Direction: Shaji N. Karun
Cast: Jayaram, Kadambari, Siddique, Vineeth
1980, a raging fire at a mental asylum. Caught in it is a world-weary schizophrenic in shackles. Cut to flashback. A young Chenda artiste, Unni (Jayaram), stands behind a lead percussionist, in awe of his master, unsure of his own movement, but nevertheless enjoying the performance. He does manage to find his rhythm later — in art and love — but, engulfed by a towering passion and creative angst, loses it and ultimately, burns out.
At the heart of Shaji N. Karun’s Swapaanam — entrenched in every character and incident in the film — is this elusive search for harmony. Here are a bunch of characters that are, in some way, out of tune with their inner selves and strike discordant notes with the world around.
Unni’s talent as a Chenda artiste is recognised by society, but snubbed by his jealous brother.
His wife detests the sound of Chenda and the couple realise they are not meant for each other.
He goes on to find a soulmate in Mohiniyattom artiste Nalini (Odissi dancer Kadambari), but they are separated by Nalini’s scheming brother Narayanan Namboodiri (Siddique).
Caught in the maelstrom of inner turbulence, the incident triggers Unni’s inevitable descent into self-destruction. Nalini, meanwhile, is married off to a transvestite Thuppan Namboodiri. Creative pangs, love, and longing are drummed up to a crescendo, as Unni and Nalini search desperately for the meaning of their existence.
The beats of Chenda reverberate throughout, setting the film’s pace, binding people, evoking romance, and serving as the outlet for pent-up emotions. Its accompanying Chendakkol, its texture, the wood and hide from which it is made, all assume their own character in Shaji N. Karun’s work of art.
The songs, including a kriti by Swati Tirunal and Kathakali music, are an integral part of the narrative and a labour of love by composer Sreevalsan J. Menon.
The lyrics by Manoj Kuroor, background score by Isaac Thomas Kottukapally, sound designing by Krishnanunni, and percussion music helmed by Udayan Namboothiri elevate the cinematic experience.
The lens too captures to perfection the poignancy that defines the film. Frames by Saji Nair are a true reflection of the verdant countryside of Palakkad and landscapes indicative of impending events. Kudos also goes to Sreekar Prasad for taut editing. The script by Harikrishnan and Sajeev Pazhoor, based on the story penned by the director, is powerful even with its few inconsistencies.
Jayaram has delivered one of his best performances ever as the struggling artiste haunted by memories of love and torn apart by his internal conflicts. Kadambari excels as the danseuse and the headstrong woman in love. But it is Siddique, with his nuanced portrayal of the eccentric and cunning Narayanan Namboothiri, who truly steals the show. Vineeth too puts up a stellar act, looking every bit the effeminate Thuppan. Performances by other members of the cast, including Lakshmi Gopalaswamy, Indrans, P.D. Namboothiri, Udayan Namboothiri, Aswini Ranga, and Sajitha Madathil are impressive.
The storyline bears similarities with the director’s classical Vaanaprastham with its portrayal of a turbulent relationship with an artiste and his muse, and his subsequent downfall. But Swapaanam scores a notch below the Mohanlal-Suhasini starrer.
Nevertheless, the film sweeps you into its vortex of emotions and keeps you in a time warp so much so that it takes a while, after you step out of the theatre, to tune yourself into the immediate world.