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|July 12, 2000||
The man in the mask
Vaanaprastham is set in the Kerala of the 1930s. And its protagonist is Kunhikuttan (Mohanlal), the illegitimate offspring of a Namboodiri landlord with Baghi, a low caste woman.
Baghi knows the identity of the father of her child -- but it is a secret she shares with no one. Abandoned by her high caste lover, she ekes out a precarious livelihood all on her own.
At age ten, Kunhikuttan is enrolled in a Kathakali school, to begin a most difficult, arduous apprenticeship. Gifted beyond his years, the young lad excels in his art, satisfying even his extremely demanding master. As the years pass, Kunhikuttan attains fame in his art, for his portrayal of some of the most demanding roles in the Kathakali repertoire.
Kathakali artistes in Kerala, then and now, are revered -- but they are rarely, if ever, materially enriched. Thus, Kunhikuttan, with his wife and daughter, eke out a precarious livelihood, drowning his frustrations in drink. His partners in art, and in bachhanalia, are Raman, the chenda player; Govindan, the maddalam player; and Vasu, the singer.
Drink, however, can only anasthetize -- it can never eradicate the pain of daily living. It is only when he is on stage, performing, that Kunhikuttan is able to transcend his pain.
Fate throws, in his path, Subhadra (Suhasini)-- a young woman married into high society. Highly educated and literate, Subhadra has a passion for Kathakali. And more especially for the character of Arjuna. So lost is she in the mythological hero, that she believes that her name is no accident -- like the Subhadra of the Mahabharat, this Subhadra believes that she is destined to be the lover of Arjuna, the mother of his son.
It is at this point that Kunhikuttan performs the role of Arjuna, before an audience of which Subhadra is part. The attraction is instant, incendiary. Kunhikuttan sees in her a hugely talented poetess, and is entranced by the Kathakali story she is writing. Subhadra sees him not as Kunhikuttan, but as Arjuna, lord of her dreams.
The relationship is consumated. Subhadra becomes pregnant -- and promptly cuts all ties with Kunhikuttan, much to his distress. Finally, yielding to his frequent pleadings, she brings her son to one of his performances. For a brief, heartbreaking instant in time, Kunhikuttan -- still in full costume -- gets to hold his son in his arms. And then Subhadra takes him away, for ever.
Kunhikuttan's grief and pain is unique -- having spent his childhood as a son without a father, he is now a father without a son.
Life unravels with alarming speed. He receives news of the Namboothiri's death, together with a will that asks him to perform the funeral rites. He is conscious of the irony -- his natural father has never acknowledged him in his lifetime, but now that he is no more, wants him to fulfill the final duties of a son.
Simultaneously, he learns that his Kathakali master is stricken with paralysis. Meanwhile, good friend, fellow artiste and drinking companion Vasu is dying of throat cancer.
Surrounded on all sides by death, Kunhikuttan absconds. To Benares, where his childhood mentor Pisharodi has retired. After a spell of introspection, Kunhikuttan returns home. And decides to give his final performance.
The drums throb as Arjuna, at his most heroic, strides on stage. The audience is entranced, as Subhadra, sister of Krishna, the enamoured of Arjuna, comes onstage. Playing the role is none other than Kunhikuttan's own daughter, making her own debut.
In the audience, spellbound, sits Subhadra -- one time lover of Kunhikuttan, and the mother of his son.
Beset by varying, warring, emotions, Subhadra leaves before the end of the performance.
The curtain comes down. Kunhikuttan leaves the stage, and Subhadra's life, for ever. But not before one last act is played out....
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