Malayalam Movie Mindscapes | Ulladakkam (1991)

Mohanlal in Ulladakkam( SPOILERS AHEAD )

If we were to chart the journey of our inner minds, we would realize that the paths it chooses are part of an infinite maze. The mind ventures through these paths and when we have traveled too far in this maze, we are lost. A certain fear grips us because we no longer know the way out or the way back. We find ourselves surrounded by unfamiliarity and uncertainty. This is how the movie unfolds. A dream, wherein Dr Sunny (Mohan Lal) finds himself trapped in such a maze and wakes up in cold sweat. The dream is symbolic of our powerlessness over our own minds. This is also verbalized later in the movie – ‘Our minds are beyond us. They are not bound by the logic of our thoughts.’ In my opinion, this is a crucial aspect of human psychology which people (doctors and psychiatrists included) choose to overlook.

The movie introduces us to a very composed, reflective and composed Dr Sunny (quite different from the eccentric Dr Sunny in Manichithrathazhu) who has a personal interest in treating his patient Reshma (Amala Akkineni) with an acute psychosis condition -she is also the dear sister of his best friend.

Sunny is led to Reshma’s room, where he catches a glimpse of the trashed-out room, with Reshma crouching in a corner, in a highly agitated state. She is later brought to the hospital, and we see her less agitated, but with a vacant expression, suggestive of a dissociation from her surroundings. While she is managed with tranquilizers, Sunny probes into her background. He discovers a few clues in her diary. There are traits of heightened emotionality in her writings- letters to her mother who passed away when she was ten. Her brother adds that she had a transient psychotic episode when their mother had passed away.

Sunny tries to explore the trigger for the current psychotic episode. From the placards he shows her, he gathers that there is a connection with the sea, for Reshma becomes highly agitated when she sees a placard depicting the sea. With further clues, he associates it to the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend, Arun. He subjects Reshma to hypnosis and elicits the whole story of how a mafia group closes in on the duo at the beach, and kill Arun, whose body is washed into the sea, while Reshma watches helplessly.

Amala in Ulladakkam
Amala as Reshma

Reshma’s psychosis is a portrayal of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is more common in women, especially if there is a history of childhood trauma (loss of a parent, in this case). When subsequently exposed to severe stress (witnessing Arun’s brutal murder in this case), these individuals are unable to come to terms with the event, and depict dissociation and avoidance to it. There is amnesia for the event – they resist remembering the details of the trauma and therefore do not allow themselves to experience the negative emotions associated with the trauma. The depict a phobia for this unpleasant memory. Any stimulus triggering a memory of the event can therefore cause severe agitation and psychosis (In this case, the sea placard, questions pertaining to the event, etc). The dissociation can be severe enough to hamper with their ability to concentrate and focus on their real life. They can also have recurrent nightmares relating to the event. In this case, at a conscious level, Reshma is aware of Arun’s death. But her unconscious resists this fact, creating a conflict between the two. Her unconscious suppresses the unpleasant memory/fact, and hence the name ‘Ulladakkam’.

Therapy for this disorder is essentially cognitive therapy and exposure therapy. The movie focusses on exposure therapy (helping the patient re-experience the event in real or imaginary terms so that they lose phobia for the components of the memory). Reshma is made to narrate the event and she is also given a guarded exposure to the sea, which cures her of her sea phobia. And thus, we see Reshma gradually recovering from her dissociation. She focusses on her surroundings and develops a special bonding with one of the inmates (Sukumari), in whom she sees a mother figure.

Her recovery is complicated by her fundamental emotional insecurity and dependent personality. When Sukumari is discharged from the asylum, Reshma’s unconscious seeks a strong replacement for Arun and she clings to Sunny. Sunny’s personality and his degree of involvement with Reshma makes it easy for her to transfer her emotions for Arun towards Sunny. With an unconscious that refuses to come to terms with Arun’s permanent loss, and that refuses to acknowledge the loss of a relationship in which Reshma’s involvement was overt (with dependence), Reshma’s unconscious tranfers the relationship to the receptive and reciprocative Sunny (the phenomenon of transference, described by Freud). And thus, her dependence shifts to Sunny.

The movie brings on an interesting statement in the conversation between Soman and Sunny – “Reshma’s behaviour has a definite basis/justification in psychiatry. However, it has no justification in our social set-up. It can only be misunderstood.” This is a very important statement because from time to time, we all experience such undefined emotions that have a psychological basis, but have no place in society. Fortunately, most of us do not have the courage to explore these emotions and follow the paths they would lead us to. However, for those few whose unconscious signals are too strong to be suppressed, the choice is between ignoring society and mental illness.

And thus, Reshma associates closely with Sunny, oblivious to the consequences of this emotional closeness. A sudden jolt in the form of a conversation she overhears brings her to this relaization, and she makes a conscious effort to dettach from Sunny. She succeeds (at the expense of the unabated emotions which are still seeking a recipient). Much to the relief of everybody else, she returns to a solitary world of books and thoughts.
The movie takes a final turn when at Sunny’s wedding party, Reshma finds herself disturbed by the sound of the drums and the sight of the drummer (Arun was a drummer). In a fit of psychosis, Reshma murders Sunny’s wife, Annie. This also goes on to highlight that while the conscious stores the event largely in the form of verbal memory, the unconscious stores a memory as an assortment of multiple perceptions (visual/auditory/tactile/olfactory), each associated with a certain stimulus. All these are eventually integrated to form the final memory which is then fed to the conscious for processing. My outlook on this second bout of psychosis is that though Reshma is cured of her phobia with regard to the traumatic event she witnessed, she has not come to acceptance of Arun’s loss. Her mind continues to resist this fact, and any stimulus which is a reminder of Arun’s loss, sets off the psychosis. The psychiatrist has addressed her PTSD, but not the underlying insecurity and dependence that is part of her personality.

I do not wish to explore the realism with which the other patients in the asylum are portrayed because that is not the focus of the movie. In my opinion, this movie is very sound in its exploration of PTSD and transference. The characterization of Reshma as a candidate for PTSD is brilliant. She is as human as any of us, perhaps more so. With a personality that is all emotionality and the loss of a parent early in her life, her quest for love and a sense of belonging supercede all her other needs from life. This pursuit is the central goal of her life. There is none of the certain selfishness and practicality that is essential in surviving (sanity intact) in a world where environmental stressors are inevitable.

In fact, this relative selflessness and the overt centering on the need for love characterize the fundamental personality of a good many individuals who become victims of certain mental illnesses.
Ousepachan’s BGM adds to the experience of the movie; it has a quality that compliments the mood of the movie and contributes to the sense of powerlessness and helplessness we experience as we live through Reshma’s emotional trauma.

And of course, the songs have their place- Pathira mazha in particular.

Pathiramazha from Ulladakkam (1991)

8 thoughts on “Malayalam Movie Mindscapes | Ulladakkam (1991)

  1. Vidya
    Thanks for your excellent article, rather an elaborate and in depth analysis on the complexities of human psychology. I feel that actually this a technical study on the theme of the film and to appreciate, you have to read it two times. Congrats. Is it right to say that the conscious/sub conscious conflict here is different from the question of split personality dealt in the 1960 Hollywood film Psycho?

    In your reply to Suzy, you mentioned that Science is yet to decipher the mysteries of human mind. You remember the 1975 film Chandanachola? There is a song in this film – Hrudayam Marannu Naanayatuttinte… written by Moopath Ramachandran (Music composed by K J Joy). In the charanam the poet says …

    Oru Sastra Grundhavum innolam Kandilla
    Manamenna Pratibhaasam Sookshmamaayi…

    Cherian Kalpakavaady wrote the story of the film and screenplay by P Balachandran. Lets hope that these two will read and respond.

    The two songs worth to mention in this film are Anthiveyil and Paatiramazha. Anthiveyil is the song i vote to be the first among the two. Composed in misra Sivaranjini, the BGM part, as you pointed out is a real treat with the effective synchronisation of piano, guitar, flute, the strings and the humming part in the interlude before charanam. I feel that the anupallavi of paatiramazha is more effective than its pallavi. Just listen

    Thanks a lot and expect more studies from you in the future


    B Sajith

    1. Dear Sajith,
      As always, your comments add value to my thoughts! You are right in saying that this is a technical analysis of the movie. In my opinion, some movies are worth being incorporated into the curriculum of psychiatry training. A visual medium, especially one borrowed from life, would create a far greater impact on a student than a text per se.
      Indeed, the conscious-subconscious conflict here is different from the ‘dissociative identity disorder’ portrayed in ‘Psycho’. Reshma’ dissociation represents her failure to ‘internalize’ a traumatic event; the dissociation is only with respect to the event, and not with respect to her personality. However, in the movie Psycho, Norman Bates depicts moments of dissociation from his fundamental personality as well. He kills his mother and thereby commits a crime that his mind doesn’t come to terms with. So there is certainly a denial of this event. But his mind goes several steps ahead and pathologically empathizes with the victim (his mother), as an escape route from his own negative feelings in relation to the crime. In my opinion, pathological empathy forms the basis of DID, which we also analysed in Manichithra thaazhu. Of course, one can view all this as part of a spectrum of dissociation.

      Thank you for the verses of that poem ( I have hardly watched movies that date back to beyond the 90s….please don’t ask me what I am doing here on old Malayalam cinema 🙂 Indeed, no science can ever decode the human mind in all its detail, for it is infinity that we carry in our heads. The irony being that we are alien to what we harbour within our own unconscious! What motivates us and drives our behaviour is perhaps the most complex aspect of the human brain, for this differs from person to person, based on both the genetic make-up and the environmental factors we are exposed to.

      ‘Anthiveyil’ in isolation, was no doubt, a more intricate song than ‘Paathira mazha’, but I found the latter more in line with the progression of the movie- it takes us through the overpowering sense of loss that Reshma experiences.
      Thank you once again!

    1. Dear Yoonus,
      Impressive that they dealt with such a rare and complex theme in that era! But from what I read of the plot, the ending seems to be slightly different, with the girl coming to terms with reality. Thank you for reading.

  2. It was a fine film with a theme to think of the mind’s proportions.Fine acting by Sri Mohanlal and Amala in lead characters.

  3. Susie,
    Medical science has made so much progress in terms of understanding the functioning of the different systems of the human body, but when it comes to the human mind, it remains a mystery. From what the unconscious projects through the conscious, we need to decipher what lies beneath in the abyss of the unconscious. This is what makes the study of the human mind fascinating.
    You must watch this movie, Susie. Kamal has done a brilliant job!

  4. Wow, Vidya. What an in depth analysis of this movie. I really enjoyed reading it. Now it makes me want to see it.

    I agree with you that the full extent of such trauma on the mind is not yet fully understood because the immense capabilities of the human mind has not been mapped out in full.

    Looking forward to read more from you.

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