Everyone knows that love involves some level of imagination. When we meet someone we like they engage our imagination. But sometimes people get so occupied within their own mind that they lose touch with reality. Now if you throw in a bit of religion, some dance and theatre, along with an East Indian setting then you may get something like Vanaprastham an excellent myth-like drama directed by Shaji N. Karun.
The basic story involves an affair in 1950's India between a low-caste actor and an upper-caste woman and the difficulty that ensues from their affair. The two are Kunhikuttan (Mohanlal) a chubby man who performs dance traditions of the Keralan theater of Kathakalini. And she is Subhadra (Suhasini) a beautiful woman who studies religion and lives an isolated life in her palace.
Where the film is so fascinating is in the performances that Kunhikuttan performs and the way that they mirror his own life. Kunhikuttan main performance is a stylized Mahabarata Epic in which he plays a character named Arjuna who was in love with another character name (ironically enough) Subhadra. When the real Subhadra watches the plays – performed in her palace residence – she falls in love with Kunhikuttan. Or rather she falls in love with the character of Arjuna. There seems to be no line between fact and fiction for her yet for Kunhikuttan the irony is too much to bear.
Soon after Kunhikuttan and Subhadra begin an affair they have a son but after Subhadra gives birth she won't allow Kunhikuttan to visit. To add to this slight Kunhikuttan is denied the right to see his own dying father - an upper-caste gentleman whom he has never met - or take place in his father's forthcoming funeral.
On the surface the story within the film seems to be a soap opera about the challenges that befall the rich and the poor in matters of love in a country that doesn't accept such social infractions. And it does have this element, plus it is a bit convoluted at first but it is excellently directed and acted. And on the level of allegory it is very impressive. Especially in the way it deals with the blurred lines between fact, fiction, reality and imagination.
Vanaprastham is most notable for it's theatrical art and traditional dances, which involve elaborate face paint, colorful costumes and communication through singing, pantomime and sign language. If anything the film is an exotic journey into a theatrical world few of us have ever witnessed. The cinematography too - by Santosh Sivan - is remarkable, the music by Ustad Zakir Hussain first-rate, and the editing pace is measured but engrossing.