Saturday, June 10, 2006

BHARATHAM (Malayalam; 1991)

Bharatham is a deceptively simple film: ostensibly packaged as a sentimental and conformist tale about filial obligation set in a Namboodiri family of classical musicians where the deceased father's musical legacy is being carried on by his sons, the elder and more established of whom has taken to drink and is in danger of being surpassed by his younger brother (played by Mohanlal), by the time the film ends one realizes that one has been enmeshed in a moving meditation on art, specifically on an artistic tradition that rests upon continuity, inheritance, and the upholding of what has been passed on to one, yet which simultaneously must account for (and be accounted for by) the individual "difference", the singularity (such as the sort of talent the younger brother is depicted as possessing in the film) that itself enriches the tradition, and enables its handing down to successors. At the... ... same time, the singularity that is individual talent (and ambition?) immensely complicates notions of a harmonious tradition unsullied by personal achievement. The point isn't that there is a dichotomy between the two, but that the presence of both creates and sustains a creative tension, "tension" because neither mode is necessarily opposed to the other, but neither is entirely "at home" with or reducible to the other. Put differently, perhaps the central question in the film is whether Mohanlal's brother loses his musical touch vis-a-vis his brother because his addiction to liquor has sullied his art, or whether his addiction to liquor is a consequence of his suspicion that he might be a lesser talent than his brother. In any event, the film stresses that this is not a question of one being superseded by the other: the prodigy has been trained by his elder brother, who transmits the paternal legacy onward. The prodigy, in short, owes a debt that may never be repaid.


On a different note, the film shares this in common with Vanaprastham (though not much else) that it lovingly represents a way of life where the sacred shades into the artistic so seamlessly that to speak of "sacred" and "artistic" using two different terms betrays nothing except for one's own education and grounding in a certain Western tradition. Perhaps the word to use is "culture", not in the imbecilic and cramped way that the cultural nationalists of all hues and stripes are busy hawking all over these days, but in the sense of a way of life that cannot be said to be other than art, and an art that cannot be said to be other than religion. Other worlds press upon one nonetheless, and are represented in the film by the difficulties faced by the family in getting their mute daughter married, or by Mohanlal's humdrum grind at a government office.

What to say about Mohanlal that hasn't been said before? Certainly my cinematic vocabulary is in danger of being exhausted! Strangely I was most impressed by the scenes where he is shown performing, and thus has no dialogue. His stillness, his concentration, his quiet joy are almost palpable: if one didn't know better, one would think he were a musician rather than an actor.

Last but not least, a word about the director, Sibi Malayil. The only other film of his I have seen (though I wish I could see "His Highness Abdullah", the premise of which appears to be a laughriot, particularly to one who has grown up in Dubai) is "August 1?", an adaptation of Fredrick Forsyth's "Day of the Jackal", but these two are enough to raise the question: "Just how versatile is this guy?!" Talk about trying different genres...


10 comments:

Sudhi said...

The Sibi Malayil and Mohanlal combination is the best that has happened to Malayalam film. The had given excellent hits like "Bharatam', His highness abdullah', sadayam, kireedom, dasharatham..I feel that the best movie by Sibi is "Thaniyavarthanam"

Qalandar said...

Yeah, I've heard so many good things about some of these films, and am dying to watch HH Abdullah in particular...but alas it isn't available with english subtitles on DVD as far as I know...

Rakesh Nair said...

Just saw Bharatham again and on re-reading your excellent review here, I have to say you hit the nail on the head. I think you have a particularly strong understanding of the film's themes because (don't know if you knew this or not) but the meaning of the word "Bharatham" is "Burden" which speaks not only to the burden of information Mohanlal carries upon discovering his brother to be dead, but also the burden of filial obligations and the burden of such a "paternal transmission". Along with the gifts of our father(s) we also take their sins...

Qalandar said...

Thanks Rakesh, that's actually very gratifying to know, because I had not known the meaning of the word (I had speculated that there might be some link with wisdom, "Bharat" being the famous sage, but that was really a shot in the dark built on nothing more than the sound of the word). The correct meaning of that word fits in very neatly with the film's themes as you have articulated them here...

Anonymous said...

Q, I have been following your blog as well as your articles and comments on NG for quite some time now. Let me tell you that it has been a pleasure reading all those. Keep writing..
Meanwhile, as a side note, I found the following picture of Mohanlal and Ms. Sen from RGV's Sholay in one of the malayalam film forums. Thought you might be interested.
http://img363.imageshack.us/img363/9772/
mohanlalsholeyuh8.jpg

JK

ajoy said...

Bharatham is probably the best rendition of a classical singer by any actor in India. Shabana Azmi while researching for Morning Raaga(she plays a carnatic singer)was amazed and she did comment on those lines.

George Thomas Malayil said...

You mentioned as Siby Malayil being born and brought up in Dubai. Where did you get that info. Siby is my brother and a native of Alleppey. Born there, studied there and now lives in Thammanam, Ernakulam.

George Thomas Malayil

George Thomas Malayil said...

Sorry about my earlier comment,You were the one born and brought up in Dubai. Sorry

sreedurga said...

The review of bharatham is really great.But i would like to correct the idea about the meaning of the word bharatham.Here the title has come from the famous epical character bharatha, brother of Lord Rama.Bharatha ruled the country on behalf of his brother whome he adored and respected.Inspite of being given great kingdom and the throne, Bharath always stood under his brother and ruled the country on his behalf.the greatness of Bharatha is eternal and Mohanlal's character resembles him.He also like Bharatha worship's Rama.

NIRMAL said...

I second what Sreedurga said. 'Bharatham' means the quality or state of being Bharath (Rama's brother in Ramayana). This is the same idea as 'Dasaratham' which means the quality or state of being King Dasaratha (Rama's father) who couldn't be with his son, just like Mohanlal's character in the movie Dasaratham.