Character: Pratap, the theatre director
Actor: Pratap Pothen
Film: Varumayin Niram Sivappu (1980)
Pratap Pothen is the Talented Mr. Ripley. He doesn’t act as much as he steps into the shoes of his characters. He tells stories with nuanced expressions and carefully-planned gestures, not laboriously dictated dialogues. He shares screen time and space with his fellow actors, outshines them and spurs each of them to perform better. This is unlike the modus operandi of so-called “great actors” who hog every frame they are in under the pretext of pleasing audiences. Actors such as Kamal Hassan and Prakash Raj romanticize their characters so much that we instinctively step back to politely applaud.
The commitment, while fierce, is steeped in such king-sized egos that it makes for an alienating experience. Whereas luminaries such as Pratap Pothen, Delhi Ganesh, Mehaboob Nassar, Nagesh Rao and to a lesser extent, Janagaraj and Pasupathy Ramasamy, are cinema’s friendly neighborhood vampires. Once we invite them into our homes and our hearts through TV screens, they will seduce us and draw blood.
K. Balachander’s Varumayin Niram Sivappu (The Colour of Poverty is Red) is a film about the disillusionment associated with atypical Indian socialist communities. It follows two disenchanted youths – Rangan (Kamal Hassan) and Devi (Sridevi) – and the murky middle-class skies they traverse to find silver linings. Rangan and Devi are distraught because any attempt of theirs to live with a reasonable degree of pride and sustenance is laughed at and rejected by upper-class hierarchies that drive economics in India. They are ghosts living out the machine and trying to find their way in. In contrast, Pratap (Pratap Pothen), a pompous and antisocial theatre director, is a phantasm who doesn’t know what the machine does or how it looks like.
We, as audience members, passionately relate to conformist characters who are on the verge of breaking out of systems. It has to do with our our personal inabilities to do the same. We encourage them to take the roads lesser traveled upon because we wouldn’t dare do that in real life. We are disappointed fathers who want our sons to do everything we never had the chance or the right amount of courage to.
Varumayin Niram Sivappu sees Pratap box our ears and drag us, kicking and screaming, into the character’s psychometrics. His unrequited obsession for Sridevi as a human being is so much more honest and beautiful than the hero’s romanticized portraits of her as a lover. Pratap’s performance is spell-binding as we initially root for the heroine to settle down with him instead of Rangan. His character makes us believe that an intelligent and passionate theatre personality with a head full of thick curly hair is infinitely more interesting than a very angry and frequently hungry young man with facial hair like scattered moss after the rain. We understand his confusion as to why this beautiful lady would pick an urchin over him.
As the story unfolds, it sows in our minds the seeds of Pratap’s discontentment. Soon, explosive hints at misogyny and psycho-sexual power-play distance us from him out of queasiness. However, by this point we have related to him to a large extent and we can’t help but understand the hatred that spews in him. The way in which he portrays his character’s childlike qualities is brilliant. When Pratap wants something, he asks for it. He doesn’t always wait for the right moment or go through the acceptable motions. It is a trait that sounds endearing in theory but can be off-putting in practice. For instance, if children are selfish, they don’t make a big deal of it. They may ask for the moon, but they know better than to justify it in a way that makes them look selfless. Adults are a lot more deluded. We can never ask each other for what we truly want in fear of acknowledgement of our survivalist instinct to be oblivious to each other’s concerns. Whenever we want something, we probably lie about it. We pretend to be in pursuit of the sort of selflessness that coincidentally gives us everything our hearts crave for. We want everything that we are unwilling to give others.
Not Pratap, the character and certainly not Pratap Pothen, the actor.