A few weeks ago I attended my first Malayalam theatre performance in a really long time. It was a modernised version of Kalanilayam Drama Vision’s popular production Raktharakshas.
Roughly translated as vampire, Raktharakshas exemplifies popular Malayalam theatre from a couple of decades ago — over emoting actors, pancake-like make up and slapstick dialogues that ooze sexual innuendo. And while the play appears to have been souped-up and shortened to suit the tastes of present-day audiences, it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its original qualities; the dialogues, for example, are still laden with lots of nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
Early this April, the play — directed by Krishnan Nair, the founder of Kalanilayam Drama Vision and written by Jagathy N. K. Achary — returned to Trivandrum after a couple of decades. It, perhaps, has pole position in the company’s repertoire, which includes popular production such as Kadamattathu Kathanar, Kayamkulam Kochunni, Sri Guruvayurappan and Naradan Keralathil.
As a story, Raktharakshas is ho-hum at best. Where it really stands out though is for its stagecraft, which must have been pretty revolutionary back when it was first performed. Devices like a revolving stage — that made it possible to use real cars as props and also eliminate the time lag between scenes — or a ‘trolley shot’ for extra effect were arguably trailblazers in Malayalam theatre.
In its new run, Raktharakshas retains these touches, but also features a re-worked soundtrack and “dynamic visual effects” as this piece in The Hindu says. And though some visual effects seem a trifle rudimentary, I suspect that even today Raktharakshas is pretty innovative in its use of technology, at least in the Malayalam theatre world.
While it may no longer give people sleepless nights with its brand of horror, Raktharakshas still seems to be able to draw them in. On a weekday night in late-April, the show I attended was about 80 per cent full and there were long queues waiting to enter the makeshift theatre for the second show. And weekend shows were pretty much a sell out I gather. I guess, more than anything else, what Raktharakshas’ apparently good run in Trivandrum shows is that there’s still a place for old-fashioned theatre in the rich spread of entertainment options that exist today.