I am you and you are me

Name: Priyamanasam

Director: Vinod Mankara

Year: 2015

Language: Sanskrit

While reading, have you wondered what was going on in the author’s mind when he/she was writing the same? What if I could actually peek into the author’s mind and visualize his/her thoughts? Director Vinod Mankara’s does just that in the movie ‘Priyamanasam.' And the results are truly scintillating. Acclaimed as the third Sanskrit movie in the world, the movie is based on an episode from the life of Unnayi Variyar, a 17th century poet-cum-scholar from Kerala. The poet was then penning the Aatakatha (Script for a play in Kathakali/Mohiniyattam) for his magnum opus ‘Nalacharithra,' a part of ‘Mahabharatha.'

Yet the task was never simple. The movie oscillates between the author caught between the real world and his world filled with the characters from the story (visible only to him). Vinod Mankara beautifully portrays the poet’s dilemma. Imagine if the characters from your literary work appeared before and demanded explanations. Poet Unnayi Warrier lands in a similar soup. The first to appear is King Nala, who is furious and disappointed. The poet portrays him as a desolate character. He questions the poet if he were such a great sinner. Then comes, the fearful Kali who possesses the body of Nala in the story. Yet he naively questions Variyar why is he portrayed as a villain. Kali is so mad at him that he even threatens to break the pen that created his character. The Lady protagonist Damayanti is head over heels in love with every role of the poet. She even wonders whether she should address him as Nala, Unnayi-the Great Poet, Bahuka or Naishada. She is the poet’s muse and also reminds him of long-lost love Thankam. Interestingly, these characters present themselves in the form of their Kathakali and Mohiniyattam counterparts.

In the real world, Variyar has a different set of issues troubling him. He is so embroiled with his characters that he begins to feel the intensity of their emotions. For instance, when Nalan deserts his wife Damayanti, the poet is reminded of his past when he left his love interest behind. Though he has numerous ideas floating inside his head, he wonders in which language he should express them: Sanskrit, Malayalam or Manipravalam (a language used by ancient Medieval period in Kerala). So, a friend explains how language is just a medium to express the thoughts and not the destination. There is Queen’s maid Vishala, who is in love with Variyar in vain. When he finally completes the Nalacharithra, Variyar is relieved and wants to take a permanent break from writing. But would that be possible?

The entire movie is a lyrical ballad. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that the Kathakali counterparts merely exist in the author’s head. There is also the Hamsam (The golden swan that plays Cupid between Nala and Damayanti) that has some questions for the author too. After Nala deserts Damayanti, poet Variyar is so desolate that he develops a writers’ block. So, Goddess Saraswathi (in the Kathakali form) appears before Variyar and tells him how to take the story forward. Actor Rajesh Hebbar lives the role of melancholic poet. When confronted by each character, the author wins them and the audience with her precise yet profound justifications.

It is not surprising that the movie bagged the National Award for the Best Sanskrit Film in 2016. But that was after an initial struggle when the Kerala Government refused to screen the movie during the International Film Festival of Kerala back in 2015 owing to the film’s supposedly ‘Hindutva’ agenda. But it was selected as the opening film by the International Film Festival of India. Since then, it has going places with various screenings held across the world. In 2018, a Sanskrit film book on ‘Priyamanasam’ was released.

If movies made in Sanskrit are less than a handful, ‘Priyamanasam’ is indeed a gem. It’s worth a watch if you are a true lover of literature.

Janani Rajeswari is a freelance journalist who feels writing is a way of staying happy and positive. She teaches foreign languages. She also loves music, pets, books, movies, art and craft and learning new languages.

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