This joint study of the dance theater known as Kathakali and its greatest living practitioner, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, proves even more demanding to uninitiated auds than do Indian helmer Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s fiction films. An acknowledged arthouse master whose works are rarely shown Stateside, Gopalakrishnan deploys an uncompromisingly rigorous style that lends dignity to the ancient dramatic form but declines to speed its majestically glacial pace as fantastically painted, elaborately costumed figures convey emotions via ritualized hand gestures and infinitesimal eye movements. Exerting an austere hypnotic beauty, this visually stunning docu will mainly interest dance buffs and diehard fans of the director.
Pic ranks as one of many docus that Gopalakrishnan has devoted to the arts of his home province of Kerala and the third one on Kathakali, with which his family members have long been associated as patrons.
Slow traveling shots past temple columns, wooded glades and lakes introduce the unchanging, natural habitat for one of the oldest forms of theater in the world while, inside, a more artificial stage is observed being prepped in a lengthy scene where Nair and his assistant painstakingly apply layers of red, black, green and white paint in intricate patterns to formulate a startling facial mask.
Gopalakrishnan alternates between shots of Nair, standing clothed in a simple dhoti, calmly recounting the successive phases of his career, and excerpts of plays filmed from a single, unwavering focal point and featuring Nair on stage in full regalia (including ornately painted face, towering headdress, long metallic fingernails and bell-like skirts) as he interprets Kathi (villainous), Pacha (heroic), Thadi (bearded) and Minukku (women and sage) roles, each with its distinctive, color-coded makeup and costume.
Far from merely anecdotal, Nair’s statements serve as lapidary frames to the performance footage, much as the rhythm of the drums and the separately sung libretti situate the actor/dancer’s precise, pantomime gestures and facial expressions. These short autobiographic declamations also serve to introduce brief glimpses highlighting the unique training of a Kathakali actor. A fluid montage of boys in the midst of acrobatic tumbling routines or rigorous eyeball-rolling exercises represent both Nair as a child and the students Nair currently mentors in an unbroken line of tradition that transcends the particular.
Tech credits are extraordinary, the clarity of sound and image far surpassing that of most documentaries.