A man who refused to pander to the box-office: Remembering Lenin Rajendran

The award winning Malayalam filmmaker passed away on January 14.
A man who refused to pander to the box-office: Remembering Lenin Rajendran
A man who refused to pander to the box-office: Remembering Lenin Rajendran
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In a career spanning more than three and a half decades, Lenin Rajendran, the Malayalam filmmaker who passed away on 14th January, 2019 directed just fifteen feature films. He could have directed many more but as one who steadfastly refused to pander to the box-office, he derived satisfaction from the genre of filmmaking that he chose to explore through his oeuvres.

Lenin picked up the craft of filmmaking by working as an assistant to PA Backer, who created a splash with his debut Kabini Nadi Chuvannapol. Lenin got his first break with Venal in 1981 and followed it up with his second film Chillu in 1982. Both these films were shot on shoestring budgets but were noticed for their offbeat treatment of the themes.

Lenin’s film Prem Nazirine Kanmanilla caught the eye for its title. This writer remembers quizzing the director as to his choice of theme for the film and the title. Nazir, incidentally, was the reigning superstar of Mollywood at that time, working multiple shifts and churning out films by the dozen year after year.

Lenin was nonchalant and admitted that he had chosen the title as the theme dealt with the disappearance of the star and the consequent pandemonium that sets in. Nazir not only approved of the film but also played himself in the kidnap drama. Lenin generally worked on scripts written by him but was also not averse to adapting novels. His film Deiathinte Vikruthigal was based on a novel by M Mukundan while Madhavakutty’s (Kamala Das) story Nashtapatta Neelambhari provided the nucleus for Mazha.

 A departure from his conventional genre was the film Meenamasathile Sooryan, a film that dealt with the peasant uprising in 1940 against feudalism, and he chose to narrate the story with a cast of four young men rising in rebellion. The film had a marked communist slant to it which was only to be expected as Lenin Rajendran, right from his college days, was a dyed in the wool Marxist.

Among his other films, those that deserve special mention include Swathi Thirunal, Puravrutham, Kulam, Mazha, Rathri Mazha and Makaramanju. Swathi Thirunal, released in 1987, was based on the life of the Maharaja of Travancore, Raja Rama Varma who earned name and fame as a composer, and whose kritis continue to be popular in classical music circuits even today. Anant Nag was the apt choice for the monarch’s role but the film was more of a musical with as many as 14 tracks rendered by some of the finest singers of the time, including Balamuralikrshna, KJ Yesudas, S Janaki and SP Balasubrahmanyam with MB Sreenivasan wielding the baton.

National Award winning cinematographer Madhu Ambat, who has cranked the camera for most of Lenin’s films, and art director Krishnamurthy contributed immensely to the success of the film which also had popular actors like Srividya in the cast.

Puravrutham was another period film but this time Lenin chose to pick an actor from Bollywood for the lead role of a young man who rebels against a libertine landlord who lays down the law in a small rural hamlet and forces new brides to sleep with him. His choice of hero was Om Puri, who delivered a powerhouse performance, with his eyes blazing like charcoals in the confrontation scenes. An apt foil to him was Revathi in the role of a docile homemaker, marveling at her husband’s strength of character and conviction. Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s music score too embellished the film.

Kulam, a 1997 film directed by Lenin, was loosely based on the historical novel titled Marthandavarma by CV Raman Pillai. Although most of Lenin’s films were quite offbeat, he never hesitated to sign marquee stars for the roles that he had in mind. His choice of Suresh Gopi, Bharath Gopi and Bhanupriya for Kulam, and Om Puri, Murali and Revathi for Puravrutham are clear examples of Lenin using mainstream actors in pivotal roles in his films.

Lenin Rajendran’s films Mazha and Raathri Mazha, where rain was a leitmotif were clear manifestations of his love for nature. Mazha, based on a short story Nashtapatta Neelambari by Madhavi Kutty, dealt with the romance between a teenager and her orthodox music teacher that goes awry, with the lovers drifting apart only to meet again after losing their respective spouses.

One of Lenin’s latter day films Raathri Mazha with Vineeth and Meera Jasmine as the leads had a more relevant theme of love blossoming between two young dancers and how they meet through social media and find that the harmony that existed in their relationship had turned into dissonance after they exchange their marital vows. The highlight of the film, apart from Lenin’s adroit handling of the plot, was the panoramic and pictuesque cinematography by S Kumar.

In Makaramanju Lenin has delved deep into the world of art, with the film tracing the life and times of the celebrated artist Raja Ravi Varma and his muse. The lead role was essayed with elan by acclaimed cinematographer Santhosh Sivan, with the petite Karthika Nair, daughter of yesteryear heroine Radha in the role of his muse. The film was one of the five that were selected for the International Film Festival of India and also won an international award for Best Film.

Lenin’s last released film was Edavapathi (2018) which narrated the woes of the displaced. The title role was that of a Tibetan monk played by Sidharth Lama. Debutant Uthara Unni and Bollywood actor Manisha Koirala too had well defined roles in the film. The director, who held the post of the Chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation at the time of his passing, had a tryst with electoral politics as well and was nominated by the Marxist Party for the Lok Sabha elections in 1989 and 1991, and on both occasions, he contested unsuccessfully against KR Narayanan of the Congress who would later become President of India.

Lenin will be remembered for the diverse themes that he handled in his films and for his directorial skills that won him five state awards but ironically attracted little attention at the national level.

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