Well into his middle age now, K Ramanunni recalls the tenacity with which superstar Mohanlal went on to re-enact a scene amid repeated calls for an interruptive 'cut' from the film crew. That was exactly 21 years ago when the rustic location was the front yard of the house of a veteran Kathakali artiste.
Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair had crossed 82 in December 1997 when his modest and vintage-looking residence in central Kerala had turned into the focal spot for a Malayalam movie that went on to gain global recognition. 'Vanaprastham,' directed by Shaji N Karun and released in winter 1999, featured the Kathakali maestro as the guru of protagonist Kunhikuttan, played by Mohanlal.
Two decades thence, the double-storeyed house which the seasoned filmmaker had so painstakingly located for 'Vanaprastham' presents a forlorn picture. Both Mollywood and Kathakali may have gained greater colour since the turn of the 21st century, but the precinct of an abode that once happened to blend the two cultures is fast fading into oblivion.
For one, Kumaran Nair is no more: the master died post-Onam 2007 at the age of 92. Two, none in the Padma awardee's family is yet to emerge as a Kathakali artiste of repute. All this, when his verdant Vellinezhi village in rugged Palakkad district has of late been accorded an official ‘heritage’ status. The countryside, not far from the town of Cherpulassery, was given the title of ‘Kalagramam’ by the state government in 2015.
That, however, doesn’t matter much to Ramanunni, the youngest son of 1916-born Kumaran Nair. “To me, the Vellinezhi of my younger days was far denser culturally,” he shrugs, speaking about the village that currently has 80 artistes from the field of Kathakali, the four-century-old classical dance-drama. “The gravitas of the masters of those days was a class apart.”
Kumaran Nair was one among them, having been trained in the weighty Kalluvazhi style under its reformist icon Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1880-1948). That was at Vellinezhi’s pivotal Kanthallur Srikrishna temple, which used to function as a hub of Kathakali, being not far from the art-patronising aesthetes of the feudal mansion called Olappamanna Mana.
Overall, such old-word hangover led the makers of 'Vanaprastham' to shoot the flick around Vellinezhi. In the run-up, the key people of the Indo-French-German production got in touch with Kathakali scholar K B Raj Anand of Cherpulassery. On being briefed about the story and sought to function as a consultant, he eventually suggested Keezhpadam tharavad as ideal to be portrayed as the house of the hero whose younger days had the last of the kings ruling their provinces.
“Kumaran Nair wasn’t particularly enthused by the film project. But he wasn’t negative about it either,” recalls Raj Anand, now a retired bank employee. “After giving our proposal a thought, he agreed to using Keezhpadam as the chief locale.”
The tile-roof house, with its inside walls raised in mud, was built in the early 1940s when Kumaran Nair was dabbling with Tamil cinema. The young master, having completed his training in Kathakali, was forced to stray out of the field. Boarding a train to Madras, he ended up choreographing sing-and-dance scenes for a series of films starring M G Ramachandran. That stint helped Kumaran Nair earn some money good enough to build a house back in his sleepy village.
“During those film days, my father was close to M N Nambiar as well,” Ramanunni reveals, referring to another acclaimed south Indian actor. In fact, one of Nambiar’s close relatives was to soon become Kumaran Nair’s wife. “Returning from a sojourn in north Malabar (where Kumaran Nair had his initial Kathakali tutelage under Chandu Panikkar at Varanakkottu Mana), he surprised the family by bringing a young lady as his wife, we’re told,” says the son, with a smile. The bride, Kadayaprath Gowrikutty of Kunjimangalam near Kannur, was a niece of freedom fighter K A Keraleeyan aka Kunjappa Nambiar (1910-94), an early Communist leader in Kerala.
Cut to end-1997, and an aged Gowrikutty was perched atop Keezhpadam house along with young Ramanunni. “The film shoot was on, and we had to facilitate free movement of the crew. So I took amma upstairs, and together we’d spend the days, mostly watching the shoot around,” he says, specially referring to the prolonged efforts behind a scene where a jaded Mohanlal would walk into his house, back after a night’s Kathakali performance.
Kumaran Nair was, in the midst of these proceedings, up in Bombay, where a Malayali cultural organisation was to honour him. ‘Keli’, founded by cultural enthusiast K Ramachandran, hosted also Kathakali evenings that featured the maestro. “Ashan (guru) came up with equally stunning shows that year,” recalls Ramachandran, a native of Cherpu, south of Thrissur.
Wonder overtakes Ramanunni when he rewinds the pre-dawn arrivals of the 'Vanaprastham' crew at Keezhpadam. “They would come, just to record the sounds. Of the chirping birds, of the gurgle of the river (the Kunthipuzha that flows by Vellinezhi),” he notes. “Overall, the shoot in our village, including the breaks, spanned a little over two months.”
When the film came out in December 1999, Kumaran Nair and wife Gowrikutty were invited for a premiere show in Shoranur, 27 km south of their Vellinezhi home. “They watched it there. I did it, a little later, when the movie was screened in Perinthalmanna,” says Ramanunni, recalling that trip covering a similar distance from Keezhpadam, but northward.
By when Ramanunni viewed 'Vanaprastham', he was married. “In fact, amid the shoot of the film, there was a wedding proposal getting fixed. The girl was to become my wife,” he reveals about K T Manjula, incidentally a grandniece of 20th-century Kathakali guru Thekkinkattil Ramunni Nair. The couple has two sons, Akash and Abhay.
“Achhan (father-in-law) had always been a benign figure,” recalls Manjula, a sociology teacher at a tutorial in Cherpulassery, six km from Vellinezhi. Adds Salini Ramakrishnan, the master’s granddaughter: “I would spend my school holidays in Keezhpadam. At the attic upstairs, I often stumbled upon books on Kathakali…some of which I would browse through with interest.”
The Kumaran-Gowrikutty couple gave birth to eight children, the eldest among them is a septuagenarian. Ramanunni, 51, is an occupant of the Keezphadam house with his wife and two sons. The younger one is now training in Kathakali. Sadanam Manikantan is teaching Abhay at Kanthallur temple-the same place the class-8 boy’s grandfather had learned the art nine decades ago.
These days, Ramanunni works with a neighbourhood temple. To be precise, by the counter that facilitates offerings for devotees at the Trippulikkal Mahadeva Kshetram. The shrine is currently hosting its annual festival. It is a week-long ulsavam yet again at by the green expanse of paddy fields.
That streak of yearly revelry apart, Keezhpadam in a northern corner of Vellinezhi is contrastingly secluded. It’s as if the house has itself acquired the meaning of the awards-winning movie. 'Vanaprastham', as a third stage in life according to Hindu philosophy, is that of a hermit.