‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’ – Michelangelo
While delineating the plot of his Thazhvaram, a Yojimbo-type revenge story set in tribal Attapadi to director Bharathan, the great writer M.T Vasudevan Nair was taken aback by the former’s queries which seemed to suggest that every scene and shot was vividly unfolding in his mind, to its last detail of color and tone! The movie remains one of the best offerings from the oeuvre of the bearded marvel who should adorn the topmost tier of all time great movie makers of Malayalam. Bharathan was a genius that soared high above the narrow categorizations of critics. He strode the middle path between high brow art house and formulaic mainstream movie making. Basically a painter and sculptor, it was no wonder that his movies were the most visually appealing, with every single frame bearing what came to be known as the ‘Bharathan touch’. In the galaxy of Malayalam cinema, Bharathan and Padmarajan were two contemporary meteors that did not live to a combined age of 100. One was a story-teller par excellence, the other the quintessential film maker. One celebrated life, the other deified death. One was firmly rooted in our culture; the other was clearly inspired by Western literature. They both peaked in the ‘80s, the golden period that gifted a bounty of collectible experiences to grateful cine-goers of the most literate state in the country.
Born in Wadakkancherry, Thrissur on 14th November ‘46, Bharathan was the nephew of director P.N. Menon who pioneered the parallel cinema movement in ’70 with his Ollavum Theeravum. Armed with a diploma from the city’s College of Fine Arts, the young Bharathan went to Chennai where the elder patriarch gave him a job as a painter of publicity stills for films. Thoppil Bhasi (whose son and Film Institute student Ajayan then roomed with Bharathan) discovered the Art Director in him and gave him a break in A. Vincent’s Gandharva Kshetram. He was to later adorn that robe for many of his own films. In ’75 he teamed with writer Padmarajan and made his directorial debut with the black and white Prayanam which portrayed the plight of a young girl married off to an old priest. From then on till his passing away on 30th July ’98 of liver cirrhosis aged 51, Bharathan made 40 feature films of exquisite beauty and enduring charm. His screenwriters were drawn from the crème de la crème of our literary minds. Apart from Padmarajan (7), the works of Kakkanadan, Uroob, Thikkodiyan, T. Damodaran, Lohitadas, Mallika Younis, Dennis Joseph and M.T transformed into celluloid magic in his deft hands. The prolific John Paul who wrote the majority of his screenplays (12) also became his Boswell. In his poignant memoirs on the maestro, ‘Oru Kadamkatha Poley Bharathan’, Paul lets us into the eccentricities of a genius in creative flight. Even after long sessions of drink and discussions with friends like Pavithran, John Abraham, Backer, Aravindan and Kalamandalam Hyderali in his Parankusapuram residence, Bharathan would be up in the dead of night smoking endless cigarettes and working on a painting or sculpture. This adversely affected his health. He was given to temper tantrums and Paul himself had borne the brunt of it as evidenced in his banishment once from a film set midway through the shooting. With his inimitable sense of rhythm and harmony, it could be natural that Bharathan assisted in the music composition of his movies. His love of violin is evident in Kathod Kathoram where Ouseppachan was the main composer. He even penned catchy lyrics like ‘Tharam vaalkkannadi nokki’ (Keli) and ‘Pudamurri kalyanam’ (Chilamp). The art, craft and heritage of Kerala found resonance in Bharathan films. Could there be a better tribute to Thrissur and its famed Guruvayoor temple than his eponymous movie on the famous elephant that inhabited its premises, Guruvayoor Kesavan? Vadakkunathan, pooram, panchavadyam, kudamaatam and utraallikaav were an integral part of the film maker’s life and psyche, even if his work took him far away from the milieu.
Bharathan married Kayamkulam-born Lalitha (real name Maheswari Amma) and they have two children, Sreekkutty and Siddharth. She was popular in KPAC plays and since ’69 has had a long career spanning over 500 movies. After a few experiments with acting, Siddharth has found his mooring as a director with Nidra, incidentally the remake of a ’81 Bharathan film. He also donned the lead part in it while his mother played his mother-in-law on screen. There were many loves in Bharathan’s life, notable among them being the late Srividya, leading South Indian actress, avid cricket fan and an unsung talent as a singer. Her devotion stemming from a deep admiration for the consummate artist was total and their love had the purity of the mist of Capricon, going by Paul’s account. In her autobiography ‘Katha Thudarum’ Lalitha makes no bones about this relationship either. In fact she was liaison for the duo’s romantic phone rendezvous in the early years! Also we come to know that the Bharathan-Lalitha marriage held at Kumarakoil in Kanyakumari was slightly rushed. They got engaged one day in May ’78 and married the next day. KPAC Lalitha the artist turned out to be his perfect Muse and partner. She lent voice to his heroines apart from essaying some memorable roles herself in his films – the National award winning role of the fisherwoman Bhargavi in Amaram and the widow Kunjipenn, the victim of a strange polyandry custom in Venkalam, both characters flowing from the blessed pen of the late Lohitadas, come to mind.
The artist in Bharathan totally dominated the film maker in him. Rembrandt was a big influence by his own admission. Some of his movie posters were works of art in themselves. He used a detailed story board for the scenes and took pains to sketch out many of them as well. In M.T’s Vaisali for instance the drawings on the cave are done by the director, as are the ones the hero Rishyasringan does on the seductress Vaisali’s’s bare back. As an explorer of the sensuous in cinema, Bharathan has few parallels. His heroines came dripping wet; they seldom wore any kind of veil over their bright hued blouses and bubbled with joie de vivre. Myriad were the permutations of love and sexuality in these tales. Adolescent boy and older girl from the neighbourhood in Rathi Nirvedam, master and servant in Parankimala, lecturer and student in Chamaram, householder and kids’ tuition teacher in Parvathi, you name it. Even when the viewing experience at times bordered on the voyeuristic, to the film maker’s credit he managed to steer clear of crass vulgarity. Andhra-born Surekha, who made memorable his Subhashini in Thakara was to say later that she was merely being a puppet in his hands, a clay model that he sculpted to whatever shape he wanted. One of the greatest thespians to have graced the Indian screen, Nedumudi Venu, got his break in Bharathan’s touring circus troupe saga Aaravam. This was soon after a breezy debut in Aravindan’s Thamp, also a circus story. He later appeared memorably as Chellappan Asari in Thakara and the retired schoolteacher Ravunni Nair in Oru Minnaminunginte Nurrunguvettom. The latter role would have fetched Venu the elusive National Best Actor award if not for ‘Nayakan’ Kamal Haasan coming in the way. Menaka debuted in Savithri the Thamizh remake of Prayanam. Other talents unearthed by Bharathan include Soorya in Parrankimala, Revathi in Kaatathe Killikkod, Babu Antony in Chilamp, Shyamili in Malootty and Chippy in Paadheyam. In the early ‘80s Bharath Gopi gave life to many of his immortal characters like the repentant judge in Sandhya Mayangum Naerum, the Naxalite in Marmaram, the deaf-mute artist in Ormakkayi and the railway worker in Palangal. Bharathan appeared in a cameo as the train engine driver in Avarampoo, his Thamizh remake of Thakara. He applies the brakes and saves the hero, marking a change from the tragic ending of the Malayalam original. In another Thamizh film Thevar Magan, he directed two heavyweight actors in Kamal Haasan and Shivaji Ganesan. It won for Revathi a Supporting Actress National award. Vaisali fetched K.S. Chitra the third of her six National Awards for singing.
Bharathan’s later years’ output like Devaragam, Manjeeradhwani and Churam showed a marked dip in quality. Can this be seen as the sunset of his talent preceding the actual physical end? Also venturing unsuccessfully in production threw him neck-deep in debt. After his demise the family sold off their Chennai house to repay part of it. His pet project Kunchan Nambiar for which he planned to cast Mohanlal in the central role of the satirist remained an unfulfilled dream. The legacy that this maverick film maker left behind is gigantic. The passage of time has only increased our pining for the good old days of clean and entertaining cinema.