Aranyakam, the forests…
Man’s deepest instincts feed off the forests to which he belongs.
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.
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.
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‘.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.