Shades of insanity have held a special fascination for Malayalam cinema. From the 60s on, we see in our films a distinct leaning toward scripts plumbing into human mind’s grim depths. Iruttinte Atmavu, Yakshi and Vazhve Mayam have become crucial reference points in our reel journeys. While many such films depicted individual cases of mental aberrations, it didn’t take long for the mental asylum itself to become a vital part of cinematic spectacle. Did the psychological illness and the social systems we’ve set up to `heal’ or `normalize’ sick minds become unwittingly a fodder for commercial cinema? Thalavattam, Ulladakkam and Aham are perhaps the obvious flicks that spring to our minds. But perhaps it was Sankhupushpam that pioneered the genre in 1977, if I could use that word for a set of films that make mental asylums an integral part of the screenplay. Viewers have always lapped this up all over the world, or else we wouldn’t have had a classic like One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. In Malayalam cinema, the thread of romance and heartbreak is a vital lead to the horrors of the collapsing mind.
Unsettling still are my memories of watching Sankhupushpam directed by Baby. Barely into high school in the late 70s, the film left me deeply disturbed, sad and scared. But somehow I treasured the experience. And I distinctly remember being haunted not by the tragic love story between the singer Gopi (Soman) and the doctor Devi (Vidhubala), but by the vignettes of the mental asylum that I was getting exposed to for the first time. Perhaps our generation itself was getting a first peek through cinema into institutionalized madness and to the official habitation of the abnormal. Or maybe there is this mystique around this house of madness, a dark curiosity that cinema plays upon deftly at times, sometimes vaguely, but very often with a pathetic and criminal clumsiness. It was a decade when the medical world and its discourse played a central role in quite a few romantic screenplays, other popular ones being Madanotsavam, Hrudayam Oru Kshethram etc. In spite of the disquiet it instilled, the impressions the film made in the form of images, moods, gestures, smiles, sounds and dialogues have stayed with me, making me alternately melancholic and curious. Perhaps in the annals of Indian cinema, Malayalam cinema leads the way in its pronounced engagement with deviant minds and particularly with the ways in which we have institutionalized this deviance.
Co-written by our own eccentric genius Surasu and actor Vijayan who I deeply admire for his intense though diabolic presence in Uthiripookkal , the script speaks of another ethos where men and women respected each other’s spaces, choices and decisions. And watching Vidhubala unfold as a mature adult, a conscientious doctor and a strong individual, I do feel a little proud of a dignified lineage of heroines. In these days when movies build their own popular brands of misogyny and masculinity from Action Hero Biju to Kasaba, it’s occasionally useful to look back on our journey. Built around the kernel of a blossoming romance between Devi and Gopi, the plot complicates itself with the entry of a girl who has literally lost her mind over Gopi’s music. Gopi is forced to don the role of a lover to bring her back to normalcy and to recover her memory, a mission with which an initially reluctant Devi reconciles much to her own misfortune. Music becomes a major motif which paradoxically unites a pair and estranges another. And the yearning notes of sitar set the ambience of separation, loss and pining. A whole generation hummed along a dreamy ‘Ayiram ajantha chithrangalil’ as Soman labored to bring back the gift of memories to a lovelorn girl.
A major part of the film is imagined within the mental asylum. The different dimensions of the unsound minds you see here prefigure many films of the 80s and 90s. One could well say that the `abnormal’ as conceived by the creative minds of Surasu and Vijayan are symbols of the obsessions of the Malayalee. You’ve an erstwhile political activist shouting slogans who couldn’t be a more stinging caricature of a failed revolutionary. Yet, it is a caricature edged with somber shadows, and the death of this old disillusioned comrade spouting blood could well be the fadeout of a political dream. His character (enacted by Nilambur Balan) is laced with such compassion that makes him more than just an individual psychic case. Surasu himself essays the role of a Kathakali artist crazy about his art and uses the distinctive mudras of this dance form, fusing the flames of frenzy and creativity. And there is K.P.A.C. Lalitha’s tender Amina portrayed as a woman caught between unrealized motherhood and a demanding marital family. Gender dimensions are subtly knit into the scenes woven around Amina. Thus the madness represented here is a pointer to the larger social malaise.
This film is interestingly open ended with Devi’s mirthless laughter echoing down the corridors of the hospital. As the film ends tentatively on the close-up of a laughing Devi, the viewers take home the enigmatic question “is she the next entrant into the asylum?” We are reminded of Karthika who too as the doctor in Thalavattam ends up as a patient, but here the director lets the viewer take over. At the heart of the script is bewilderment at ‘penninte manassu’ or the mind of the woman which itself is a fantasy springing out of a gendered perspective.
Madness or abnormality represented on screen has always been seen as surefire generators of mirth which calls into question the complex ideology of humor. Did Sankhupushpam set the formula for films of this kind with the first half going boisterous with mad capers and the second half plunging into despondency and gloom?
The plot thickens around the irony of the physician unable to heal herself. Dr. Devi’s dilemma is not of a mere woman dejected and crushed by a love which cannot fulfil itself. She is a medical professional caught between her professional ethics and her human desires. Vidhubala’s Devi exudes strength, determination and composure. She is conceived as a woman who has firm decisions of her own and doesn’t dither from walking out on her rich father when he stands in the way of her love. This must be one of the rare films of the times to portray a single woman going out on a rather late night walk in the city.
But to me, then and now, the most unbelievable surprise and relief in the film is Dr. Venu with his cheeky sense of humor, witticisms and an irreverent approach that undercuts the syrupy sentimentalism and theatricality in other actors’ dialogues and their body language. Most convincingly and pleasingly enacted by a dashing young Sukumaran who had a way with dialogues, the role remains one of his enduring ones. In a way, through Sukumaran’s sharp and no nonsense oneliners, the scriptwriters were actually cocking a snook at the conventional fare of melodrama and stylized dialogue renditions which people were getting weary of. In Sukumaran’s gestures, movement and understated expressions, we get glimpses of a new sensibility, possibilities of a new tone and hopes of a different visual grammar. A different hero, down to earth and caring, was in the making. Endearing is the bonding between Venu and Devi crackling with lighthearted humor, genuine friendship, sophistication and grace .
Many websites may tell you that Baby who has directed more than fifty films in Malayalam is better known for horror flicks like Lisa and Veendum Lisa. But to me this film marks a significant milestone in our cultural narrative, in its nuanced portrayal of the porous borders between the sane and the insane. It foretells the more maddening times to come in our films and social lives.
(Photo credit: Freaktography via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
jutakyo via Foter.com / CC BY-ND)
(This is the sixth article in a series that aims to remind readers about some important Malayalam films that are worth revisiting.)