Thaniyavarthanam: A Psychological Analysis

Thaniyavarthanam is a 1987 Malayalam drama film written by A. K. Lohithadas and directed by Sibi Malayil. The term “Thaniyavarthanam” can be translated to “Repeating Rhythm”. It implies that “insanity is repeated”. The movie depicts the life of a Government school teacher Bala Gopalan (Mammootty) who slips into insanity due to some tragic events in his life. 

The movie is regarded as one of the most realistic psychological dramas from the Malayalam industry. And Mammooka was praised for his stunning performance. Apart from these two, there is one other factor that makes this a timeless classic – its screenplay.

Diathesis-Stress Model Used in Thaniyavarthanam

The screenplay by Lohithadas stands out even today because of its scientific accuracy and realistic depiction. Lohithadas has made use of a very famous theory from psychopathology to explain the life of Bala Gopalan. The theory is called the “Diathesis-Stress Model”. This theory was first introduced in the field of psychopathology by American Clinical Psychologist Paul Meehl in the 1960s for explaining schizophrenia. This model explains the causation of mental disorders in humans.

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The term “diathesis” means predisposition or vulnerability. The presence of mental disorders in any member of the family can increase the probability of mental disorders in other members due to the transfer of genes. This probability, due to genetic factors, is called a diathesis or vulnerability. The Diathesis-Stress Model states that diathesis only causes a mental disorder when it interacts with a strong environmental factor like stress. In the absence of such environmental factors, a diathesis alone cannot cause a disorder.

The Unstoppable Rhythm

Bala Gopalan is from a family with an ancestral history of schizophrenia, and this means that there is a vulnerability factor within him. This didn’t affect his personality as he was leading a healthy life free of environmental triggers. But a curse plagues the family. They believe that mental disorders transfer from one generation to the next in their family; and when a person with a mental illness dies, someone else in the family will start displaying the disorder. This was like an unstoppable rhythm!  

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Bala Gopalan’s normal life takes an unexpected turn when his schizophrenic uncle dies. Society starts believing that he is the next victim of the curse. As a result, people started behaving strangely towards him. They start isolating him and subject him to different kinds of humiliations. Even his own students start calling him “mad”.


Eventually, the principal forces him to take a long leave. The condition is not different at home either. In his own house, his family forces him to undergo spiritual treatments when he was completely normal. His only relief was his wife and children who leave eventually.

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All these factors induce a severe amount of stress and affect his thoughts and perceptions. This continuous exposure to environmental stressors finally makes Bala Gopalan a full-blown schizophrenic. As the Diathesis-Stress model says the vulnerability factors (genes from ancestors) interact with the environmental factors (severe stress from others) to cause the disorder. This was how a 1987 Malayalam film perfectly blended the biological and environmental constraints in explaining insanity. What’s important to note that people didn’t give importance to mental health during this period. However, Lohithadas managed to give a picture-perfect screenplay in Thaniyavarthanam. This was the main reason why Thaniyavarthanam stands as a timeless classic!

Apart from scientific accuracy, the filmmakers have tried to covey strong mental health awareness. They point to the fact that Bala Gopalan wouldn’t have been a victim if there was no “curse” or if he wasn’t exposed to the scrutiny of society. Even in the 2020s, this message has a great significance as we live in a collectivistic culture. Society is inevitable but the human mind is fragile and if we can’t keep a boundary between the self and society the outcomes can be fatal.

And the Rhythm will continue…!

Jesty Sunny
Behavioural Science Student

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