mohan Lal as Kunjukkuttan Asan and Suhasini as Subhadra in Vanaprastham.-COURTESY: PRANAVAM ARTS


Vanaprastham'has several themes all meshed to create the labyrinthian complexities that devour Kunjukkuttan. One such is his anguish that he cannot lay a claim to his own father, the unseen Namboodiri, who leaves him and his lower-caste servant mo ther nothing but a burning inheritance. Nor does he have a claim to his son by Subhadra. The agony drives him to the banks of the Ganga, where too his father fails him, as only a son born to a Namboodiri woman has the right to perform his last rites. His grief has no answer when he wonders: "Can a Namboodiri's spirit too refuse to accept the offerings from his son?"

A second strain of thought is of the women in the Asan's life: the selfish Subhadra, the nagging wife, the helpless mother and the understanding daughter. Both Subhadra and his wife (played by Kukku Parameswaran) fail to see the artist and the man as sep arate entities. When they do realise, it is too late in the day. The film could well have been about the two women. How else could they have reacted to (or taken part in) Kunjukkuttan Asan's multi-faceted tragedy? Could the married and erudite Subhadra h ave accepted him except in her fantasies? Could his wife have responded otherwise to a husband who brings home nothing but the pangs of his love for a 'thampuratti'(noblewoman) and a son who is not hers?

The destitution of Kathakali artists in general forms the backdrop of the film, and it is poignantly brought out when, soon after captivating performances before the king, Kunjukkuttan, still wearing the majestic costumes of an Arjuna or Keechaka, litera lly begs for money to help fellow artists who are mired in poverty. His helplessness in finding solace for his teacher or his fellow artist, who is stricken with illness and is no longer able to perform the peerless art, completes Kunjukkuttan's disinteg ration. But life must go on. At one point, when he declares his intention to embark on a pilgrimage, he tells a friend: "I will come back. I will have to, won't I? Don't we all have many more roles to play, many more costumes to wear?"

Without doubt, Kunjukkuttan is a high point in Mohan Lal's career. The range of emotions that fleet across his masked face as he plays the youth tormented by questions about an unknown father, the husband who forgets to love, or the lover who is jolted o ut of his real world, set him far beyond the capabilities of the best of Malayalam's imitators. In Vanaprastham, the cliched Mohan Lal has been firmly replaced by a character that dominates the full screen; the actor triumphs over himself and his celebrated previous performances.

The film is an Indo-French joint venture, between Pierre Assouline of Euro-American Films and Mohan Lal's Pranavam Arts. With its underlying theme of a father-son relationship, the movie harks back to Shaji Karun's Piravi, which got rave reviews, and Swahm. But despite the involvement of two acclaimed cinematographers, Renato Berta of Switzerland and Santhosh Sivan, and the music by Ustad Zakir Hussain, the Rs.2.5-crore movie failed at the box office.

Perhaps the film had its defects: a certain abruptness in the handling of the scenes where the camera should have lingered longer; allowing the characters to explain their minds when silence could have done it better; using cinematographers whose craft d id not jell; or, allowing Kunjukkuttan to dwarf the other characters. Or, perhaps, Vanaprastham had to pay the price for anchoring itself far beyond the realm of commercial cinema. It ran for barely a week in Kerala's theatres before thin audienc es. Kerala failed to appreciate the worth of the sensitive portrayal by Mohan Lal and the flowering of a talent that it had been nurturing for 20 years.

But the way ahead for Malayalam cinema, which cornered glory by winning 14 awards in the feature and non-feature sections when the 47th national film Awards were announced, seems to lie in the emphatic demonstration by Mohan Lal that the gap between his roles as the Carnatic musician in the box-office hit Bharatam and the Kathakali artist in the commercial disaster Vanaprastham are not so wide, after all.

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