Making a film in one’s own mother tongue is a challenge in itself. What about making one in a different language? Which is what Bengali filmmaker Aneek Chaudhari has done, through his debut feature Kathi Nritham (Knife Dance), which is in Malayalam. The idea for the film occurred to Aneek him after he attended a Kathakali performance at Kerala Kalamandalam during a tour to the state in 2018. It was a performance of Subhadraharanam that wowed him.
“I was struck by the audience’s ability to engage in the challenging task of differentiating between a good Kathakali performance and a bad one,” recalls Aneek. “To judge whether a Kathakali performance is an exaggeration or not is not easy.” It impacted him so much that after he got back, he watched Vanaprastham. Mohanlal’s performance as the tormented Kathakali artiste blew him away. “It was like an indication that I should do a film featuring Kathakali,” he says.
Kathi Nritham is a modern-day adaptation of the Subhadraharanam episode in Mahabharatha. The Subhadra in Aneek’s film is a male character, played by actor Sabuj Bardhan. A version of Draupadi also appears. The film, Aneek says, is told from her point-of-view. “In this story, she has mortgaged herself—that would be the best way to put it. She breaks open her piggy bank to buy herself back. This character essentially speaks to the independence of today’s women,” he reveals while clarifying that all these characters have contemporary names.
The Arjuna of Kathi Nritham is played by Rahul Srinivasan, the only Malayalam actor in the film. The rest of the actors, including Bardhan, Rukmini Sircar and Anuska Chakraborty, got their Malayalam lines dubbed. Speaking of his version of Arjuna, Aneek says, “He is a failed Kathakali dancer. To make up for the lack of tragedy in his performances, he invites tragedy into his real life by turning into a killer. This ends up affecting Subhadra. These killings are later depicted through Kathakali.” The film is being jointly backed by two production houses — one in Delhi, another in Kolkata.
Aneek initially found it difficult to get backers as “people in Kolkata won’t do it because it is a Malayalam film, and people in Kerala won’t do it as most of it was shot in Bengal with mostly Bengali actors in it.”
The film was presented at Cannes as a work-in-progress. A few Kolkata portions are left to be shot. Aneek had to put the plan on hold when the pandemic hit. He hopes for a theatrical release if the situation improves in Kerala.
He also hopes Kathi Nritham will be his door to mainstream Malayalam cinema. “Ever since my Kerala trip, I always tend to romanticise the place. I’ve also been seeking out the films of Nivin Pauly, Fahadh Faasil, Roshan Mathew, and others. I am amazed at how beautifully Malayalam cinema blends mainstream and parallel cinema sensibilities together,” he says.
Though he feels that independent films give him a certain kind of satisfaction, he wants to be a part of Malayalam cinema and direct actors like Fahadh whom he admires. “I don’t want to do it for the limelight. I want to do it because I admire these actors and their performances, and I hope to contribute to Malayalam cinema in my own way.”