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.
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.