Aranyakam

Aranyakam, the forests…

Man’s deepest instincts feed off the forests to which he belongs.

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Directed by Hariharan, and written by M.T.Vasudevan Nair, Aranyakam is a brilliant study of personality. It probes into the evolution of personality in the light of circumstantial factors, and offers deep insights into human behaviour.

The personality of Ammini (Saleema) is at the heart of this movie. The movie dwells on the resilience that Ammini demonstrates in the setting of the deep sensitivity and vulnerability of her mind, contrary to expectation. Ammini’s personality etches onto our minds and forms an unconscious reference for the numerous sensitive souls who derive inspiration from the resilience of her spirit.

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Saleema, as Ammini...

The movie unfolds with an older Ammini, returning after decades, to the forests that guard her most precious memories. Forests that are the sole witness to the beautiful perceptions that once gifted her these memories.

I return…
Oh beautiful moments I have lost,
With flowers in my heart,
I return today
to seek your graves…
I have often cried in your reminiscence…
I have also laughed in your reminiscence…

Where are those jungles on which my childhood fantasies once grazed, in the quest for the beautiful words that would give them meaning?
Where are those jungle trails on which beads once scattered from the garlands of fantasy clouds, only to disintegrate?

This poetic, lyrical note on which the movie unfolds, introduces us to the rich, imaginative world that thrives in Ammini’s mind. Perhaps she is now a writer…or a journalist.

The movie then transports us to her past…to the forests that form the canvas of her memories…the forests that were instrumental in all her perceptions and fantasies…

We are introduced to an adolescent Ammini, who is just back home from boarding school. We are also introduced to the members of her family- her valiyachan (Jagannatha Varma), valiyamma (Sukumari), her cousins Shylaja (Parvathy) and Anu, and her grandfather (Nedumudi Venu), who is now slowly fading away.

Ammini is in essence, an orphan, whose mother passed away when she was a child, and whose father remarried and moved on to a new life in Delhi. Ammini grows up with her valiyachan’s family, spending a significant part of her life in boarding school…

‘St. Joseph’s Girls’ Prison’, she mocks.

Her only connection with her father is the money he sends on occasion, the gifts he occasionally buys her, and the rare occasions when father and daughter meet. She cherishes these little tokens and accepts the reality of her life. Ammini’s personality is inspirational in that she chooses to build her life alone, rather than be devastated by her father’s rejection.

The forest is Ammini’s home. The wilderness of the forest shields her from the harshness of the world of humans. She takes to the companionship of the trees, birds and streams that throb with life and feed her spirit with imagination. The forests teach her to see the richness of possibility. The movie skilfully portrays her deep relationship with nature.
This relationship is explored in the song ‘Olichirikkan vallikudilonnu orukki vachille‘.

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The forest is Ammini's home...

Ammini is not an introvert, despite the nature of her circumstances. She is extraverted and adventurous. The movie now explores her deep sensitivity and vulnerability. Ammini masks her vulnerability with her extraversion and eccentricity. In a solitary world, where she has never had the luxury of the companionship where she can share her joys and unburden her sorrows, Ammini learns to keep her emotions to herself. She exhibits a casual approach to life- an approach detested by her cousins and other family members, who represent conventional society. She cleverly masks the feminine spirit that throbs within her, refusing to acknowledge its existence. This brings out an important aspect of womanhood:

Womanhood is a unique facet of a woman’s personality, with a core of its own. A core that shares a delicate relationship with the human being and the individual in her. The three have an unspoken contract. When the circumstances are favourable, she is prolific. But when adversity strikes, she makes room for the other two.

The movie dwells on the essence of womanhood:

Delicate, fragile, exquisitely beautiful. Incapable of sustenance in adversity. Its need for the most sensitive, tender, loving care.

And thus, Ammini harbours within her a feminine spirit that is unable to articulate in the real world, for it is vulnerable and fears rejection.

The movie thus demonstrates how rejection by primary caregivers can influence the evolution of a personality by its impact on self-esteem, seeding vulnerability and an unconscious fear of rejection.

Ammini pretends to be rather unfeminine. She is loud and crude, forever mocking the stereotyped ways of the world. She laughs away the issues that are regarded as significant by her cousins, and instead, dwells upon issues that are of no significance to them. While her cousins live up to the image of a conventional woman in Indian society, Ammini earns the label of eccentricity and madness. Her cousins fail to realize that this eccentricity and madness are in reality, coping mechanisms that mask her deep vulnerability.

The movie thus illustrates how we establish defense mechanisms that are integral in maintaining our sanity in a world that persistently wounds our spirit.

Ammini chooses to celebrate her solitude. She roams the forests and her expeditions lead her to the discovery of spots that give her the luxury of solitude, for they are little known to others. An old temple ruin, concealed by overgrown climbers and creepers, is her nook. Here, she sits down to scribble in random thoughts into a notebook- her notebook of madness, as she labels. But in truth, Ammini liberates the sorrow of her wounded spirit in these mad ramblings. She writes letters to celebrities- writers and leaders…letters that she never posts.

In her ability to laugh at herself, we almost fail to see the vulnerability she conceals within.

The movie then goes on to explore relationships in the context of personality.

In the course of her wanderings in the forest, Ammini runs into a stranger (Devan) who takes shelter in the temple ruin that she claims as belonging to her. The stranger intrigues her for he represents to her another eccentric individual who seeks the solitude of the forest. The stranger maintains his anonymity, but he demonstrates acceptance and appreciation of her personality, which is quite contrary to her expectations. He overlooks her eccentricity and labels her interesting and brilliant. For the first time in her life, Ammini meets a person who finds something of value in her. The stranger gifts her a book on birds- a hobby she is passionate about. Ammini is comfortable in his companionship, but she does not develop a dependence on this relationship. She is grateful to the stranger, but she has no expectations of him.

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Ammini runs into a stranger who also seems to seek solitude...

Mohan (Vineeth), a sociology student and a family friend, visits Ammini’s family with his parents. Shylaja’s parents have a vested interest in Mohan- they wish to make him their daughter’s groom. Though Mohan is friendly to Shylaja, he has no romantic interest in her. Instead, Mohan falls in love with Ammini’s personality. He is drawn to the beauty of her spirit. He celebrates her eccentricity and sees through it. He gently uncovers her masks of defense, exposing the feminine spirit she guards within. Demonstrating his feelings for her, he passionately kisses her, transforming her world. Mohan’s love awakens the woman in her. Her womanhood finally summons the courage to step out into the world. This phase explores the impact of love on personality. The scar of the rejection in her childhood is put to rest.

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Mohan is drawn to Ammini's personality...

We now see a transformation in her personality. Eccentricity and loudness gives way to a tranquil silence. In that tranquil silence, the flowers of womanhood bloom.
The song ‘Athmavil muttivillichadu pole‘ delves into the blossoming of this womanhood in the setting of love.

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Athmavil mutti villichadu pole...

Ammini starts to celebrate her newfound love. Fate intervenes yet again and tragedy strikes. Mohan is killed in a communal attack, putting an abrupt end to all the dreams of her womanhood.

While it would be natural to expect Ammini to break down irreparably, Ammini surprises us with the resilience of her spirit. Shylaja, whose relationship with Mohan has never taken shape in reality, is devastated by Mohan’s death. But Ammini, to whom Mohan has proclaimed her love, demonstrates her ability to come to terms with his death. She consoles Shylaja, never once revealing that the loss is only hers.

She turns to the forests for sharing this deep pain of loss…to their undying and unconditional companionship. She goes back to her abode in the temple ruins and pens down her emotions in her book.

The strength of her personality evolves in her final act, wherein she tends to Mohan’s murderer, the stranger, as she understands the social context in which he committed the act, and helps him escape. But the police shoot him down and thus ends the movie.

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The strength of her personality evolves in her final act...

Ammini loses both the people who have given her love and filled the void in her solitary life, but that doesn’t kill the music in her soul. True to the words she once scribbled in her notebook, Ammini’s autobiography emerges more courageous than that of Madhavi Kutty’s ‘Ente katha‘!

Personality is an important concept in the context of mental illness for it represents the outcome of the invisible interplay between inherent traits and environmental factors. Sensitivity, an inherent trait, is key to both creativity and to mental illness. Whether a sensitive mind will take the path of creativity or of mental illness in the setting of adversity, depends on the psychological mechanisms we adopt to cope with trauma.

All individuals have defense mechanisms. Acceptance of adversity with development of adaptive defense mechanisms is integral to mental well being. However, sensitive individuals may sometimes demonstrate denial- a psychological defense mechanism wherein the individual rejects a fact that is too uncomfortable to confront, and therefore avoids it. Denial is at the heart of many mental illnesses, including personality disorders.

Many contemporary psychoanalysts treat denial as the first stage of a coping cycle. When an unwelcome change occurs, a trauma of some sort, the first impulse to disbelieve begins the process of coping. That denial, in a healthy mind, slowly rises to greater consciousness. Gradually becoming a subconscious pressure, just beneath the surface of overt awareness, the mechanism of coping then involves repression, while the person accumulates the emotional resources to fully face the trauma. Once faced, the person deals with the trauma in a stage alternately called acceptance or enlightenment, depending on the scope of the issue and the therapist’s school of thought. After this stage, once sufficiently dealt with, or dealt with for the time being, the trauma must sink away from total conscious awareness again.

If a deeply sensitive mind fails to move from denial to the subsequent stages of processing the negative emotion, there is the likelihood of suppression of emotional processing in this domain. This can eventually manifest as a personality disorder.

Personality disorders are more common than we realize. A personality disorder is a deeply ingrained and maladaptive pattern of behaviour of a specified kind, typically apparent by adolescence, causing long-term difficulties in personal relationships or in functioning in society. They are often characterized by lack of guilt and inability to form lasting relationships.

Aranyakam narrates the story of a deeply sensitive woman who confronts trauma early in life, and is in acceptance of it. The movie takes us through the adaptive defense mechanisms that integrate into her personality and allow its successful expression, celebrating her being and endowing her the resilience that is unique to human beings and that is crucial in the art of survival.

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On the sands of Calicut beach

As I leave Calicut, I realize that it is the beach I shall miss the most. It breaks my heart to think that I cannot return to my evenings at this beach.

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The remnants of the pier at Calicut beach...

I had always looked at beaches as getaways- places where people either sought fun or solitude….places where people wanted to be left alone to the privacy of their worlds. I always associated beaches with solitude….where loners or couples sat on the rocks or walked on the sandy stretches, drinking in the sunset and the infinity of the sea.

But I was in for a surprise at the beach in Calicut…

This beach was an ocean of people, throbbing with life.

A peculiar mix of people that reflected the character of that city. One could lose oneself in that ocean of people; I loved this anonymity. It was impossible to be conspicuous in that crowd and din. Quite unlike other beaches where one is wary of the stares of passers by and where one has to look out for shady characters.

This beach however, was like the open courtyard of an inn- an inn that welcomed every weary traveller.

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Calicut beach was an ocean of people...

The crowd was an assortment of men and women….of the young and the old. There were people sitting in silence, perhaps ruminating on their lives. There were excited exclamations as a group of children played in the water. There was the sound of taunting and laughter as a bunch of adolescents took selfies. There were couples celebrating their companionship. Old friends could be heard recounting memories. Someone was singing an old malayalam song.

Homeless beggars and wealthy businessmen stretched out on the sands alike, looking up at the sky, pondering on the intricacies of their lives.

For once, they shared the same physical space- the sand for a floor, the sky for a roof.

This beach was a living canvas- a canvas of human life. Here, I could see people drop their guards- their masks of defence. The human being that peered from beneath those masks, was the same.

Being a creature of the night, I was delighted when I had first visited this beach at night. The sight of women and children outdoors at this hour, was a welcome surprise, for it was against the general nature of Kerala. I walked past the petromax-lit carts that added to the character of this beach with their warm glow. Some were bhelpuri stalls, and yet others sold an assortment of fruits and salted mangoes.

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Petromax-lit carts that added to the character of the beach...

I was mesmerized by the sight of the sea in this semi-darkness. A stretch of dark infinity interrupted by the tiny glimmer of lights from fishing boats in the distance, and by the sweeping arc of light from the lighthouse. It made me lose all sense of time. I felt I was a character from some ancient Indian story. I wanted to lie down on the sands and go to sleep. Surrounded by human beings who were strangers, but who appeared to be seeking just what I sought at this beach, I felt safe and secure…
A feeling I missed when I went to sleep in the loneliness of my flat in Calicut. 

This feel was reminiscent of times when fellow human beings were friends, and not foes. To go to sleep in an open space without worrying about being attacked by fellow human-beings…was it possible in the modern world? In Calicut, it seemed very much possible. I remember how reluctant I was, when I finally left at about 11 pm. I envied the souls who continued to inhabit the beach…who would perhaps spend the whole night here, sleeping to the sound of the waves.

On another evening, I remember singing old melodies with a friend. The moonlight bathed the beach in its gentle sheen. I was transported to a world distant from the chaotic emptiness of the modern world.

Anne Frank was right:

The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy, is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.

Sitting at the beach in Calicut in the darkness of a cool night, I could feel the tranquility within…
All was well with me and the world!

From the heart of wilderness

It was evening. 15-year old Swathi, my neighbour, was clicking pictures in my garden. My garden was now a sanctuary of birds. Swathi would spend hours clicking these birds. By now, she had a compilation of pictures that could easily find themselves into the pages of a wild life magazine. It was impossible to believe that these pictures were clicked in a garden, and not in the woods.

 

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I love the way this branch twists randomly“, Swathi observed.

I looked at the branch she was pointing to. It was so out of order. In that twist, there was the spirit of wilderness.

I looked at the canvas of my garden. The bougainvillea was now a little tree, in full bloom. The little plant with pretty yellow flowers, that had once almost perished, had also grown into a tree now. The Alamanda had grown prolifically, and it was now a wild assortment of branches that had matured from their tender green into rugged brown.

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The sides of the little artificial pond were cement gray, with a mouth of raw bricks, and this gave the feel of a natural water body. By the side of the pond, a wild climber grew prolifically, spreading itself on the compound wall. Like rounded lids, the leaves of the water lily covered the pond, concealing a mysterious and enchanting world beneath. A fairy tale world with its fish mermaids and frog princes. A world whose tranquility I did not want to disturb. Drops of golden sunlight glistened magically on the water between the lily leaves.

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Swathi sighed. She has always longed for a garden that gives her the feel of being at the heart of nature, its tranquility undisturbed. She spoke aloud her thoughts:

“I love your garden. It gives me the feel of an old park where I can sit under a tree and click the birds and butterflies. I tell my mother that I want a garden just like yours, but she says it is so wild.
The other day, I put out a dish of water in my garden, but the birds wouldn’t come. I put out rice grains, but the pigeons wouldn’t come. At last, a crow came and drank the water.”

Swathi is my neighbour. In my mind, she is the daughter I have always wanted to have…the daughter I revel in. Right from the time she was a child of eight, the two of us have celebrated this wilderness. Our conversations would always be about the fireflies that appeared in the monsoons, the eagle that taught its children to fly in the mornings, the bulbul that gathered tiny twigs to build its home on the lamp post, the cosmos, marigold and konna flowers that celebrated the summer sun, and so much more.

Our bonding was rooted in this wilderness that we loved.

We would dream of strolls and bicycle rides across the woods. We celebrated this paradise that was our little secret. Today, she has many more things to share. Especially the emotions that characterize the teens. Yet, nature is still the most dominant topic in all our conversations. We go about in the evenings, clicking pictures of the trees, skies, sun, birds and butterflies.

I hate clicking human beings. I especially hate selfies.“, she remarks.

But I love clicking her. I hide a smile when she says that her pictures never come out good. I love clicking her when she is lost to the beauty of her environment.

For she blends in…just as the birds and butterflies do.

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Her words put into my mind the following thoughts…

Oh men of arrangements and systems!
What are you to know, of the possibilities of the wild?
You, who abide by laws and rules that bind systems,
What are you to know
of that little branch that decides to bend unpredictably
in a direction that breaks the uniformity of your picture?
If only you had patiently waited,
you would have realized the richness of its possibility…
You would have realized how phenomenally beautiful pictures
are often the outcome of such spontaneous deviations.
What are you to know
of the wild plants that choose to erupt of their own accord,
in places that disrupt the well-designed scheme of your garden?
If only you had patiently waited,
you would have learnt how the most beautiful pictures
are often constituted by imperfection and randomness.
But you have only been trained to tame the wilderness…
To cut its limbs of unpredictability and disorder…
To trim its petals of imperfection…
You have never allowed the grooming of your garden
by the hands of natural creativity…
Creativity whose natural spirit is wild…
You have never allowed your gardens the wilderness that it takes
to invite birds and butterflies…
the wilderness that is home to them…
the wilderness that is also home to the human spirit…
A spirit that we left behind in the forests we destroyed….

Oh men of systems and arrangements!
Do not do this to your children.
Nurture the wilderness in their spirits…
Do not chop their limbs of creativity…
Raise them to build the forests
that will take them back to their happiness.

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An ode to the lotus

I woke up to the same dilemma. A whole day lay ahead of me.

There was the endless drudgery of household chores. I didn’t want to think about it. Perhaps, I could steal a little time, all the same?

There were friends I had to call back. I already knew the conversation that would unfold. The stories of their turbulent lives. Individuals who had lost touch with themselves in the modern world. Individuals who had long forgotten the paths to a life of meaning. Individuals who had been bought over by the firms they worked for, in exchange for a ‘lifestyle’ that successfully numbed their deeper instincts, blurring the future to which they were now headed. And thus they were fed on a life of instant gratification, their time and their senses skilfully taken over.

Slavery, under the banner of freedom.

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Until they finally woke up when the complications had accumulated to the point that they could no longer be ignored. But who was to remind them of the forgotten paths? Even now, they were looking for instant solutions.
Perhaps a counsellor or a psychiatrist…
A course of antidepressants maybe…
Some alcohol…some drugs…
Some travel ( again a quick getaway to some exotic land where the same alcohol and drugs kept them company in the loneliness of a posh hotel room) and some shopping…
Pictures included.

At some moment of hopeless despair, when a danger alarm went off in some deep recess of their minds, they called up friends. These conversations were substitutes for tranquilizers that temporarily soothed them. These were moments of hopelessness for me for I could see that it was impossible for them to summon the will to look for anything that was not likely to be instant. And that calls for the urgent need for a social transformation. For prevention is certainly better than cure. No, I didn’t want to repeat those futile conversations today.

Books stared at me from the shelf. Books I have compiled over the last couple of years. I was tempted to pick up a book and allow myself a journey through the landscape of fantasy.
And then there were the movies that I had collected over the years. I was equally tempted to sit down to a movie, allowing myself a journey through the experience of some beautiful soul.

Through the window, I could see the clear blue skies, the coconut palms that swayed with the wind and the branches of the old mango tree. I was tempted to venture out and sit right at the heart of nature, where I could feel the tranquility that only nature is capable of. To have endless conversations with the trees and birds and skies in that silent language that speaks more powerfully than the language of words.

Right in front of me, I could see paper and pen. I was tempted to write…to put to paper the thoughts that have been throbbing within me all my life.

I felt indecisive. I picked up the pen. What should I write? Perhaps a mail to the few friends I write to. But then, a distant memory tugged at my mind, steering me towards snippets of autobiography.

And then I heard a deep sigh somewhere in the bowels of my mind…a sigh that seemed to echo the deep pain that is at the core of human life…all life.

In that sigh, I could feel the pangs of suffering of my beloved cat as it breathed its last. I could hear the silent cry of the numerous souls who go about the business of their lives, longing to break free from their mortal entrapments. In that sigh, I could hear the voice of poverty, separation, death, illness, humiliation, loneliness, lovelessness and everything else that speaks of the wounds of the human soul.
At the end of the day, we are all victims of our lives…of the numerous assaults that life has thrust on us. We find our drive in using our mental faculties to escape from this victimized state. We carry the burden of our battered souls, finding our liberation in achievements, violence, defensiveness, art, nature, love, religion, spirituality and philosophy.

ONV Kurup’s words come to my mind:

Everything that happens around is a poet’s concern. We sleep with a nightmare hovering above us every night. The felling of a tree or a bomb explosion or a rape, be it of a woman or of Mother Earth, causes a commotion, an upheaval in my mind. Remember that each tragedy carries within it the seeds of another, more fearful one. One tragedy breeds another; it multiplies. If a whole city is consumed by the flames of communal hatred, that too will affect poetry and literature. As I see it, my job is to build a bridge that would link this shore of pain, strife and thralldom to that other one of freedom…. If my song can create some ripple, somewhere, I will feel proud, honoured and privileged. This is my outlook on poetry.

http://ajthomas.in/2011/04/10/my-editors-note-to-this-ancient-lyre/

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Malayalam poet and lyricist, ONV Kurup

Within each one of us lies that happiness…that promised land of ideals that we dream of. But the slush that we accumulate from the world in which we live, casts a blanket on this happiness.

It was ONV who taught me the art of melancholic reflection. Melancholy that quietly celebrates the stories of our survival in the setting of adversity. Melancholy that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit…our ability to preserve the music of our souls despite the assaults on it.

N.V. Krishna Warrier’s analysis of melancholy in ONV’s ‘Broken bangles’:
The pulverised dreams have left behind only ‘a few broken glass bangles’. Yet those too are precious. The melancholy that characterizes human life, in the final analysis, which is discerned only by those who are philosophical by nature, keeps them organically united. This melancholy is not to be given over to music, but to silence. And quite naturally, an ‘anthill of silence’ grows around the poet. The poet who is in deep meditation within it, observes the filigree thread-bridge of imagination that extends by itself like a divine blessing, from the condensed grief within his heart towards the inner truth of life.

Says the poet:

“In the sorrow of the setting sun, I discovered a flower.”

Writing, to me, is that flower…
A lotus that bloomed in the stagnant waters of my mind, taking me by surprise.

Indeevaram‘, said my friend. That is such a beautiful word. Where had I heard this before? I got my answer today. As News channels aired the news of ONV Kurup’s death, I remembered the letter I had once written to him, and never posted. ‘Indeevaram‘ was his residence. Befits a poet’s residence.

This morning, a lotus bloomed in the little pond in my garden. I waited all of last year for it to bloom, but not a single bud sprung up from the plant. We cleaned up the pond, got rid of the extra slush, put in some manure, but to no avail. I waited all through spring and summer and winter, but the flower just refused to bloom. And here it was, this morning, its petals drinking in the sunshine.

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To this lotus, I read out my letter…

Indeevaram, the poet’s residence…

The petals closed slowly as the sun commenced its descent. And my mind grazes on those lyrics that are reminiscent of a poet that every Malayali guards in the temple of his mind….

Oru vattam koodiyen ormakall meyunna
thirumuttathu etthuvan moham…..

Innale

“Memory is the diary that we all carry about us.” -Oscar Wilde

Who are we?
Are we the accumulated residues of our pasts…our yesterdays?
Are we defined by the family and friends we have spent time with, the social and professional roles we have played, the places we have inhabited, and everything else that we hold in conscious memory?
If memories define us, then who are we, in the absence of those memories?

Through the plot of this movie, Padmarajan successfully shakes the very foundation of our beliefs pertaining to our identity in the mortal world in which we live. We find ourselves transported to that thin line that separates fact and fiction, life and existence.
The movie opens our eyes to the fact that the only footprints we leave behind in this mortal life are the memories we create in the minds of the people we have touched. These memories are the only proof of our existence…the only proof of moments that have transpired.

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A movie that shakes the very foundation of our beliefs pertaining to our identity in the real world

The movie unfolds with disturbing scenes of rescue operations following a bus accident in a remote village on hilly terrain. As victims are taken to the only private hospital in that village and successively pronounced dead after futile attempts at restoring their lives, we are introduced to a middle-aged Dr Sandhya (Sri Vidya), who looks at her blood-stained hands and sighs in despair.

Dr Sandhya is a dedicated doctor who runs a hospital in the village (property she has inherited from her deceased father), with the assistance of her son, Sharath (Jayaram). Sharath, an MBBS drop-out, is the manager of the hospital.
Just as they believe they are through with the victims of the accident, a young girl (Shobana), whose body is discovered further downstream by some villagers, is brought to the hospital in a comatose state. Dr Sandhya and her team manage to save her life.

The very first glimpse of this young girl is shrouded in mystery. As she lies in coma in a hospital bed that is alien to her being, blissfully unaware of the deep tragedy that has befallen her, we find ourselves haunted by a series of unanswered questions.

Who is she? Somebody’s daughter, perhaps. Or somebody’s wife. Where is she from? Where was she going to? Is there somebody waiting for her?

As these questions haunt us, we watch the young girl slip in and out of coma…in and out of spells of deep sleep. And eventually, when she wakes up to reality, it is to discover that she remembers nothing of her past…not even her name.

In the course of our carefully woven lives, none of us would perhaps imagine such a situation. A situation wherein we woke up one day with no memory of our past. Not even a memory of the name that defined us until yesterday. No memory of the faces that were integral elements of our life until yesterday. No memory of a home that instilled in us a sense of belonging until yesterday.

No memory of all the memories we formed until yesterday…the yesterdays that defined us.

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She wakes up to discover that she remembers nothing of her past...not even her name

The young girl is in turmoil. As she desperately tries to unveil the mist that blankets her past, hoping that she might discover some imprint of that past in the vestiges of her mind, Dr Sandhya and Sharath watch helplessly. Desperation and recurring nightmares give way to hopelessness and mute silence.

A consultation with the psychiatrist puts an end to this quest for a memory trace.

A case of hysterical amnesia. Rather disturbing, but nevertheless, leaving behind all the learnt skills intact. The memory loss predominantly involves people, places and events. However, if you have learnt a language, you will retain that ability. If you have learnt music, you will retain the ability to sing. You will know what a cinema is, but you will be unable to recall a single cinema that you have watched.
You are a normal person for your cognitive ability is intact. You should find your strength in that. Look at the amnesia as the price you had to pay for coming out alive from a major accident. You must now accept this as your reality and come to terms with it.

Sharath finds a name for her.
Maya. I like the name. It suits my current predicament.”, she responds.
Sharath talks to her and advises her.
You have no access to your past. That being the case, think of your past as something that no longer belongs to you. It belongs to a different Maya. Instead of trying to gather fragments from a life that has passed and that no longer belongs to you, make plans for the life that lies ahead of you and that belongs to you.

Padmarajan’s character Maya is a beautiful young girl. This makes the predicament more challenging on account of the safety issues that she must face. With nowhere to go, and with several opportunistic men waiting to take advantage of her hopelessness, Maya is saved from further anxiety by Dr Sandhya and Sharath, who take a humanitarian stand and decide to keep her under their protection until the time a guardian rightfully claims for her.

Maya is moved from the hospital to a little house that belongs to Dr Sandhya, and an elderly lady, Rahelamma (Philomena) is appointed for her care. Maya is also appointed as a teacher at a primary school owned by Dr Sandhya. And thus, Maya starts building a new life…

A life severed from its yesterdays...

The palpable solitude of the village and the background music sensitize us to Maya’s predicament. The trees, birds and the breeze bring with them the fragrance of an unknown nostalgic memory from a distant past…a past that is no longer accessible to Maya. The song ‘kannil nin meyyil‘ does justice to Maya’s predicament as it poetically looks at her perception in the light of lost memories.

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Perception in the light of lost memories...

As Maya slowly builds a new life with the support of Dr Sandhya and Sharath, the attachment for Sharath intensifies. Sharath and Maya fall in love and albeit with much hesitation due to anxiety over Maya’s unrevealed past, Dr Sandhya formally announces their marriage. The movie takes a twist with the entry of Dr Narendran (Suresh Gopi), on the scene. Narendran, a PhD holder in Physics, arrives at Bombay, to investigate the missing of his wife, Gowri. The movie subsequently takes us through Narendran’s memory of Gowri- of how they met, of their quiet wedding, and of their brief life of blissful togetherness, and the subsequent parting as Narendran leaves to the United States. He recollects Gowri’s zealous tone when she had discussed her plans of a pilgrimage trip to South India- an opportunity to step into a land to which she belonged, but that she had never visited…an opportunity to thank the Gods for this treasure life had gifted her after all her years of emptiness. He looks at the postcard that was last posted to him by Gowri- a card from Tirupathi.

He had not known then that this was the last token from the beautiful life he was building with Gowri.

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Narendran's memory of Gowri- of their brief life of blissful togetherness

Investigations take Narendran to the village where Maya is leading her new life. Narendran arrives at the village, thrusting Sharath and Dr Sandhya into deep anxiety.

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Narendran's phone call thrusts Sharath and Dr Sandhya into deep anxiety

The climax of the movie is haunting- a classic Padmarajan climax. As Narendran comes face to face with a woman who is Gowri in physical appearance, but whose amnesia has erased Narendran’s face from her mind, Narendran finds himself in deep conflict. The few moments that transpire make us deeply anxious as we wait for his reaction.

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Narendran's deep conflict as he encounters a Gowri whose mind has erased the memories that defined their relationship

Narendran stuns us by putting back all the evidences he has brought to prove that Gowri is his wife- their wedding photographs, their marriage certificate and other documentary proofs.

He awakens us to the realization that these physical pieces of evidence have no value in the absence of the memories…for memories alone have the ability to breathe life into matter. In the absence of those memories that defined their relationship, these documents are lifeless bits of paper.

Narendran leaves without revealing the truth, much to Sharath’s relief. Sharath believes that Maya is not the Gowri Narendran was looking for, and he celebrates this moment of relief, unaware of the truth, and oblivious to the future.

Padmarajan’s portrayal of retrograde amnesia is in close alignment to the clinical presentation of this condition. Retrograde amnesia can occur without any structural damage to the brain, as is the case in this movie. Maya’s brain scans and other tests are reported as normal. Primarily referred to as psychogenic amnesia  or psychogenic fugue, it often occurs due to a traumatic situation that individuals wish to consciously or unconsciously avoid. As a sensitive young woman who is an orphan, and who has lived a life of emotional void characterized by the absence of family and close companions, Narendran’s entry into Maya’s life sprouts new life in the arid desert of her mind. The marriage seeds hopes and dreams in the emptiness of her life. It is quite natural for such a personality to experience deep denial towards the trauma that threatens to dismantle a life that she has just begun to weave. And thus, Maya’s mind rejects the reality of the accident.
The onset of psychogenic amnesia can be either global, wherein the individual forgets all aspects of the past, or situation specific wherein the individual is unable to retrieve memories of specific situations. In this movie, Padmarajan portrays a case of global amnesia, wherein Maya has no memory of her past.

People experiencing psychogenic amnesia have impaired episodic memory (memory of life experiences), instances of wandering, and acceptance of a new identity as a result of inaccessible memories pertaining to their previous identity. In many patients, their personality remains the same. Semantic memory, that is general knowledge about the world, is usually unaffected. Maya, true to the clinical manifestation of this condition, easily comes to terms with reality, and begins to accept her new identity.

As is the case with this condition, her memory does not recover from a narration of the details of the bus trip or accident or from an exposure to elements of her past. Memory can be and usually is recovered spontaneously in these individuals.

And that leaves us with the lingering question…
What if she regains her memory of the past? In that event, it is likely that she will be amnesic to the events subsequent to the accident. She will transform into Gowri, with no memory of Maya, or the elements that defined Maya’s life. Sharath and Dr Sandhya, her life saviours and guardians who helped her through a major crisis and gave her new life, will be erased from the reality of her life.

And thus, the movie emphasizes the role of the human mind in the perception of reality. The movie highlights the fact that our minds are far beyond us, and the reality of our lives is at the mercy of our minds, over which we have little control, contrary to what we commonly assume.

The answer to our mental health: Literature and Cinema

Books and cinema have been my companions from as far back as I can remember. They were introduced into my world very early in life. Perhaps that was the reason why their significance was lost upon me. I was oblivious to the deep impact they had on my mind- an impact created by the richness of perception they endowed me.

In this context, I do not know which influenced me more- books or cinema. Books perhaps have the freedom of exploring circumstances, characters and themes in greater detail. They perhaps give more room for imagination. In the pages of a book, I would discover my own self as the words took me through familiar and unfamiliar paths. Reading gradually develops an ability in the reader- an extraordinary ability to see images in the flow of words. Our earliest years of reading only teach us the ability to see images in words. But over time, we evolve and learn to see images not in isolated words, but in the flow of words…in between them. 

Once we have learned to read, meaning of words can somehow register without consciousness.
Katherine Mansfield

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Reading gradually develops an ability in the reader- an extraordinary ability to see images in the flow of words.

And thus, we discover in these words a world that is as alive as the world in which we live. A world that is capable of instilling perceptions as intense as the real world. And thus, even the fantasies weaved in those pages turn real. For aren’t our perceptions the only proof of our reality? In due course, we lose the distinction between the life we perceive in the pages of a book and the life we live in the real world. The stories in the books we have read, transform into our own stories, for we have lived them in our minds.

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In a world characterized by a progressive loss of the ability to feel, literature is perhaps the most potent tool to preserve this ability. Literature alone can prevent a spectrum of mental illnesses that are unique to the pace of the modern world. And so, I constantly advise my students to read stories and biographies.

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Cinema is perhaps never a substitute for literature. However, there are attributes that make it rather unique and often, more powerful in terms of its impact. Cinema is a visual experience and as a species in whom vision has evolved as the dominant component of sensation, cinema captures our attention more significantly. Also, cinema being the common man’s medium of art, has a higher responsibility towards sustaining the purpose of art, for it caters to a larger audience.

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The need for good cinema must be recognized and prioritized in a world where there is an acute need to provide resources that cater to the mental health needs of a community.

I remember actress Revathi stating in an interview the role of good cinema in an individual’s life:

Good cinema counsels. Cinema has often given me answers to questions I have asked of my life.

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Revathi in the film 'Mounaragam', a film that sensitively explores the resilience of the human spirit through its character sketch

A good cinema has layers to it. There is a superficial layer to which every human being can relate. But at its core, every good cinema has a philosophical layer that constitutes its soul. Not every human being may relate to this. And yet, it is the most crucial component of the cinema, for it makes itself gradually visible to many of us at a much later part in time, when we have sailed through enough of life to match its depth. At some point in our life, good cinema draws valuable inferences for us. The strength of a good cinema lies in its ability to influence us at an unconscious level.

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A good cinema has layers to it...

Cinema must form an important component of the education system of any country, at all levels of education. Cinema teaches us the ability to transform the flow of images into words. If a cinema has touched us deep, we retain it in some part of our unconscious, with a constant urge to express that aspect of it that has touched us. And some day, we find the words that live up to the profundity of that perception.

As a child, I remember watching educational films in school. I remember how excited we were on such days. Some of those films never made sense to us at that time. But we retained them as a visual perception that had touched us. I vividly remember a film on how chocolate was made from cocoa, and the faces of many African children working in the cocoa plantations and chocolate factories.

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The story of chocolate making...
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A child engaged in labour at a cocoa plantation

Of all cinema that I watched, malayalam cinema appeared to me as the most ordinary. And there lay its extraordinariness, for it mimicked life to that degree. It took me the experience of life to realize the value of those films. Also, the absence of such films in the modern malayalam film industry sensitized me to their true value. As a person indebted to malayalam cinema for its deep impact on my mind, I decided that the first book that I would ever attempt to publish would be on malayalam cinema.

For it taught me to peer into the abyss of the human mind, to revel in the profound beauty that lay hidden in that abyss, to revere it as the epitome of creation, to get a glimpse of its different shades and hues, and to understand the non-verbal language in which our minds communicate to us. It taught me that our minds are far beyond us…that the ingredients that our mind seeks for sustenance are far removed from the superficial pleasures we attach ourselves to…that the ultimate purpose of the human mind is far beyond what we imagine the purpose of our lives to be. Malayalam cinema taught me that the integrity of our mental health lies not in fragmenting our emotions, but in sustaining our moods so as to reconstitute a holistic emotion that is trying to make itself visible to us. It taught me that the science that dissects the emotional architecture of our brains can never be the guardian of our mental health. Instead, the flame of our souls is sustained by the soulful stories that exist all around us, and that they alone can tide us through the darkest moments of our lives, our sanity intact. Hidden within the philosophical core of every cinema/story, is the answer to a complexity in human life. Through the depth of our perception, we arrive at this answer.

As a doctor and physiologist, I find myself intrigued by the complexity of the human mind. As a human being, I have the deepest reverence for the human mind. And so, I have always found myself drawn to suffering of the human mind as a predicament that demands utmost priority. In the course of my study of life (both as a student of Medicine and as a human being), I have found that the answer to sustenance of the human spirit, and therefore to the mental health issues that afflict the modern world, lies in literature and cinema.

I have a collection of malayalam films that explore a spectrum of circumstances that encompass human life. I must have watched each of these films at least a hundred times. And yet, I have not outgrown the desire to watch them again. For each time, I discover something new…something relevant to the current climate of my life. It is then that I realize the infinity of the essence that is packed into three hours of cinema. It is then that I recognize the creative ingenuity that has gone into the making of each of these films. It is this that endears these film makers to me in a manner that is beyond the scope of words.

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P. Padmarajan movies that explored the deep philosophy of the human mind...

My initial plan was to try an exploration of only those films that portrayed mental illness. However, I felt that mental health is a spectrum. The distinction between normal and abnormal, ordinary and extraordinary, is a thin line, especially in the context of the human mind. Psychiatry is perhaps the only science where definitions become obsolete, for the human mind is far beyond the confines of a scientific label. Mental health awareness must therefore aim at understanding the multitude of climates of the human mind, the external and internal factors that shape this climate, and the infinite paths through which the climate eventually manifests. Only this broad understanding of the human mind, with an insight into its infinite layers, can bring about a change in the perspective of the common man towards mental health issues. Therefore, I have included in this compilation films that in my opinion, offer such understanding.

Malayalam cinema has always been inspired by the complexity of the human mind. Its narrative has been powered by the need to understand man’s innermost drives. It has closely looked at what motivates people and how people go about their lives, driven by these motives. Portrayal of the different personality types that we see around us and the behavior that is unique to each of these has been the central theme of most of these narratives. It is therefore not surprising that a good many Malayalam movies incorporated mental health themes into their storylines.

These movies have treated mental illness as yet another variant path that the human mind takes, when touched upon by circumstances that test its strength. The ingenuity of these movies has been in their portrayal of mental illness as a very natural reaction to adversity. They emphasize how ‘human’ the phenomenon of mental illness is. They do not romanticize or stigmatize mental illness, they empathize with it. These movies have brought us face to face with mental illness- an entity we choose to alienate ourselves from, in the course of our unruffled lives. They have looked at the individual in his/her social context and given us a peek into the inner lives of these individuals and their families, of which we choose to be blissfully ignorant.

http:// https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=yTCl8sM3lAQ
A tribute to the legend P. Padmarajan, who liberated the entrapped psyche of a malayalee audience through the movies he created, each an insightful exploration into the human psyche….

There is perhaps a need to revisit the core of these movies and sensitize masses to their significance in the context of our mental health. It is perhaps our moral responsibility to preserve the deep essence of these movies and pass them on to the generations ahead, for these movies are textbooks that capture the essence of the human psyche against the backdrop of human life.

‘Mouna Ragam’ (Silent Symphony) – my ‘all-time-favorite’ Tamil romantic movie

As a movie that touched a deep chord, and as a character that remains closest to my heart, I had to share this….

A Writer's Notebook.

Youngsters seeking their soul-mates nowadays, empowered by their parents and spoilt for choice, may little appreciate the concept of a ‘Arranged Marriage’. Nonetheless to make any relationship work, the romantic overture hardly matters for the real work starts only once the honeymoon is over.

In this context, ‘Mouna Ragam’ is worth a watch even today in order to learn some lessons on what makes the ‘modern marriage’ work. “A movie made in 1986 is still relevant in 2013?”, you may ask rather incredulously. My answer is, “Yes – aren’t Classic movies supposed to be precisely that?”

‘Mouna Ragam’ is a Tamil romantic movie that was directed by Mani Ratnam and released in 1986. Starring Mohan, Revathi and Karthik, it went on to garner much critical and commercial acclaim. It became a ‘Classic’ movie that defined an anachronistic era wherein, even in the educated ‘Middle Class’ families, marriages were ‘arranged’ by the Elders in…

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