An actor uses everything at his disposal to breathe life in the character. Voice modulation, imbibing the physicality of character, his emotional involvement…all of these put together becomes the enactment of the character. Very few actors manage all of these, the reasons being either their lack of talent/preparation or weak material they are supposed to work with. In such rare instances, when terrific talent and great material come together, the results are outstanding. Mohanlal in ‘Vanaprastham’ is one such celestial occurrence, a la marriage made in heaven.
Mohanlal brings all the elements of acting to the fore as an emotionally turbulent Kathakali dancer. In the process we are treated to a superlative performance. It takes a bit of time to get involved in the story, and once we do, we cannot but empathise with the character’s ebbs and flows. Mohanlal as the artiste, who initially is in full control with his performance on stage, but struggling with his personal life, soon finds him going downhill in both. The fountain of creativity that flowed out of his sorrowful childhood and his art serving as a means to escape from the clutches of poverty, soon takes its own path and drowns Kunjikuttan (Mohanlal). And, his already difficult personal life becomes unbearable after a brief romantic interlude.
It is a very difficult character to play as the reveal of character attributes is non-linear. We are introduced to him as a respected artiste with a drinking problem and having issues with his family, and slowly we are exposed to his inner turmoil. His deep need for an emotional anchor and craving for an identity as a son and a father, juxtaposes with a profession that demands the very dissolution of it through the many disguises. Who am I? This question is best portrayed in a brilliant outburst scene when Kunjikuttan’s love interest refuses to see him.
Never once the character is in full contentment with his personal life and his brief joys are as transient as his performance on stage, which everyone forgets once the show is over. While the performance on stage appears real, one cannot make use of it in day to day life. Same ways, Kunjikuttan being excellent as playing Arjuna, neither provides him with a steady mentor like Krishna, or family love like Subhadra. For a small period, he finds Subhadra (Suhasini)in real life, but that little respite turns so bitter that pushes him into an abyss.
There are many scenes where one could simply watch Mohanlal with awe, with the serious ones being easily noticed by all. The scene where he preaches art is for art’s sake and how he lets art overpowers him. But even the simple ones stand out, like the scene he meets Suhasini in her house, while casually going through her written play, looks at her furtively. In that one expression, he captures it all…his dreams about the future, his lack of surety about them turning real and a glimmer of happiness in his eyes.
The final scene is one of the best..as if saying that though one artist succumbed to the ways of the world, art will and must go on. So the death of Kunjikuttan is shown from the point of view of Subhadra. It is as if Kunjikuttan is still around in some form, and so does the artform of Kathakali .