The Unsound Mind in Malayalam Cinema

Iruttinte Athmavu - Velayudhan undergoes another exorcism
Iruttinte Athmavu – Velayudhan undergoes another exorcism

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.

By and large, most movies have used these themes as a backdrop for their plot. Some explore the behaviour that characterizes a particular mental illness –  {Vadakkunokki Yanthram (1989), Thanmathra (2005) }. Yet others explore the fragility and inherent sensitivity of minds that easily wander across the thin line that separates ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’  { Ulladakkam (1991), Novemberinte nashtam (1982) }. These movies bring out the extreme need and craving for love that characterizes certain personality types, and therefore the extreme emotional dependance and vulnerability that they exhibit.

From Vadakkunokkiyanthram (1989)

Some movies have explored mental retardation  { Kakkathollayiram (1991), Sooryamanasam(1992) }. The characters in these movies are portrayed as people who apart from their childish innocence, have immense capability for love (which is often true). This makes us fall in love with these characters. Some have brilliantly explored the manifestations and roots of certain complex mental disorders  – Manichithra thazhu (1993).

In terms of accuracy of portrayal, it is natural that extreme and florid manifestations of the illness are portrayed. However, most do fit into some scientific category of mental health disorder. Contrary to most other regional movies, Malayalam cinema has dealt with mental illness rather seriously and scientifically  – Thalavattam ( 1986 ) is a notable exception !

From Thalavattam (1986).

Perhaps the area where it has failed miserably is on its explorations of psychotherapy. The depiction of a mental health asylum and the brutality of electroconvulsive therapy portrayed in Thalavattam still haunts many of us. And this is quite contrary to the real scenario.This negative portrayal creates a fear of admissions and of therapy. Also, the psychiatrist’s personality and his approach is made rather absurd and eccentric, as was the case with Manichithrathazhu. Probably, a collaboration between the mental health sector and the film industry could contribute to eliminating ambiguity. In this context, it would also be worthwhile to explore the role of some of these films in medical teaching and as psychotherapy.

In the past, these movies have never isolated the mind from its illness- this has been the brilliance of these movies. However, as Malayalam movies become more formula driven, there seems to be a tendency to focus on the formula (the mental illness) in isolation from the mind which has driven the illness – { Bi-polar disorder in Vadakkumnathan (2006), Alzheimer’s disease in Thanmathra (2005)  } –  a mere dramatization of illness, removing from it the human component. This is what we must refrain from.

By and large, these movies have helped us realize that human minds can be most fragile and therefore need to be handled with utomost care. They have forced us to introspect on our own behaviour and also shaped our attitude to mental illness. They have also perhaps increased our sensitivity to the numerous ailing and aching minds that surround us.

It is in this context that I intend to write about how the Unsound Mind has been portrayed in Malayalam cinema, the cinematic liberties the directors/script-writers have taken in either diluting or plain hiding of of certain fundamental aspects which at most times, sadly,  leave the wrong impression in an unsuspecting viewer’s mind. I do hope that these short notes pave way for furthur constructive discussions on the topic and the screenplays, going forward.

First up : Manichitrathazhu (1993)

41 thoughts on “The Unsound Mind in Malayalam Cinema

  1. ഇങ്ങനെ ഇപ്പോഴും ഷോക്ക് കൊടുക്കുന്ന രീതി ഉണ്ടോ

  2. കലാമൂല്യം എ്ന്തായാലും മലയാളസിനിമകള്‍ മാനസികത്തകരാറുള്ളവർക്ക് പ്രത്യാശയും ആദരവും നൽകുന്നില്ല. അനേകം മനോരോഗികളുമായ നിത്യേന സമ്പർക്കം പുലർത്തുന്ന എനിയ്ക്ക് മലയാള സിനിമ രോഗികളോടും ചികിത്സകരോടും വൈദ്യശാസ്ത്രത്തിനോടും നീതി പുലർത്തുന്നതായി തോന്നുന്നില്ല. മാനസികത്തകരാറുള്ളവർ ദുഖിതരായിരിക്കാം, കോപാകുലരായിരിക്കാം, നിരാശരായിരിക്കാം, ,സംശയാലുക്കളായിരിക്കാം, പക്ഷെ നമ്മെപ്പോലെ തന്നെ വ്യക്തിത്വവും ആത്മാഭിമാനവും കഴിവുകളും ഉള്ളവരാണ്. അവരെ മന്ദബുദ്ധികളും കോമാളികളുമായിട്ടാണ് പല മലയാളസിനിമകളും ചിത്രീകരിക്കുന്നത്. സിനിമകള്‍ പെരയുന്ന കഥകള്‍ രോഗികള്‍ക്കും അവരെ കെയർ ചെയ്യുന്നവർക്കും അപമാനകരമായിത്തോന്നരുത്. രോഗികളുടെ കോമാളിത്തം കണ്ട് ആസ്വദിക്കുന്ന ഓരോ മലയാളിയും അവരുടെ നേരേ ഓരോ കല്ല് എറിയുകയാണ്. രോഗികള്‍ക്ക് തങ്ങളെത്തന്നെ സിനിമയിൽ കാണാൻ കഴിയുന്ന രോഗവിമുക്തിയും പ്രത്യാശയും നൽകുന്ന സിനിമകള്‍ ഉണ്ടാകുമെന്ന് ആഗ്രഹിക്കാം

    1. Manish,
      Thalavattom depicts electroconvulsive therapy. The reference to it in this movie is also in a rather negative manner. Ulladakkam also has a scene depicting ECT.

  3. What comes to my mind is Jack Nicholson asking for the baseball game and Mohanlal asking for the song.. And the end results are entirely different… One Flew has a classic scene while the Malayalam counterpart has a song.. The movies cant really be compared.. Best portrayal I will give it to Prem Nazeer for Iruttinte Athmavu

  4. Mazhayethum Munpe dealt with an obsessive character who creates chaos around her owing to her obsession, and ends up hurting the object of her obsession, almost irredemably

  5. Interesting write-up Vidya. Other additions can include ennu swantham janakikutty, nandanam, njan gandharvan. Although they can be classified under the fantasy genre, it could be argued that the ‘figures’ they conjure up are creations of their own minds due to the incompatibility with the family/ system. Can anyone tell me the plot of sankhupushpam? i.e. with character and actor names. is it not available in the market?

    1. Dear Viswas

      Shanghupushpam incidently is the remake of the old Hindi movie Khamoshi which stared Rajesh Khanna, Waheeda Rehman and Dharmendra. The actors in Shanghupushpam are Vidhubala, Sukumaran…


    2. sankupushpam was the rem,ake of 1969 classic hit KHAMOSHI (rajesh khanna, waheeda rehman).. in malayalam version, soman, sukumaran, vidhubala … it is not available in market… since this film is often telecasted in ASIANET , i think a commercial copy will soon hit the market…

      1. was just reading Kodambakkam: Black and White. Incidentally the role portrayed by Sukumaran in Shankupushpam was first offered to Ravi menon (the actor) who refused the same. the costliest mistake he made

  6. very good write up and an innovative take on this genre . Having seen most in this genre i couldnt agree more with ur comments . Malayalam cinema has greater respect for the mentally ill than malayali soceity . Yes it does a better job even better than hollywood .. beautiful mind for example .. Thaniyavarthanam i think was based on a falsely accused mentally ill but that too was too good …Keep writing …

    1. Thank you, Haroon 🙂
      Malayalam cinema was often a reflection of what stood out in an otherwise conservative and pejorative society. It was a liberation from social entrapments. It broke convention and was way ahead of its times in the manner in which dealth with multiple themes including mental illness.

    2. Hey, dont forget Putturumees from SOORYAMANASAM.
      I think Malayalam cinema goes to two extremes – when portraying mental illnes/ unsound mind. Its either poignant depiction as in Thaniyavarthanam or downright hilarity as seen in KILUKKAM KILUKILUKKAM, FIRST BELL, JUNIOR MANDRAKE and more recently DOCTOR PATIENT. In the last three movies instability makes room for comedy.

  7. Balachandra menon’s Ithiri Neram Othiri Karyam is also of this genre, again loosely based on One flew over…Also Kilukkam’s pretend unsound mind of Revathy comes to mind..

    1. Benjamin, haven’t seen the former. But Kilukkam- Revathy in assoaciation with Jagathy, certainly made it hilarious. Yet another movie that comes to mind in this context is ‘ishtamanu pakshe’. The central character played by Ambika has an extreme obsession for books. To the point that her husband starts wondering if it reflects a mental illness.

  8. Brilliant piece, Vidya. After reading your blog, I sincerely wish that your words will inspire someone to produce a movie reflecting the daily life of people from both inside and outside the walls of a dementia ward. By people I mean both the caregivers as well as its residents. I am positive that such a movie will inspire as well as humble many lives.

    1. Ajit, thank you for reading. The beauty of malayalam movies in the past was that they eliminated the line between life and cinema. I sincerely hope the industry will make a comeback and continue to inspire!

  9. nice thought vidya.. and you said you have not touched upon all the movies in your series.. but i think LALETTAN’s SOAP KUTTAPPAN will come under this category.. right?? (movie PAADAMUDRA)…

    prem nazir has remarkably done another unsound minded role in the love triangle ASTHAMIKKATHA PAKALUKAL.. also in PAATHIRAVUM PAKALVELICHAVUM, his character became a mental patient in the 2nd half of the movie when he marries sreelatha after a love failure with jayabharathi.. and his role in thikkurissi’s SARASWATHI is also quite a decent one to mention here…. here is the clip of the movie (in case if you have not seen it) (a fine scene from the movie)

    ULLADAKKAM also comes into our mind when we talk about this topic.. and i am sure audience never forget movie KAAKKATHOLLAYIRAM and the role played by, easily the best versatile actress of malayalam cinema, URVASI… plenty of old movies are there in my mind regarding this topic.. have written down a few memorable movies here…

    1. Dear Gopalakrishnan,
      Thank you for enlightening. I must make it a point to watch these movies some time. There will be a post on Ulladakkam shortly.

    2. gopalji…wasnt there another movie in which Nazir portrayed a nnot so sane person. he is not mentally distubed – but has the IQ of a 10- 12 year old. is a colour movie and i think might hve beenmade in the early Eighties. More than Nazeer- i remember jagathi in that movie- he comes as a person deployed by the Govt to promote birth control….forcing men to undergo vasectomy. I still remeber his phrase”oru muttu soochi kuthunnavedana…kittunnatho 50 roopayum oru bucketum///”

    1. VIJU BHAI .. your guess abt CHUVANNA SANDHYAKAL is right.. i have told you many times abt that film and its story….. hope you remember… and THALAVATTOM .. (yes i agree a one flew over cuckoos nest).. but if PRIYAN says.. he has taken the story line from HEMANT KUMAR’s KHAMOSHI (1969) then you have to say that PRIYAN is right… english film is based on a novel written in 1962.. but i say.. THALAVATTOM is more similar to the story line of KHAMOSHI and PAGLA KAHIN KA.. you will agree with me if you watch all these 4 films… once again…

      1. Gopal I think Shankhupushpam was Khamoshi!! Isn’t it? I still feel Thalavattom as inspired by One flew over the cuckood nest!!

      1. One Flew over the cuckoos nets is a fine movie…no doubt about it….but Priyan totally gave a malayalee touch to his version- bringing the story closer to home. i liked both

        1. The similarity is hard to ignore. I would say ‘Thalavattam’ was an Indian adaptation of ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’. Both fundamentally brought into perspective the general attitude that prevails in a mental health asylum, particularly in those times when psychiatry had perhaps not developed to this extent. I must say that though modes of therapy have changed over the years, there are still a good many asylums where the ‘caretakers’ take advantage of the mental illness and subject these patients to brutal physical assault. Both these movies draw an important conclusion: To the caretakers, the inmates were insane. But to the inmates, the brutal caretakers were equally insane. More on ‘thalavattam’ in a subsequent post.

  10. Good one Vidya!! Looking forward to your take on all these movies. And Sajith, yes what you said is so true have watched all the movies you mentioned except Chuvanna Sandhyakal, again a Manjilas production with Mohan and Lakshmi in the lead! Is it not?

    1. Dear Viju
      In the film Chuvanna Sandhyakal, Mohan and Lekshmi are lovers. Lakshmi is dumb. But lekshmi dies. Subsequently, in the odd hours people find a phantom figure wearing the saree of lekshmi roaming. Another day, the figure strangled Sujatha, another charecter. Actually, it was the mentally deranged mohan who was doing this mischief. The film is also credited with a few good songs also. Almost all Manjila Films are available in the market. But i dont know what happened to the print of this film.


      1. not all films of MANJILAS are available sajith bhai.. only those films of MANJILAS that asianet channel has telecasted (except DEVI) so far has released in market (obviously copied from channels) classic MANJILAS films like CHUKKU… CHUVANNA SANDHYAKAL, KALIYUGAM etc wont reach the market unless any of the tv channels will telecast it (sadly the above mentioned films are not in the library of any channels… only HOPE FOR US IS TO GET A VIDEO CASSETTE somewhere from this earth)… that sums up the RESOURCES of our malayalam old video CD/DVD releasing companies!!!

  11. K S Sethumadhavan presented a few Malayalam films that can be included in this category. Punarjanmam, based on a case history published by famous atheist and psychiatrist A. T. Kovoor was the best. Another film that i can remember is Chuvanna Sandhyakal and i believe Yakshi and Vaazhvemaayam can also be included here. In punarjanmam, Prem Nazir takes of the role of the psychic, Mahan in Chuvanna Sandhyakal and Sathyan in Yakshi and Vaazhvemaayam. All these films were produced by Manjilas.
    In the late sixties, Neela Productions released a film titled Karutha Raatrikal which is the remake of the famous R L Stevenson novel Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Madhu appeared in the main role


    1. Thank you for the add-ons, Sajith. I must say the list is rather extensive and I have written this piece based on the few movies I have seen.
      I haven’t watched ‘karutha raatrikal’, but if it is based on the Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde novel, wouldn’t it be more fictional than portraying a mental illness…..apart from the fact that there is an element of dual personality in it?

    1. Rajesh,
      I haven’t touched upon all the movies here, though I would say thaniyavarthanam deserves a place here on account of the social dimension of mental illness that it portrays. I think it is a movie I would like to reflect on, in a subsequent post. Thank you for that note.

  12. അന്യന്‍ എന്നാ സിനിമയും ഈ ഗണത്തില്‍ വരുമല്ലോ
    വര്‍ഷങ്ങള്‍ക്കു മുന്‍പ് ഇറങ്ങിയ ആയിരം അഭിലാഷങ്ങളില്‍ രതീഷ്‌ ഇത് പോലുള്ള ഒരു വേഷം ചെയ്തതായി ഓര്‍ക്കുന്നു
    മാനസിക വിഭ്രാന്തി വരുമ്പോള്‍ ആളുകളെ കൊല്ലുന്ന വേഷം

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