Malayalam Movie Mindscapes | Manichitrathazhu (1993)

Nagavalli Painting from Manichithrathazhu

Two decades have passed since  Manichithrathazhu  ( 1993 ) was released. But Nagavalli, with her fiery eyes and supernatural prowess, remains vivid in our minds. However, this movie was not about a bloodthirsty spirit coming alive. It was about a mental disorder that goes by the name of dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder) – a disorder that in the Indian context, has often been looked upon as spiritual possession. DID is complex in its origin, development and manifestations. Movies could go a long way in our understanding of such complex mental disorders if they are portrayed in the light of causative factors. A mental illness, woven into the fabric of a story, especially when portrayed as a visual medium, can reach out and create greater impact on the common man. It is in this regard that ‘Manichithra thaazhu’ made its case.

Shobana’s Ganga | Manichitrathazhu (1993)

Ganga is a deeply sensitive child. Her parents put her to the care of her grandmother while they migrate to Calcutta to pursue their career. Ganga yearns for her parents, but there is nothing she can do about it. Being overly sensitive, her mind refuses to accept this predicament. And thus, she dissociates from these negative emotions by subconsciously repressing them and fixating on the folklore, superstition and rituals that dominate her grandmother’s world. The fixation develops into an obsession, for it takes her away from the negativity of the repressed emotions. This personality evolves and becomes her identity from that point in time. The repressed personality remains dormant within her, completely detached from her evolving personality. And thus, Ganga grows up to be this gentle, indrawn character who has a passion for books, poetry and legends.

Shobana remembering the shooting days of Manichitrathazhu

Her subsequent reminder of the repressed personality (alter-ego) comes in when she visits the ‘Madampalli tharavadu’ where she hears the story of Nagavalli, a legendary Bharathnatyam dancer who was killed by Shankaran Thampi, an ancestor. The part about Shankaran Thampi, coming in the way of Nagavalli’s love and desires, evokes in Ganga the same negative emotions that she has run away from. She deeply empathizes with Nagavalli, to the point that the empathy unlocks her alter ego yet again. Each night, her obsession takes her to the ‘Thekkini’, where the life-like portraits of Nagavalli and Shankaran Thampi, the jewellery of the dancer, and all the other remnants of the past, create the perfect environment for her to fixate on Nagavalli, which unlocks her alter ego. The alter ego lashes out powerfully and performs to exhaustion. When Ganga wakes up in the morning, she has no memory of the alter ego. And thus, these two personalities switch from one to the other, each amnesic of the other. Also, they are in total contrast to each other, each with its own postures, gestures and distinct way of talking.

It is not strange that the alter ego speaks in a language alien to her (Tamil). The language must have been imbibed by her subconscious as a part of her childhood fixation to the numerous elements of the external world around her. Mood swings are a characteristic feature of this disorder, which is brilliantly enacted by Shobana (Ganga) in various instances. For instance, the time when the psychiatrist questions the authenticity of Nagavalli’s anklets and gets into a conflict with Ganga. Also, the time when Nakulan denies permission to Ganga to go with Alli to purchase jewellery. These are moments when the mellow Ganga abruptly gives way to the fierce Nagavalli.

The movie is scientific in the way it touches upon the roots of this psychosis as well as the manifestations of it. It portrays a classic case of dissociative identity disorder in its most overt form, which is fair enough.

Ganga’s childhood was fairly in line with the basis for this disorder, except that a much more severe form of stress generally accounts for the origin of these disorders, such as severe physical or sexual abuse in childhood. But that is acceptable. Her first episode of psychosis in school, precipitated by stress, also fits into the scheme. It is the later part that is discordant, for there is no precipitant (marital conflicts could have been depicted as a source of stress). The story is convincing, except that for Ganga to pathologically empathize with Nagavalli, there should have been a precipitant stress.

Apparently, people with dissociative identity disorder switch identity when they are confronted with a stressful situation in real life. But this movie portrayed Ganga’s life with Nakulan as being very smooth and free of stress. In fact, the treatment of this disorder is often directed at removing the precipitant stress and hypnosis can be used as a means of identifying the precipitant stress.

Shobana in Manichitrathazhu
Shobana in Manichitrathazhu (1993)

The movie does have its flaws. The movie depicts Ganga waking up as Nagavalli each night and then moving around the house and the thekkini, singing and dancing at times. If her alter ego’s ultimate intention was to murder Nakulan (whom she visualizes as Shankaran Thampi), she could have done it on any of these nights when he was in deep sleep. The movie does take on a more dramatic and unrealistic turn as Ganga expresses her intent to kill Shankaran Thampi. Ganga’s final psychotic episode, in the form a spectacular Bharathnatyam performance, is purely brought in to add an element of dance to the movie. That her psychosis would permanently disappear if she killed ‘Shankaran Thampi’ is also brought in to give a powerful climax to the movie.

The final psychosis of Ganga.

Mohanlal’s character, to me, was a very absurd and comical portrayal of a psychiatrist. Mohanlal’s treatment approach ( or whatever was written for him by the script-writer) was most ridiculous. It could only have been intended for humour. And thus, with her brilliant acting skills, it was Shobana who ultimately made the movie an unforgettable sensory experience for all of us.

22 thoughts on “Malayalam Movie Mindscapes | Manichitrathazhu (1993)

  1. I have a question the priest asks shobhana will you go out of her body if he is killed! Although from a movie point of view; it makes sense because she thinks that she is yakshi of nagavalli; from a dual personality view; this question is like will Nagavalli go out of ganga’s body if he is killed and shobhana says yes; as far as I know a dissociative identity disorder person will not know their multiple forms at the same point of time; any answers for this please?

  2. Hi, one of my frnd said that the dancing sequence in the film was not at all good and sobhana did lots of blunders in that. It was my favourite film and song and I totally disagree with her opinion. She is a dancer and I don’t know much about this mudra and all. What do you think, can anyone comment on the same pls…

  3. I was reminded of this other movie “Ennu Swantham Janakikuttikku“ wherein the heroine͵ again all alone in her sojourns – gets this remarkable Yakshi vision etc – the story told well in MTs inimitable style. And then this other girl in Aranyakom who had this different life changing experience dealing with a hunted naxalite. As close to harsh reality as can be. So we see a similar set of characters growing up through different experiences – but their inner world of rich imagination always growing up and having bigger and bigger roles in shaping up their uncomon actions/behaviours.

  4. Sir,
    Can i see the (NAGAVALLI ghost place )where it’s it or kindly send me the mail. I will be wating for your mail.


  5. Manichithrathazhu is brilliantly crafted entertainer where Shobhana was the main showman, not a penny more not a penny less. I havent found the movie to be a classic in the genre mainly due to the fact of it being disconnected and having too many loose ends. The movie doesnt leave us disturbed – an essential characteristic of the classics in this genre. This can be mainly attributed to the comical touch added to the script and ancillary roles of innocent, pappu et all and also the weakness in script as such. Shobhana however saved the day with an awe inspiring performance and rest of crew was just the icing on the cake. Manichitrathazhu is thoroughly enjoyable every passing year, but can never be elevated to the status of a classic. I refuse to comment on the remakes and rest my case.

  6. Great write-up Vidya, and yes, I agree with you about its flaws – Dr Sunny’s character was a joke; and the ‘treatment’ was, too. Kudos to Shobhana and Thilakan and the others for making it look believable. As for Shobhana receiving a well-deserved National Award, it would have been more appropriate to give it to Shobhana + Bhagyalakshmi. 🙂 Can you separate the excellent dialogue delivery from the expression of it on screen?

    But despite all its flaws, Manichitrathazhu remains one of my favourite films. I even liked Suresh Gopi in the film!

    Thanks, once again.

    1. Thank you, Anu. I totally agree with you- the voice modulation was one of the most important aspects in the portrayal of the dual personality….and probably a very difficult one. But no… don’t even think about it until you begin to analyze the movie. It was that perfect.

  7. Viju,
    I think anybody who intently studies the human mind and has chronic exposure to it, is likely to break a lot of mental barriers for his own self and therefore appears eccentric to people around. But mohan lal’s version here was mere comical. Maybe the character drew inspiration from the psychiatrists you have mentioned here 🙂

    1. i have no other opinion abt LALETTAN’s DR. SUNNY.. think with the mind of film maker… you should understand why SUNNY behaved like that…after al it is a film.. eyed for commercial success.. so i am giving my complete support to its writer for framing an eccentric SUNNY.. minus MOHANLAL’s eccentric Dr. SUNNY.. … can you say MANICHITHRATHAZHU will reach these heights? never… it was an out n out show of shobhana.. i agree.. but the film reaches a diff level when SUNNY enters into frame.. if you watched the film in thetre you still remember the laughter created by SUNNY’s eccentric nature and his dealing with PAPPUvettan.. that is cinema.. it is nothing but MAKE BELIEF… so an full fledged serious approach will definitely destroy the commercial success of the film .. and to portray some eccentric characters on screen… we have none other than MOHANLAL .. his sunny is a bit more MENTAL than what sobhana’s character actually has..

      and if you watch MANICHITRATHAAZHU care fully.. we can see quite a few loose ends in it.. like SOBHANA is throwing a stone to a clock on the wall.. in the malayalam version.. the camera angles clearly define the position of each actors in that scene.. while standing in that position it is impossible for shobhana to do such an act and that too hiding from others, who are present there.. a couple more of such half baked scenes are there in the script.. but in hindi version… all those loose ends are well tightened.. i am not saying hindi version by priyan is equally good as MALAYALAM.. but the fact is it has been framed well by priyan.. SOUNDARYA has given justice to nagavalli in kannada version which is a good film without harming the charm of original one..

      1. Dear Gopalakrishnan,
        I completely agree that from a ‘story’ point of view, Dr Sunny’s character lightened up the otherwise ‘heavy’ movie. It certainly didn’t take away any joy from the movie, it only added to it. I would also say that as long as the disorder portrayed doesn’t stray away too much from reality, the movie does justice to what it wants to convey in terms of the mental illness. It is only perhaps the psychaitrist community which was deeply offended by this comical portrayal of Dr Sunny, even though they must have had their share of laughter 🙂
        That bit on Shobhana throwing a stone was an interesting observation. First of all, it failed technically (as you point out). Secondly, I am not sure if such an unsustained personality switch can occur in this disorder.

  8. Totally agree with you… it was an out and out Shobhana film!! And she deserved the national award she got for it. Nobody could match her in the remakes… Jyothika and Vidya Balan in the Tamil and Hindi remakes. Don’t know who did the Kannada and Telegu version. Tamil was made to suit Rajanikanth’s larger than life personality. Out of the lot I guess Malayalam was the best!!
    Vidya, my experiance with psychiatrists( Was working in a Pharma company with products for Psychiatry) I always felt that they too had a slight element of eccentricity, I mean the majority of them… 🙂

  9. Thank you for all those inputs. I think Shobhana gave life to the character of Nagavalli. She imbibed the character in totality and her competence at dance certainly helped. Her facial expressions and the ease with which she switched from one personality to the other was commendable.The voice modulation was brilliant (was it dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi?)
    A plot by itself, cannot really create an impact. It is how all the ingredients come together and blend effortlessly into the unfolding of the movie that decided the ultimate impact. I think this is where Malayalam movies score over the rest!

  10. Manichitrathazhu was a class movie and no other actress could come close to Shobhana in the various remakes – be it in Tamil, Hindi or Kannada. A sequel had been planned for this movie but it never materialized. a sequel was made to the Kannada remake(Apthamitra) titled Aaptharakshaka – and the same proved to be the swansong of actor Vishnuvardhan. And subject to correction, i believe FLASH was the rehashed script meant for part 2 of Manichitrathazhu.

    1. Flash was the rehashed script meant for part 2 of Manichithrathazhu? Dear sweet God ! Dr Mithun Madhavan, wasn’t it? What an excruciating experience that was. Thinking about now dear Narayan, yes, I can connect the dots 🙂 Phew. cm

    2. The movie that Fazil and Madhu Mattom announced immediately after Manichithrathazhu is yet to take off. I just cant remember the name. Something like Raja/Harsha … About 3-4 years back when Fazil was asked about the project he replied Malayalam audience and movie is not yet ready for the script.

      @Narayan, You remember one discussion in Orkut MMC community about how Manichithrathazhu is so very different from all other Fazil movies that unless you know or are told you cannot guess the director?

      Aptharakshaka was remade in Telugu as Nagavalli.

      1. You can’t tell who the director is because Manichitrathazhu had four directors – Fazil, Priyadrashan, Sibi Malayil and Siddique-Lal. It’s pretty easy to guess which portion Priyadarshan directed.

  11. You should see what the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi versions have done to the film (I guess most readers would have seen at least one of the versions). Yes, it’s Shobana’s movie through and through. Mohanlal is often ridiculous, but that’s probably because he’s portrayed as a kind of genius with an eccentric mind. Anyway it’s one of my favourite movies and I don’t think that it could have been made in its original form in any other language (they have already demonstrated how they can spoil a good movie).

  12. “Mohanlal’s character, to me, was a very absurd and comical portrayal of a psychiatrist. Mohanlal’s treatment approach ( or whatever was written for him by the script-writer) was most ridiculous”

    Couldnt agree more. They way Dr Sunny dealt with Pappu was kind of unbecoming a psychiatrist. Of course this was for comical relief. made me feel that Dr Sunny was only interested in challenging cases

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