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An Indo-French production from 1999 just now released on DVD in North America, Vaanaprastham, (The Last Dance), directed by Shaji N Karun, is far removed from the typical Bollywood combination of songs and melodrama. It is a slow-paced, thoughtful and, at times, somber depiction of a Kathakali dancer estranged from the father who never knew him and the son he is not allowed to see. The film is full of passion but is restrained in its delicate portrayal of the consequences of the Indian caste system and the failure to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Vaanaprastham won the Golden Lotus Award at the National Film Awards in India for Best Picture, and Indian star Mohanlal won the award for Best Actor.
Set mainly in the 1950s when India was still under British rule, Kunhikuttan (Mohanlal) is a Kathakali dancer. This is an expressive form of South Indian theater that uses sign language, pantomime, music, and dance to relate stories of Indian mythological and historical figures. Kun is a respected performer but is a member of a lower caste, without wealth or personal happiness. His father (Venmani Haridas), an upper class Namboodiri (Brahmin), has rejected him and he is stuck in an arranged marriage that provides no comfort, enduring it only for the sake of his beautiful daughter. An alcoholic by day, he comes alive when he puts on colorful costumes, hears the beat of the chenda drum, and takes on the persona of the mythological heroes he portrays.
One night, his performance of the hero of the Mahabarata, Arjuna, is seen by Subhadra (Suhasini), an educated and highly intelligent member of an upper caste. Contrary to the rigid taboos of the Indian caste system, they fall in love and have a son. Sadly, she loves only Arjuna, the character, not Kun the man. Arjuna is everything she has ever dreamed, noble, manly, and heroic but the light of day reveals Kun as less than the hero she fantasizes. She soon rejects him and refuses to let him see his newborn son. Kun, now unable to see either his father or his son, foregoes the heroic roles he has always played in favor of portraying demonic characters, falling deeper into resentment until the last dance brings the film to a stunning conclusion.
Spread out over a fifteen-year period, Vaanaspratham is episodic but fully realized in the depth of its characters and the expressiveness of its music and dance. The film also has strong peripheral characters such as an ailing Kathakali master, a cancer-stricken singer, a chenda player who becomes Kun's drinking partner, and the daughter who wants to follow her father in pursuit of his artistic path in spite of her mother's objections. It is a challenging film, especially for Westerners unfamiliar with the story of Arjuna and Subhadra, but the outstanding performances of Mohanlal and Suhasini, the music of Zakir Hussain, and the gorgeous cinematography of Renato Berta and Santosh Sivan add up to a richly rewarding experience.
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