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Malayalam filmmaker Shaji N. Karun holds a unique record.

The only Indian director to have had three of his films screened at Cannes in the official section, consecutively, Karun found success from the word go with his directorial debut, Piravi, which swept 31 awards at festivals the world over, including the Camera D’Or special mention at Cannes in 1989. His second film, Swaham, was screened in competition at Cannes in 1994, while Vanaprastham, starring Mohanlal as a Kathakali dancer, was screened at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes in 1999.

At home in India, he has won national acclaim seven times, the last one being the best film award in 2009 for Kutty Srank, featuring Mammootty.

Now at the Dubai International Film Festival with Swapaanam (The Voiding Soul), part of the Celebration of Indian Cinema segment, there are, naturally, high expectations.

“The story is about Unni, a chenda [percussion instrument] player,” said Karun over the telephone from Kerala.

“Unni is a genius, but that is not recognised initially. He is drawn towards Nalini, a Mohiniyattam dancer, and as their love grows, they also discover their innate talents,” he added.

The film stars Jayaram, an accomplished chenda player in addition to being an actor, and Kadambari, an Odissi dancer, as Nalini. Odissi and Mohiniyattam are classical Indian dance forms, originating in eastern Indian and Kerala respectively.

“I wanted an unknown face to impart the image of a mature woman rather than a celebrity,” said Karun about casting Kadambari.

“It was an exhilarating experience working with Shaji sir,” said the dancer, appearing in only her second film and her first in Malayalam. “The way he describes each shot and his eye for detailing... he goes deep into the soul of the character. One also learns life skills working with him: to be calm in the face of a storm, to be gentle to the ruthless and soft spoken.”

Deviating from the norm, the filmmaker has used chenda as an accompaniment to Mohiniyattam, and not the conventional instrument for the dance form, the idakka.

Swapaanam is not inspired from the life of any legendary chenda player,” said Karun. “The story idea was sparked from the lives of geniuses such as Mozart and others, who were burned out by the fire of jealousy and egos of others.”

“Playing a chenda artiste in Swapaanam is a dream come true,” says Jayaram, a self-taught chenda player.

“In my 26-year career with over 250 films, I often rued that I never got an opportunity to play a chenda artiste. That dream has been fulfilled now.”

While a drama of this scale brings its share of hurdles, for Karun, who also wrote the screenplay, the challenge lay in building over forty characters into the narrative.

“I wished for an epic interpretation of relations, just like an orchestration of chenda with over 150 drums beating in harmony and in grandeur. Each of these characters is integral to the story and I had to ensure that I did not lose the thread of the story. This will be a landmark film in Jayaram’s career.”

Produced by M. Rajan, Swapaanam also stars Lakshmi Gopalaswami, Vineeth, Siddique, Suresh Kurup, Udayan Namboothiri, P.D Namboothiri, Eeswaran, Sajitha Madathil and Aswini.

Titled Voiding Soul in English, Karun explained that it refers to “one who empties through oneself, like the lamp or candle that vanishes by giving away energy”.

“This is the first time a Malayalam film is being premiered at DIFF and I am looking forward to the screening. With the UAE’s large expat Malayalee population, it will be a nostalgic journey for them.”

Next up is Gaadha, a Malayalam and Hindi film with Mohanlal and Kadamabari in the leads.

“It is a film of human relationships that is translated through their convictions on music,” revealed Karun. “The aesthetics embedded inside the content of cinema is a lifelong experience. It can change human thinking. Russian filmmaker Tarkovskey’s spirituality on his film unfolding through visuals and sound can surpass any preaching, questions or traditions.”

Meet the stars of Swapaanam:

Jayaram

Unni is the role of a lifetime for Malayalam actor Jayaram. Humour has always been a strong point for this actor, who started as a mimic with the Kalabhavan troupe and has endeared himself to audiences as “the hero in veshti” (a South Indian garment also known as a dhoti). Now with his role in Swapaanam, the question is if it can bring him national glory, as Vanaprastham, did for Mohanlal.

Swapaanam is a tribute to all chenda artists,” says the actor. “Since my childhood days, I had been fascinated by the sounds of the chenda in temples. I must have been around seven years when I started learning it on my own by observing the performers. At 38, I had my arangetram [first public performance] at Guruvayur temple. Since then, I regularly perform at temples and festivals in Kerala.”

Swapaanam called for intense preparation two months before the shoot, once the music, composed by Sreevalsa Menon, was ready. “Besides matching beats on the chenda with Kadambari’s steps, I had to compete with a real chenda artist, P.D. Namboodiri, who plays my elder brother in the story. Towards the climax, it was indeed quite a task beating the chenda in unison along with 200 other chenda artists.”

Kadambari

A disciple of Kelucharan Mahapatra and Ramani Ranjan Jena, Kadambari made a foray into films with noted director Budhadeb Dasgupta’s film The Pond, in 2011. To get into the skin of Nalini, “I trained extensively under Guru Kalamandalam Kshemavathy. The lasyam and sensuality in Mohiniyattam and Odissi are similar. Both require very fluid movements.”

Vineeth, who plays her husband in the film, was an inspiration, she says. “We were shooting in an old house in Palakkad where there was a pond with snakes and the water was dirty. While I would have cringed about touching the water, Vineeth didn’t think twice about diving into it when the scene demanded it.”

Vineeth

An accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, Malayalam actor Vineeth has acted in all south Indian languages and is best remembered for films such as Nakhakshathangal and Sargam. In Swapaanam, he plays Nalini’s husband.

“My character is known as Thuppan. He makes musical instruments and people from far come to buy these musical instruments as they consider them divine. Thuppan is spiritually inclined, spending most of his time in the puja [prayer] room. His mannerisms are effeminate and so I had to practice the ‘Chinese walk’ [walking in a way similar to those with bound feet]. Another distinctive trait of Thuppan is his cleanliness; he takes a bath at the slightest pretext, even if someone touches him.”

Working with Shaji sir was a terrific experience. I have known him since Nakhakshathangal and I was overjoyed when I was offered this role. Sir analyses every character in great depth and puts his soul into a film. His description of characters enabled us to visualise our roles well.

Lakshmi Gopalaswami

A classical dancer, Lakshmi has worked in Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada films, winning two Kerala state awards and a Filmfare South award. She plays Kalyani, the daughter of a chenda player. “Her father decides to get her married to his disciple, Unni. But Kalyani’s heart lies elsewhere. She is a truly liberated woman who respects her choices and values her own sexuality. And she makes bold choices.

“It is one of the most powerful roles of my career.”