No one could have envisaged 'Vaisali' in this beautiful form. Not then. Not now.

Why Bharathans 1988 film Vaisali is a timeless work of art
Flix Flix Flashback Saturday, December 26, 2020 - 13:02

Vultures fighting for their pound of flesh, a King Cobra slithering out of the mouth of a human skull, crows cavorting in the sky, dusty barren trails, flanked by rocky foothills —Vaisali unspools almost ghoulishly, signifying a parched landscape. Weary men, women, and children greedily reach for the water bags tied over donkeys, even as the King’s soldiers shoo them away. King Lomapadan, tall and stately, sits despondently in his chariot, watching the earth and humans around him wilting under the sun, dying for a drop of water. 

But there is a stark dichotomy in that opening shot, almost like a vacant canvas, biding its time to be streaked in colours. The film (directed by Bharathan, written by M.T. Vasudevan Nair) in fact is textured like a series of delicate lifelike oil paintings, each frame leisurely sliding away to reveal multiple hues, picturesque green meadows, lakes, forests and brown earth filled with bronzed, long-haired men in robes, women in half sari lehengas, thick antique jewellery and ornate veils, and animals snug in their habitat. Madhu Ambat is the movie's cinematographer.

Adapted after a chapter of the Mahabharata, it is about Rishyashringan, a young hermit born to Sage Vibhandakan and celestial courtesan Urvashi. Legend has it that Indra ordered Urvashi to seduce Vibhandakan as he feared the yogic powers gained out of his penance could be a threat to the existence of the heavenly world.  When Urvashi left the child and the father after she was called back to the celestial world, it is said that Vibhandakan swore off women for his life and raised his son in a forest isolated from the world.

The narrative, with the soundscape in line with the tone of the landscape, begins despondently, with King Lomapadan (Babu Antony) frantic and desperate to bail his kingdom from a curse he is inadvertently responsible for. It was a powerful sage’s curse against the King’s insolent behaviour that resulted in Angarajyam’s decade-old drought and famine. Lomapadan is on his knees in front of his Raja Guru (Nedumudi Venu) begging him for a solution. “To rescue a dove from an eagle, the King before me had cut open his flesh to throw to the eagle. That is the history of this lineage. Look at my Kingdom now. Let all the sins be bequeathed on my head but why should my people suffer?” cries the King with a heavy heart. Babu Antony as King Lomapadan gets a lot of help from another actor who has dubbed for him, Narendra Prasad. If Antony gets the grace and bearing right, Prasad lends gravitas to the performance with that brilliantly expressive voice modulation

As the brahmins sit together in front of a giant rectangular pyre, chanting, pouring oil and seeking solutions and blessings for Angarajyam’s plight, the frame is almost elegiac, with a dry massive tree bending over and the King peering at the sky listlessly.

Vaisali steps in unannounced—it is a long shot, where you see an indistinct image of a girl dressed in white opening a cage to feed the birds. The Raja Guru’s son Chithrangadhan (Ashokan) is already smitten. He is persistent but sneeringly remarks on her devadasi lineage, poking at their supposed greed and promiscuity. But Vaisali spiritedly gives it back, hinting at the brahmin’s love for money, caste power and pretences.

At the Yagna, the Raja Guru gets the first glimpse of a solution—a picture of a young man with blue eyes, frolicking with deer in a forest. That is also our first sight of Rishyashringan, who lives in the dense jungles with his father. He has magical powers, can tame a lion with his voice, and of course bring rain to Angarajyam. But Rishyashringan is also a motherless boy, who has never seen a woman in his life. It is this 'virginal purity' that will endear him to the rain gods.

The Raja Guru is the unlikely antagonist who suggests a 'honey trap' for Rishyashringan to rescue his son from Vaisali.

Watch: Malayalam movie Vaisali

At night (the after-dusk shots are ethereal, giving the illusion of being lit by oil lamps), as the devadasis serenade the King while hoping to be chosen to carry out his mission, Vaisali is conspicuous in her absence and the King is none too pleased. That is when Raja Guru takes out his trump card and mentions Vaisali. Her mother Malini once having been the King’s paramour signifies a deeper relationship. Malini listens silently when the King taunts her profession (ironically, the men in the narrative, except for Rishyashringan, are all openly contemptuous of the devadasis even while desiring them).

Once the mother and daughter sail towards their mission, the scenery turns kinder (as if you are entering a museum of landscape paintings). The dry lands make way for greener pastures, the sun’s rays are softly auburn, elephants uniformly line up beside water, rabbits potter around on the grass, a leopard stealthily balances on a tree, fawns dance around, cheetah cubs cuddle with their mother, and large lakes luminously shine in the backdrop of mountains half covered in mist.

The mother-daughter bond is unusual. There is affection, teasing and overwhelming love but we also know that Vaisali, like Rishyashringan, misses having the other parent in her life.

When Vaisali steps out for her seduction game, her intoxicating beauty (“Beauty which is capable of rousing old men” as the King observed) becomes more apparent, as the frame tenderly captures her face in minute detail and as seductively contours her in the backdrop of nature.

Bharathan is a proven wizard in outlining the man-woman relationship in all its sensuality. The scene where Rishyashringan first feasts his eyes on her, is well…indeed a feast that activates all the five senses. She has discarded her jewellery and lehengas and slipped into a saffron Amrapali, rudraksha beads and hair in top knot. As the young sage looks at her with a mixture of bewilderment and wonder, Vaisali gently approaches him, introducing herself as another sage from nearby. They cross the river to greet each other and Vaisali deliberately caresses his naked shoulders, and as unabashedly embraces him. Rishyashringan reacts as she expects—he is momentarily left immobile, struggling to read this baffling sensation seeping into his body. She flips a cotton ball and again knowingly sways around him, like a bait and when he falls on the ground, she prostrates over him and starts fondling, again taking the sage unawares.

In this union of Vaisali and Rishyashringan, as she opens the doors of desire into his innocent world, the young hermit’s confusion at his own arousal and how his body seems to react towards her touch has a naturality to it. He is a boy on the cusp of adulthood, who is going through a sexual self-discovery, with her as the tutor. Bharathan leaves enticing imageries—of Vaisali resplendent in a pink Amrapali, studded jewellery covered in a translucent veil awaiting Rishyashringan to unveil her, even as the camera leisurely captures what he sees, Rishyashringan carefully draws a deer on her bare back and Vaisali slips the sari for him to gently put a black mark on her chest. It looked like Bharathan had sketched his Vaisali and Rishyashringan on paper and the actors (Suparna Anand and Sanjay Mitra) gave life to it.

Bharathan sets the stage for her final triumph fittingly—Rishyashringan carrying out his penance on one foot over a mountain top, fenced by raging fire and Vaisali dancing her heart out, appealing for his mercy and love.

In the finale, as Rishyashringan casts his famous magic (the VFX though tacky here is almost an animated Amar Chithra Katha pictorial, with flames synthesizing with the clouds to create rain) and the first drop of rain falls on the people of Angarajyam, the atmosphere is euphoric and its brilliantly staged. And then that anti-climax! No one could have envisaged Vaisali in this beautiful form. Not then. Not now. That is why it will remain a timeless work of art.

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 She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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