Vanaprastham – Last Dance (Malayalam, 1999)

-Manjula Jonnalagadda

Kathakali is a traditional form of dance. Katha means story through kali comes from kala or keli which loosely translates to performance. It uses heavy makeup, masks and facial expressions to tell stories usually from Indian mythology. It is physically very intense art form.

Vaanaprastham literally means going away to forest. It is also a term used for retirement. Vaanaprastham was made by Shaji N. Karun in 1999. This film was premiered at the 1999 Cannes film festival in the “Un Certain Regard” section. This film played at several festival and won awards at the Istanbul Film Festival and the Bombay International Film Festival. It also won Best Indian Feature film, Best Actor, and Best Editing Award at the National Film Awards, and several Kerala State Film awards.

Shaji N. Karun started his career as a cinematographer. Some of his famous films as a cinematographer are Kanchana Seetha, Esthappan, and Hindi film Ek Chadar Maili Si. He started his career in direction with the film Piravi. It won Special Mention Camera D’or at Cannes. His second film Swaham was screened in the competition section for Palme D’or in 1994. It was the  last Indian film to have that honor. He won one National Film Award for the Best Direction and three of his films won under Best Film category.

The film is the story of Kunhikuttan a Kathakali artist. The story is set in 50s & 60s. Kunhikuttan though he has an upper caste father, his mother is from a lower caste. His father doesn’t acknowledge Kunhikuttan as son untill he is on his death bed. He has a daughter and is in a loveless marriage. He gains fame by playing poothana the female demon. He slowly graduates to male roles and starts playing Arjuna. While playing Arjuna, Subhadra who is the niece of the manager of erstwhile king of Travancore gets attracted to him. She is in love with the character of Arjuna and writing a play called Subhadra Haranam (The kidnapping of Subhadra). His relationship with her and the others form rest of the story. The film also shows the realities of traditional artists who are always on the roads and depend heavily on the patrons of the art.

The film is very character driven. Kunhikuttan is a complex character who couldn’t get any love from his father. He is an alcoholic, his wife despises him for not making enough money.  She wants to keep Kunhikuttan’s daughter away from him. He falls in love with Subhadra, an aristocratic woman, but she is in love with Arjuna, the character he frequently plays. She does not allow Kunhikuttan to see his own son. He cannot perform rites of his father because his mother is not from upper caste, whereas his father is. All he has is an enormous talent as a dancer. In a lot of ways Kunhikuttan is a deprived character.

Mohanlal played the role of Kunjikuttan of very well. Excellent actor that he is, he showed his anguish as a father who is denied to presence in his son’s life and as a son who grew up without knowing who his father is.  He has to wear heavy makeup and mask as a Kathakali artist. His anguish is visible through that heavy makeup. His national award for best acting was well deserved.

Another important character in the film is that of Subhadra. Subhadra is named after wife of the warrior Arjuna. She is in love with Arjuna the character since the childhood. She is from an aristocratic family and married to airline pilot. She sees Kunhikuttan at his performance falls in love with his performance. To her she embodies Arjuna the character. She refuses to see him  as a person outside the character that he plays. She wants to have a son from Arjuna, so has an affair with Kunhikuttan. To her he is Arjuna’s son not Kunhikuttan’s.  

I am not a fan of Suhasini who played the role of Subhadra, but she was good in this role. Her acting especially in the final scene was good.

The other important characters are his friends whom he grew up with in the Kathakali school, his wife, his mother and his daughter. He is close to the singer who sings for his performances and drummer who plays at his performances. The actors who played those roles have done  a very good job as well.

Another key character in the film is music. This is a film based on arts. Music plays a very important role in the film. The film was scored by Zakir Hussain. The music was traditional and uses lyrics from famous Malayalam poets and is of excellent quality.

The film is beautiful!!! Framing of shots was excellent! Santosh Sivan is an excellent cinematographer, this film is among his best works. The film is edited by Sreekar Prasad, one of the best editors in the Indian film industry today. His national award was very well deserving!

I highly recommend this film for the character study, beauty of the film and the life of the artists.


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