Malayalam Cinema has always been candid about its representation of mental illness in its narrative. From the early 1990s till date, a plethora of disorders and therapy procedures have found their way into films. However, it is also notorious for its fair share of stereotypical representations of mental health and those who treat them.
What is the problem with misrepresentation?
It is common knowledge that poetic license allows writers to bend the rules of language and reality to enhance the plot. When mental illness is portrayed in a stigmatised, stereotypical manner, it foregrounds a view that mentally ill characters are not functional human beings. It instils hate and fear in the film-watching population, which also translates into their actions and behaviours in real life.
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According to C.J John, the former president of the I.P.S Kerala, “Moviemakers in the State generally do not have a culture of consulting experts in the field of psychiatry even when they make movies having psychological themes”.
It is necessary to understand the difference between the misrepresentation of mental illness in the media and the stigmatic portrayals of some caricature characters. For example, if a mother-in-law is portrayed as vile and selfish in one film, numerous other films present a more realistic character. Here, one lousy example is insignificant among many others. However, when mentally ill characters are showered with abuses such as ‘branthaan’ and ‘vattan’ or are naturally portrayed as a villain with a backstory, there is a ‘burden of representation’ placed on the shoulders of an entire community which is almost impossible to remedy.
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The Trajectory of Mental Illness in Malayalam Cinema
Manichithrathazhu (1993) is one of the most beloved films in the industry but it is also one of the biggest offenders in the representation department. Ganga is diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder; however, it is pushed away as a state of psychosis that disappears at the end of the film. It does not address the long-lasting effects of the illness or the plight of the survivors, and the confusion that follows. Giving her condition a supernatural twist allowed the writers to disengage the viewers from the psychological disorder narrative and redirect them towards a tale of myths and legends.
Another classic, Kilukam (1991), is notorious for its naive representation of illness. Nandini, the protagonist of the film who is feigning illness, is considered an afterthought and nuisance to the people around her. She is used as a plot device to facilitate comedy and drama, thus, objectifying her and her illness.
Another category of mental health representation in Malayalam cinema is the suicide scene. It is numerous, often dramatic, and followed by a long monologue. Sometimes, it is also used as comedy or a ‘meet-cute’ for the two love interests. Films such as Ente Sooryaputhhrikku (1991) and Happy Husbands (2010) are examples. Other dismal representations of psychological disorders are rampant in Vismayathumbathu, Vellinakshatram, Notebook, Thanthoni, etc.
While there is an obvious track of negative portrayal of psychological illness in Malayalam films, there are positive developments in recent cinema that cannot be left unacknowledged.
One of the primary examples of accurate and heart-wrenching portrayal of depression and grief is Moothon (2019). When the protagonist loses the love of his life to suicide, he falls into a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse. His trauma and fear is the central theme of the character-driven film that presents him as a flawed, broken, real human being who is a product of his circumstances.
Anjaam Pathiraa (2020) is another example of a film that throws light on mental illness while using it as a plot device. It introduces the concept of psychopaths and sociopaths without dehumanising them.
Charlie (2015) subverts the trope of ‘suicide meet-cutes’, thus allowing them to explore emotions and conflicts beyond romance. Dulquer Salman’s Kali (2016) gives the audience an accurate representation of Intermittent Explosive Disorder (I.E.D) and narrates its impacts on those surrounded by him. Theevandi (2018) shifts the narrative to the perspective of addiction and offers an in-depth analysis of how addiction affects the quality of one’s life.
Films are vulnerable cultural artefacts, and they record and recognise the trends of the time. The fact that the representation of mental illness is evolving and is presented in a better light is also proof of the evolving cultural consciousness.