“The Last Dance,” which marks noted Indian cinematographer-director Shaji Karun’s third appearance in Cannes, is an elaborately produced, exceedingly handsome period film about the art form of Kathakali, which combines dance, pantomime and theater. Set in the region of Kerala in southern India, this historical drama explores the effects of the rigid caste system on the life of a gifted artist born to a low-caste servant. Affirming Karun’s stature as one of India’s premier filmmakers, pic, like his previous efforts, should be a welcome addition to the programming of international film festivals.
At the age of 10, Kunhikuttan, the bright son of a maid and an unknown father, begins a long and demanding apprenticeship for the noble art of Kathakali. Eight years later, Kunhikuttan (Mohanlal) is forced to marry Savithri, the daughter of the manor’s steward, as the result of an evil plot executed by the cruel lord Namboothiri (Venmani Vishnu), who is suspected of being his father.
Predictably, the union proves unhappy, though Kunhikuttan’s beautiful daughter, Saradha, brings joy to his miserable life. While not performing, he takes refuge in drinking with his friends, who are united through the hardships of their daily survival. Kunhikuttan’s life changes dramatically when he meets Subhadra (Suhasini), a sensitive, intellectual woman who’s unhappily married to a high-society man, living in a rigid milieu in which she feels stifled and lost.
Watching Kunhikuttan perform, Subhadra falls in love not with him, but with Arjuna, the mythic hero he embodies onstage. Eventually Subhadra becomes pregnant with Kunhikuttan’s child, and refuses to see him. Undeterred, he continues to write passionate letters to her.
There is plenty of melodrama in the yarn, which begins in the 1930s and spans four decades, but director Karun treats it in a subdued manner, favoring a more dispassionate approach to highlight the problems faced by its central, tormented artist.
Pic’s original Indian title, “Vanaprastham,” stems from Sanskrit and means “forest dwelling,” alluding to the need of all artists to renounce their emotional attachments and material possessions. The English title derives from the last performance the aging Kunhikuttan gives as Arjuna.
Through his meticulous mise-en-scene and well-crafted production, director Karun offers poignant commentary on the political and mythic role of artists in a rapidly changing society, and the fine line between the characters they play onstage and off.