Depiction of a turbulent affair

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Depiction of a turbulent affair

Wading through art history: Kartika and Santosh Sivan in ‘Makara Manju’.

There is a common thread of vulnerability in the protagonists of most Lenin Rajendran films. One can feel it in Swathi Tirunal where he laid bare the love affair between a dancer and the 19th century king of Travancore who was a music composer.  In Kulam, he portrayed the inner turmoil of Subhadra, the heroine of the historical novel Marthanda Varma. Why, even in a film which dealt with an anti-feudal upheaval like Meenamasathile Sooryan, the director focussed on the personal struggles of a band of revolutionaries.

Cut to Makara Manju (Winter Mist) presently being shot in Kerala, Goa and Mumbai and one can tell that Lenin is at it again. The story is based on an episode from 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma’s life but is tantalising enough to touch the hearts of most creative minds today. In the film, Lenin explores the relationship between the ace painter and a model whom he had met in a Mumbai studio over a century ago. Lenin juxtaposes this relationship smartly with Ravi Varma’s own painting that depicts the turbulent affair between Urvasi and King Purooravas.

According to Lenin, Urvasi is the quintessential enchantress whose duty it is to fall in love and accept whatever goodies it brings her way, but is painfully barred from marrying the man or bearing children. “She has to leave the scene after plunging kings like Purooravas into eternal sorrow. What I want to show is that a similar dilemma exists in an artist and his model, something which Ravi Varma experienced in his life,” says Lenin. The director admits that the film is part fiction and part real. “There is evidence that the artist did have an affair with Anjali Bhai, a model whom he ran into after wandering quite a lot in search of his Urvasi. I am trying to tell the story through this analogy,” he adds.

True to his maverick ways and his principled approach to never succumb to market forces, Lenin has cast cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan as Ravi Varma and newcomer Kartika as the model. In effect, Sivan will be doubling up as Ravi Varma and Purooravas while Kartika, daughter of Tamil-Malayalam actress Radha, will enact the roles of both Anjali Bhai and Urvasi.

Lenin says he found Sivan to be the most suited to play Ravi Varma’s part. “For some years, I have watched Sivan directing, his interviews and his general body language. There is an actor in him and I had decided long ago that I will make him act.” Given his tight schedules, Santosh was a bit hesitant to enter the acting scene but finally gave in to Lenin Rajendran’s persuasions, that he was just the right man for the part. Lenin had to wait for Sivan to finish up with Maniratnam’s film Ravan which had gotten delayed. On his part, Sivan says that he had for long been influenced by the ace painter whose works were “regularly cited by my grandmother during story time.” In fact, he acquired his visual aesthetics from Raja Ravi Varma.
Lenin shares a special relationship with Madhu Ambatt who has donned the camera for four of his films. In Makara Manju, Ambatt makes a comeback with what Lenin calls a “novel approach for every frame.”  Lenin zeroed in on 17-year-old Karthika, the heroine of the movie, after screening over 200 faces. Though a relative newcomer — Karthika comes from a family of film stars — her mother Radha and maternal aunt Ambika having been popular faces in almost all south Indian languages in the 80s.

A Marxist fellow-traveller who has even contested elections unsuccessfully, Lenin says he never allows his political leanings to come in the way of his profession. However, he admits that his strong professional convictions and uncompromising attitude do stand in the way of effectively marketing his films.
“People have told me that a more intelligent casting and some sleight of hand would have catapulted me to great heights. Even in the case of this film, people have suggested some prominent names to play Ravi Varma, but I found Sivan to be the best. I am aware of this criticism. Maybe they are right, but I find it hard to change my ways,” says the filmmaker.

Understandably, the film has been produced by a company launched by him and his friends under the banner of Green Cinema. “But that doesn’t mean that there will be any significant cost-cutting. In fact, I have made no compromises for this film which I expect to be my best work,” he says. Makara Manju is expected to hit the theatres in January 2010.

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