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.

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