The last film from the stable of P Padmarajan, Njan Gandharvan (1991), did not light up the box office which, at the time, was running in a world that always preferred regressiveness and convention as the cornerstones of romance.
Since then, however, the film has developed a cult following for various reasons, ranging from its aesthetics to its storytelling. In this revisit, we follow the story, speculate about the dark side of the narrative, and wonder how Bhama must be feeling.
Bhama (Suparna Anand) is frolicking around the beach when she spots a miniature wooden doll hovering nearby, as though goading her into following its gentle swing with the waves. Curiosity gets the better of her and she gently places it inside a cloth bag. Back in the hostel room at night, as her roommates are sleeping, Bhama is unable to sleep; a faint memory lingers of someone whispering as she caresses the doll’s face.
Stealthily, she eases the figure out of the bag, only to see it glowing golden in the dark. Bhama places the doll on the bed, moves quickly to shut the windows, and finds it missing. In the next instance, she is pulled into bed and kissed gently by a stranger. He disappears, leaving behind a mist of white feathers.
It’s the first peep we get of the celestial being in the narrative—the Gandharvan (Nitish Bharadwaj), with his long mane tumbling down his broad naked back, gleaming headgear framing his forehead and the kindest, tenderest smile one has ever seen.
Written and directed by Padmarajan, Njan Gandharvan is a brilliant retelling of the old Gandharvan myth set against a modern society steeped in conventions. The contrast as always is between the real and the mythical human being, often subverting the clichés associated with the alluring Gandharvan. Gandharvan in the old grandma’s tale used to be a motif for rebellion and sexual awakening.The Gandharva marriage was one which was conducted informally, secretively, between a couple, equated with an immoral love affair, throwing cautions (of a lawfully structured marriage) to the winds.
Bhama is a teenager on the cusp of a fantastical sexual awakening with this celestial stranger. That he is a paranormal being does not scare her, in fact each meeting is a sensuous self-discovery. From his heavenly vision to the modern one in jeans and shirts, to his ability to be a shapeshifter (butterfly, puppy, rabbit), Bhama is growing madly in love with him.
It could be that like every irrational teenager, she is fascinated by the idea of exploring the myth and believes in it. Their first official meeting is near a peepal tree, where he takes the shape of a blue butterfly and calls himself a “Gandharvan.” He leaves a seductive mystical trail everywhere, it can be a cluster of butterflies, a breeze scented with the intoxicating fragrance of plumeria flowers or a night filled with glow worms. For the teenager who lives with her parents, sister, and grandmother, the Gandharvan is a delicious secret. Everything about Devan (the name he gives himself) awakens her deepest and forbidden desires and his mystical powers add allure to that adventure. In that traditional domestic space, only he can wake her up in the middle of the night, wolf down dosas right under the nose of her mother and help her dissect a frog during her anatomy class.
Bhama comes across as a teenage rebel. She has little patience for the cousin who has been promised in marriage to her. With Devan, it comes to a point when she commands him to make himself visible before people, despite him warning her of the consequences. There is a carnal energy in their romance, with props poetically framed to evoke passion—Bhama, her eyes heavily lined with kajal, wearing a powder white lace nightgown and gold bangles, lying intoxicated in a bed strewn with plumeria petals; Bhama taking a dip in the pool and inviting Gandharvan over. Is there any director in Malayalam cinema who handles intimacy in relationships with such finesse and passion than Padmarajan?
Gandharvan meanwhile talks about the paradox in his existence. He would rather trade the heavens for a life on earth, in the company of humans and family. The place he comes from is riddled with tough laws, rules, and punishments. They are slaves of the gods, musicians with no identity or voice. Even this escape to earth is a punishment where he is required to coldly seduce and usurp the chastity of the first girl he meets. “Like bees that suck out the nectar from a flower, we aren’t allowed to fall in love or be loved,” he tells her.
What makes this love story so tangible is in how humanly the Gandharvan is crafted. Despite his celestial image, he is more appealing and empathetic than any human. He is attentive, kind, romantic, gentle and in a strange way understands consent. A similar love story unfolds in Paheli, where a ghost (Shah Rukh Khan) falls in love with a woman (Rani Mukherjee), who is caught in the battle of proprietorship between the husband and ghost. Despite knowing the identity of the ghost and the moral dilemma behind it, she agrees to the deception. He does everything the husband never did—spend time with her, whisper sweet nothings and passionately love her. At one point she even tells him— “You cannot be a human. He cannot say such things. You really are a ghost.”
The narrative leaves no space for an antagonist other than Gandharvan's own destiny victimising him. Before he can prepare for the atrocities that lie ahead in heaven, he has fallen deeply in love with Bhama and is dreaming about a human life. The supernatural elements are interestingly woven — the gush of strong wind that signals his arrival, the bark of a tree that emits blood to forecast the penalties that await him, losing his voice and regaining it back only after seven days and nights of lashes over his body. Despite knowing the dangers of meeting her, his love keeps dragging him towards her and in the final scene as he prepares to bid adieu, it’s Bhama who pleads with him to consummate their relationship, so that the sentences are less cruel.
The dark side of this story could be that it was all Gandharvan’s well-laid plan whereby he manipulated her into helping him succeed in his mission — to "take" her virginity. Notice how he positions himself as a victim, biding his time to win her trust, persistently reminds her about how unloved he feels, winning over her family and hardly tries to seduce her. One can only wonder as to the mindspace she was left in after his departure — how will she live with this loneliness, this traumatising truth she is unable to share with anyone? Isn’t it enough to make anyone insane?
True to the Gandharvan tradition, the music (by Johnson) is exquisitely blended into the narrative, paying homage to the celestial landscape of the hero, while cinematographer Venu creates frames that are both intimate and ethereal all at once. There is no visual gimmickry, allowing the supernatural powers to melt into the background and make it an emotionally and sensuously buoyant experience on screen. Nitish Bharadwaj’s inbuilt aura of nobility and kindness helps hugely in his Gandharvan act, and there is some beautiful chemistry with Suparna Anand, who is vulnerable and sensuous in parts.
Njan Gandharvan during the time of its release was a box office failure, with purists taking offence to the aesthetically shot intimate scenes. Sadly, Padmarajan died a few months after its release. But like every Padmarajan film it still holds up well even after 29 years.
Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.