The touch-me-not in my mind

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There are places we become attached to because they reflect something of us. We personalize them over the years and then there is something so palpably ‘us’ in those spaces.

I feel that about my house.

Something beyond the visibility of the photographs and posters that adorn its walls…

Something beyond the collectibles, presents and trinkets it guards for me…

In the perceptions and memories that this house guards, I can see my own reflection. There is something in the way my house communicates with nature that mirrors the essence within me. It is a structure whose essence is built from my emotions. Over the years, I also seem to have projected my thoughts onto it. There is something of me that it now reflects- something that will remain with the passage of time. Something that will be retained even in my absence.

It is a place that has evolved with me.

I have felt this connection not just with physical spaces, but also with virtual spaces such as the films and the books that I deeply love, and with this blog here.

That mental bridge I build with all these spaces is what I leave of myself on this planet- the invisible part of me that is immortal.

This is what makes this blog very special to me. It gives me the feel of a house in the woods where I can be alone with myself, and dig out a few truths about life and about myself. A house in the woods that nobody knows about, save for the trees and the birds. A place where I have the luxury of solitude, with only the chirping of birds and the humming of bees penetrating the silence that I feel within me.

 

Last evening, I watched the film ‘Karunyam’. These days, I go hunting for Lohithadas films. Lohithadas was a psychologist without degrees and affiliations; he only had his work to prove his ability as a psychologist. And so, I am now addicted to his films. In all of his films, there is a deep message to humanity. And that message can be arrived at only through perception. I treasure such perceptions. Perhaps because they are so palpably absent in the real world.

Monsoons are the best time for perceptions. The darkness all around and the sound of the rain alienate one from the chaos of the external world. It is in this solitude that one becomes sensitive to the light within- a little light that beckons to you. Like the flame of a little lamp on the courtyard of a temple, burning relentlessly, on a cold and dark night. One is automatically attracted to that light. Perhaps this is the reason why monsoons bring out the best in writers. Especially monsoons in the tropics.

 

The film revolves around a school headmaster, Gopi Master (Murali) and his conflicting relationship with his son, Satheeshan (Jayaram). Gopi Master is a man whose self-esteem is rooted in his social role as a school teacher and headmaster. It is a role that has fetched him a livelihood, social respect and recognition. He projects his identity onto his son and aspires to see his son following his footsteps. However, his son is unable to fulfill this expectation. Satheeshan tries his best to live up to his father’s expectations and makes a wholehearted effort to secure a job, but fails. Gopi Master fails to come to acceptance of this reality and continues to be in denial of the predicament of his son. His denial is expressed in the sarcastic remarks and verbal humiliation he metes out to Satheeshan on multiple occasions. However, at all the moments that Satheeshan is in trouble or in pain, Gopi Master drops his defenses and transforms into the father who has a deep love for his son.

Such moments expose the affection, tenderness and protectiveness of a father towards his son.

Thus, the film takes us through the deep vulnerability that lies at the core of a human being. Beneath the principled and firm exterior of Gopi Master, we see the bleeding, tender mind of a father. Beneath the happy-go-lucky and humorous exterior of Satheeshan, we see a fragile mind that is struggling with its feelings of worthlessness. Lohithadas strips the garbs of defense of each of his characters, exposing their deep vulnerability. But he does this with love and compassion. And thus brings out the immense value in that vulnerability- the enormous strength that has enabled its survival. This was his signature that made his films unique.

 

Watching his films always makes me cry. They are not tears of sadness. They are tears of realization- the sudden, acute awareness of deep vulnerability within all those layers of defense I have built over the years. The awareness of having survived, despite the vulnerability…

The awareness of what it took to survive.

His films have the feel of sitting by a warm hearth on a cold night. As the warmth penetrates awareness, feeling returns. It is a welcome respite from the numbness.

In the modern world, we are all losing our ability to cry. This reflects the degree of defense we have built within ourselves, refusing to let go. And so, I find it very important to set aside moments for idle perceptions. In these idle perceptions, we may perhaps discover ourselves-

Our forgotten selves…

The self we have lost to survival.

They may bare us of the masks that we learnt to wear in order to survive, without realizing that these masks now shield us from our own selves-

From that vulnerability that longs to be loved and wanted…

A longing that we learn to deny.

I suppose people had always loved my defenses. They loved the picture of strength and confidence I portrayed. They loved the smile that would never leave my face. But when they got close enough to see the vulnerability within, I was rejected. It seemed to mirror their own vulnerability- the very vulnerability they were running away from. It was when I was convinced that my vulnerability had no place in relationships that I decided to adorn a permanent mask in all my relationships with people. I never bared my vulnerability and it was therefore possible to keep my self-esteem intact. But this defense came at a price. The awareness that the emotions fed by my vulnerability had no place in real world interactions, motivated me to find spaces where I could stay connected with my vulnerable self. I did not want to lose it to survival.

For it was the only thing that made me human…

That made me feel alive.

And thus, I found my respite in all the spaces that I have talked about earlier in this post. In the house I live, in the films I watched, in the books I read, in my association with nature and animals, in the blog on which I write, I preserved my vulnerability.

Most people I knew had learnt to survive by denying their vulnerability. But in the process, they had lost a precious part of their own selves. It was impossible for me to feel anything in my interactions with such people. They were incapable of love, compassion, kindness, empathy or any of the feelings that were once integral to us, simply because they had lost the ability to love and accept their own selves. They had nothing to give their own selves. Where was the question then, of giving to another person? I felt an uncomfortable sadness in my interactions with such people for I could feel they had permanently lost themselves and destroyed all the paths that led them back to their own selves.

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However, there were a few people I met- particularly rural characters who stood out in this game of survival. They were the real gems. They saw through my masks and loved the vulnerability. Simply because it mirrored their own vulnerability- a vulnerability they had learnt to accept. And so, they loved me with a purity and fierceness that I regard as my greatest wealth on this planet.

They saw not my vulnerability, but what it had taken for that vulnerability to survive.

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Only with such people, would I reveal the needs of that vulnerable self. With the rest, I was guarded for I was always traumatized by the abrupt rejection they were capable of. That they didn’t want me as sincerely as I wanted them, was difficult for me to deal with. That they didn’t miss me as painfully as I missed them in their absence, had hit me hard. In that darkness, I had realized that parents were the only truth. And in that, ‘mother’ was the greatest truth- the only truth that nature herself acknowledges.

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Who needs me?’ is a question that has always played high in my mind. At some point, I had realized that only my parents had made me feel truly wanted. It was this realization that motivated me to create a ‘want’ for me. My vulnerability was a blessing in this endeavor for it helped me empathize with people. I started realizing that I was most needed where there was pain and suffering. And so, I would always find myself drawn to pain and suffering.

That engagement with pain and suffering was the greatest paradox in my life. I had embraced just what I had always feared. I realized that the only key to another person’s darkness was the darkness in your own life. And thus, I took the journey with people who were suffering-

Suffering mentally.

I worked with them, more out of curiosity, love and empathy, rather than out of any defined objective. The more I worked with myself and with people, the better I became at understanding the processing of pain by the human mind. In my association with animals, I witnessed the mute suffering in their lives and realized how fortunate we humans were.

Awareness and learning strengthened me and transformed me. They tempered my vulnerability. My thoughts translated my vulnerability into experience and wisdom. That was my strength.

In my quest for understanding the motivational drive of the human mind, I realize that I am driven by beauty. The beauty of perception. I have found much beauty in this world. In the rain forests and in the deserts. In the skyline of cities. In the rivers and in the mountains.

But I think there is perhaps nothing as beautiful as the vulnerability of the human mind.

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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.

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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My diary of malayalam cinema

As I write this post, I am reminded of Randy Pausch’s words from his book ‘The last lecture‘. He writes:

All of the things I loved were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child. My uniqueness came in the specifics of all those dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way.

It is true that our deepest motivations are rooted in our childhood fantasies. Malayalam cinema was a fantasy world I nurtured in my unconscious. Today, I see it slowly evolve into reality.

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My earliest association with malayalam cinema dates back to those childhood days when family friends gathered on holidays to watch movies rented out from the local video store. I vaguely remember a few suspense movies and thrillers we watched. ‘Moonam Mura‘ brilliantly captured the tense mood of a plot that involved the kidnapping of a minister and his fellow-travellers in a bus journey, and the subsequent intelligent rescue operations that eventually succeeded in rescuing the victims, albeit with a few casualties. Every moment in that movie was one of tense impatience and silent prayer for the safe return of the victims. The background music amplified this mood and in our minds, it transformed into a real situation we were living through, and not a movie we were watching.

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Mohanlal in 'Moonam mura'

It was with the advent of the cable TV network that I actually got hooked on to malayalam cinema. Comedy was my favourite genre then. I took time to develop the sensibility that was required to comprehend the humour in these movies. But once I tuned in to that, I was addicted to cinema. It slowly dawned on me that a good sense of humour demanded intelligence. That era of cable TV exposed me to a surplus of movies. I devoured them avidly and unconsciously developed a taste for good cinema. At that point in time, I was unaware of how deeply I was beginning to connect to malayalam cinema or of how it was shaping my perspective of life. In my mind, it was only a leisure pursuit that I loved. A pursuit for which I had no plans.

My earliest memory of falling in love with a malayalam movie that portrayed tragedy was when I stumbled upon Lenin Rajendran’sMazha‘. I was past my teens and I drew inspiration from the movie’s feminist perspective. Like I once wrote about the movie:

The essence of the movie is Bhadra’s personality – a woman who awakens us to the fact that as women living in contemporary Indian society, we are vulnerable to the currents of life – far more than men in this society. Our lives might lie at the mercy of our primary caretakers and the men we marry, but our minds belong solely to us. The movie highlights the fact that even within the rigid framework of this orthodox society, the mind is a free bird.

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Lenin Rajendran's 'Mazha' starring Biju Menon and Samyuktha Varma

Subsequent to watching Mazha, I started compiling CDs of malayalam films. When I moved abroad, I carried them with me. At all the times that I missed the warmth of my home country, I would watch these movies. On cold wintery days when I was indoors, these movies kept me company. It was on one such wintery night that I woke up with an inexplicable emotion, the background music of ‘Mukundetta Sumithra Villikkunnu‘ playing in my mind for no reason. A strange nostalgia gripped me and I got out of bed, took a paper and pen, and started writing. That was perhaps the first time I wrote something that qualified for more than just a diary entry. That was the first time I had felt overwhelmed enough to write not about me, but to explore in writing an emotion…a perception. Art to me, is that moment when something briefly stills and silences my mind. That one little moment when the infinity of a universe nestles into the finite realms of my mind. That one little moment when eternity settles into the span of a finite moment. I knew then that as long as I had these movies for company, I would never be lonely. For they speak to me. That was about 7 years ago. And that hasn’t changed to this day. Malayalam cinema is my eternal antidote to loneliness.

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Mohanlal and Ranjini in 'Mukundetta Sumithra Villikkunnu'

My dependence on malayalam cinema grew as life exposed me to more complicated circumstances. The realism in these movies enabled me to discover the true meaning in life. Through them, I saw life- a canvas of emotions painted by the human spirit against the backdrop of circumstances. I learnt to see the beauty in our stories of struggle and pain. I realized how adversity alone brings out the strength of the human spirit and endows beauty to this dynamic canvas of life. Malayalam cinema helped me build inroads into my own mind. It taught me resilience- the art of discovering the strength of one’s spirit, without compromising on one’s sensitivity. And thus, malayalam cinema laid the foundation for my study of life. It is therefore not strange that the insight I gained from malayalam cinema increased my insights into all domains of life- my career as a doctor, teacher and researcher, my social interactions with people from different walks of life and my journey as a writer. I learnt to see the invisible interconnections that exist between all forms of matter, particularly the delicate interconnections between people that bind them in invisible threads of interdependence, and thus construct the whole picture. I learnt that the soul was always in the whole picture, and never in its independent fragments. And the soul alone possessed beauty.

As the awareness of how cinema was influencing me dawned on me, I felt deeply indebted to it. For it taught me to rise above the mundane at all times. The last straw in this sequence was the awareness of the power of language, beautifully illustrated by Lohithadas. Lohithadas’s strength was the aesthetic richness of script. Conversations from his movies would play repeatedly in my mind and inspire me, for they were rich in essence.

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A.K.Lohithadas: The master story teller who created magic with his script

There is rarely a day in my life that transpires without some thought pertaining to malayalam cinema. For in every individual and in every circumstance that surrounds me, I see these movies. They unfold before me in real life, reinforcing the fact that true art is derived from life.

Today was a special day in my life.  This was perhaps the first time I attended an academic event pertaining to cinema. Cinema, to me, has always meant art in all its seriousness, and never idle entertainment.
Art mimics life. And as emotions and soulful characters disappear from the face of the Indian landscape, art loses its soul. A once-intellectual audience that absorbed an entire spectrum of emotional tones portrayed by cinema, raising the standards of cinema to a level where it encouraged out-of-the-box thinking, is now replaced by an audience that cannot differentiate between an authentic work of art and meaningless entertainment. Cinema today is more about ‘technique’ rather than content, and the young generation is hooked on to its technical possibility. Like director Kamal said in his talk, people are losing the ability to sit back and feel. The most important ingredient that goes into the making of good cinema is the ability to passionately feel and thus develop critical thinking; the skill and technique are secondary. The film maker’s primary responsibility is to do justice to the deeper purpose of his art, for only then will the film speak across time and place.
For me, it was heartening to be a part of an event where cinema was discussed in all its seriousness. Though there will never be a return to the past, such events instill hope.

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It is perhaps time to write about malayalam cinema…about how it set standards for art and for life…about how it contributed not merely to cinema, but to the cultural development of a land and its people.. A journey through its soul, capturing the essence of human life that reflects the delicate interplay between the human mind and the diversity of the circumstances it endures.

Thoovalkottaram

This movie revolves around two characters- Appu (Jayaram) and Devaprabha (Manju Warrier), both immensely attractive with regard to their take on life. While Appu has learnt the art of cleverly masking his vulnerability and taking life in its stride, it is the immensely vulnerable Devaprabha who surprises us in the climax of the film, demonstrating the ability to rise above the mundane. The movie draws an important inference:
Love is the sole negotiator in the equation of life. It caters gently to one’s vulnerability, unmasking the potential to rise beyond conventional expectations, defeating adversity.

Lohithadas leaves his imprint in the script. The script attends to the magnitude of struggle involved in the balancing act of our lives. In Appu’s words:

Life has this uncanny ability to push you into deep waters of the sea…without the slightest warning. It does not ask you if you can swim. It does not give you the opportunity to protest. You can choose to swim, or you can drown. And so, you just learn to swim.

The movie introduces us to Appu– the jack of all, master of none, happy-go-lucky character enacted by Jayaram.

Appu is a role-player- a volatile performer. This moment, he is in the garbs of a music teacher. The next moment, he has switched to the role of a percussionist at the sopanam, putting his heart and soul into the performance. We see him as an electrician, a plumber, an assistant at wedding sadyas…the list is endless. There is no role that Appu will refuse. His zeal, good humour and high-spiritedness cleverly conceal the fact that he plays up to all these roles for a livelihood. As a lawyer who is a novice with frugal earnings, and who has to cater to siblings who have endless needs to be met, he is left with no choice. To his mother who is concerned about her daughters, to his brother who aspires to become a doctor, to his married sister who turns up faithfully for financial assistance and to his younger sister who is to be married off, he never lays bare his tight balancing act. They are so conditioned to his role as provider that they never question the unfairness of it.  Nor do they dwell upon the intensity of the struggle it involves. Instead, they express their dissent at the slightest lacuna on his part. And so, he fulfills the role to his best, despite the lack of sensitivity on the part of his family.

He is a character who asks little of life, and who holds his self-worth above everything else. This aspect of his character forms the soul of the movie.

Amidst his role playing, he finds solace in his relationship with the beautiful Sujatha (Sukanya) who is a skilled classical dancer and who takes dance lessons at Balan thampuran’s illam. His closest companion is Sujatha’s father, a fellow-percussionist and the housekeeper of all his emotions.

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Appu confides in Sukanya’s father, his closest companion

As we fall in love with Appu’s character and get a glimpse of his life, Devaprabha makes her appearance.

Prabha, as she is addressed, is the only daughter of Balan thampuran, and is much talked about in the context of a childhood tragedy that has deeply scarred her. As a 13-year old, Prabha loses her brother, with whom she shares a deep bond, to an accident in which she chauffeurs the car. The incident has a deep impact on her mind and her reaction is in the form of detachment. Instead of grieving and reacting, she withdraws and alienates herself. Her parents go to great lengths to pull her back to life, seeking the help of psychologists and psychiatrists, but the detachment persists as a failure to accept and come to terms with the loss, despite the passage of time. And so, the movie introduces us to this character whose vulnerability is perceived as a weakness by a conventional society. Prabha arrives at the village with her ever-compliant grandfather, who tries extra hard to keep her cheerful. The women who take dance lessons at the illam, label her as mentally ill and having passed this judgment, they are happy to alienate her.

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Manju Warrier as Devaprabha

Prabha’s first encounter with Appu is an important event in the unfolding of the plot. Appu carelessly rides his bicycle and narrowly escapes being run over, as Prabha slams the brakes of her car. For a brief moment, she is shocked and speechless as the event recreates in her mind the trauma of the past- the accident to which she lost her brother. But when she catches sight of Appu riding off hastily, his black robe fluttering like the wings of a bat, she smiles at the victim’s happy exit. And it is here that Appu earns his new nickname- Mr. Bat.

To the vunerable Prabha, Mr. Bat is the survivor in every sense.

Prabha finds herself immensely attracted to Appu’s personality. While the others label her as mentally unsound, she sees in Appu what they have never been able to see- his tight balancing act. She loves the appeal of this man who masks his vulnerability by refusing to take himself seriously, taking on all his roles in good humour, almost as if he were performing for a fancy dress. And thus, the vulnerability of Prabha captures the strength of Appu’s character. She discovers in his companionship a security she has never felt after the tragedy in her life. Appu displays the deep maturity of a man who has the ability to absorb the diversity of the personalities in his life, and his receptivity allows Prabha to unfold her personality in an unrestricted fashion. Appu is always guided by instinct in his relationships with people, and this works wonders for Prabha, who feels the relief of moving out of the umbrella of sympathy and resentment that she is constantly exposed to, on account of the fragility of her mind. It is a child that we see unfolding- zealous, happy, curious and high-spirited.

Manju Warrier handles with finesse the switch between vulnerability and strength.

Her family notices this change in her – the transformation from the withdrawn personality they had seen for years, and they realize that Appu has filled the void in her life, and achieved what psychologists and psychiatrists could not.

Meanwhile, Sujatha and Prabha enter into hostile zone. To the conventional Sujatha, Prabha is only a spoiled brat- the one and only daughter of Balan thampuran, accustomed to giving orders and being obeyed. She fails to see the fragility and vulnerability beneath Prabha’s tough exterior. Prabha’s father complicates the scenario by deciding to get Prabha married to Appu.

Jayaram delivers a brilliant performance in portraying the helplessness of Appu in this phase.

As Appu silently grieves, there is none who understands his predicament and feels his grief. His siblings only wound him further. The movie sensitively takes us through helpless moments in a man’s life- through paths we have all walked, hoping to be understood and comforted, but only being wounded deeper.

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Prabha’s father requests Appu to marry Prabha

And thus, we are led to the climax, where the vulnerable Prabha shocks everybody with her perspective. Prabha describes the significance of Appu in her life and analyzes what he means to her. When she reveals that Appu fills in her life the void created by her brother’s loss, and chides her father for the selfish step he took in order to see his daughter happy, her father takes pride in her character- in her ability to defeat life and adversity.

Thus ends the movie, but Prabha and Appu linger in our minds…