Lenin Rajendran explains what it is about Raja Ravi Varma and his works that inspired him to make 'Makaramanju', a film on the royal artist.

World cinema has paid tribute to art and artists by making inspired films that capture their lust for life, and the agony and ecstasy of being an artist. But movies on Indian artists are quite unheard of though many of them led colourful lives that are the stuff of stories for tinsel town.

Suddenly, out of the blue, came two films on Raja Ravi Varma, one in Hindi (‘Rang Rasiya' by Ketan Mehta) and one in Malayalam (‘Makaramanju' by Lenin Rajendran) on the life and works of the artist who introduced a new visual culture to India. Although both the films were launched with fanfare and boasted a star cast that made headlines, the movies remained in the cans but for occasional screenings at various festivals.

First in the block

After a hiatus of more than a year, veteran filmmaker Lenin Rajendran's sketch on Ravi Varma makes it to the marquee today. Known for his fine casting and ability to tease out the essence of his characters from contexts and situations, Lenin was the first to make a film on Swati Tirunal, the royal composer from Kerala. And now the ace filmmaker pays homage to Ravi Varma through his film ‘Makaramanju,' which has ace cinematographer and director Santosh Sivan making his debut as an actor in the lead role of Ravi Varma.

Lenin says it is the royal artist's special place in Indian art that had drawn him to his life. “A few years ago, I had done a play on Ravi Varma for KPAC. During my reading and research on him, I was fascinated to know more about the man and the circumstances in which those works were created. Here was a prince who had paid a price for pursuing his passion for the arts. He faced hostility and criticism but that did not put an end to his affair with brush and paint. Cases were filed against him but he fought against the orthodoxy and won the right to express himself. I felt there was space for a movie,” he explains.

Lenin avers that given the troubled times we live in, when artists are hounded for their works and when someone like M.F. Husain had to flee India on account of fundamentalists, a film on Ravi Varma has great relevance. “He was an artist who tried to visualise heroes and heroines, and Gods of Hindu mythology. But he was reviled by fundamentalists who tried to dictate what a creative person can or cannot do. This kind of censorship exists even today. One must go back to history to learn from our mistakes,” insists the filmmaker.

Instead of a biopic on the artist, Lenin wanted to focus on the artist at work, and chose a single work to unfold the life of the artist and the period he worked and lived in.

“Although his style was European, his themes were from Indian mythology. In each of his works on the Indian Puranas, he chose a point in the story that was filled with drama and emotion. I was stuck by the sensitivity and acumen of the man who used his brush to depict those moments. That is why I felt I could understand him better if I concentrated on a work and then narrate the story of the artist's creative process,” says Lenin.

‘Urvasi Pururavas' is the painting that has been woven into the narrative of ‘Makaramanju.' In a story within a story, Lenin has deftly intertwined the story of the artist with that of the mythological Urvasi and her beloved King Pururavas. Newcomer Karthika, yesteryear oomph queen Radha's daughter, plays a model and Urvasi.

Lenin says he was intrigued by the fact that many of the models for Ravi Varma's paintings came from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. “The beautiful faces we see in his landmark works hide many a tragic tale in their lives. It must have been an intense relationship between the artist and the model and the story of Urvasi and Purarvas was apt to portray the complex ties that bind an artist and his model,” muses Lenin.

Santhosh, in the lead

The filmmaker persuaded Santosh, an artist who paints with light and on canvas in real life, to don the role of the royal composer. And capturing Santosh's transition from behind the camera to the front of the camera is veteran cinematographer Madhu Ambat.

As in the case of all of Lenin's films, the songs have already won a place in the charts. Scored by Ramesh Narayan, the numbers mellifluously complement the theme and story. Jagathy Srikumar, Chippy and Nitya Menon are among the cast.