20 January 2007

Second take on Thanmatra

Memory is the foundation of a personality; the memories of the experiences both good and bad that we had mould our personality, our character, our hopes and our aspirations. So, what happens when we start to lose this vital ingredient called memory bit by bit from our life or to put it plainly are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease? The slow but steady wasting away of all our mental faculties, which reduces us be mere vegetables by the end.

A scene from Thanmatra

No doubt it is a petrifying scenario when we are forced to think about it and if this scenario is compressed on celluloid in little more than two hours in a stark manner that is devoid of any outlandish flourish is bound to make you jittery. This is exactly what director Blessy achieved with his film ‘Thanmatra’ (molecule), and made the medical fraternity in Kerala take up cudgels against him, as people who watched this film feared that either they or one of their kin may be afflicted with this disease and the people who have suffered due Alzheimer’s say that the director has beautifully brought out what we went through.

So, if the director had aimed to create awareness about the disease, which can be easily misinterpreted as forgetfulness, he has succeeded at a very basic level, first in describing the illness and later in detail by showing us what a person has to suffer and what his family has to go through when this happens.

And, if the suffering person happens to be an ideal son, husband and father, then the impact on the audience will be immense.

Meet Ramesh Nair (Mohanlal) a personification of above-mentioned qualities – a middle-level employee in the State Secretariat, who in his younger days aspired to be an IAS officer in his younger days as per the wishes of his father, but has now pinned his hopes on his teenaged son Manu (Arjun).

Manu basks in the reflected glory of his father’s knowledge as he presents a project on innovative learning techniques in his school’s science club. These techniques are taught by his father. His father is also invited to PTA meet to counsel other parents on varied subjects like personality development to bringing up children to memory improvement.

Ramesh massages his father’s legs with herbal oil when he visits ancestral home in the village. He also cooks with him reminiscing the good old days.

Being an ideal husband may come easy for such a person; Ramesh dotes on his wife, his past failures and past relationship never coming in the way.

Now if such a person has this depleting disease, what he or the people around him will go through? In the beginning there will be confusion, then shock, some anger, at last acceptance and the courage to face what life has given you.

Initially we feel that the director is trying to spoon feed us about the details of Alzheimer’s as we are shown the hero elaborating the intricacies of it in voice over as if he is explaining to his son. He says it is as if the waves receding into the sea or as if the brain has started reverse counting slowly taking back all that we have learnt; taking us back to our childhood and ultimately towards death or words to that effect. This happens after Ramesh is diagnosed with pre-senile Alzheimer’s and the doctor saying that it is the caregiver who needs the treatment/support and not the patient. The docudrama style of narration even has the mention of Roland Reagan as one of the famous persons who suffered this disease.

But Blessy wins with the script (he got the State Award as the scriptwriter and for direction, in all ‘Thanmatra’ garnered five State awards). He loops it in such a way to show the complete turnaround of the character of protagonist. It begins with simple things as he cannot remember the pet name of his childhood beloved and the words of his favourite Bharathiar song. Then it moves on to frustration and anger on misplacing an important file. At last creating a scene in the office thinking that it is home, this leads to his hospitalisation and diagnosis.

The rest of the incidents in the film go on show the reverse counting of the brain; Ramesh’s condition deteriorating with him behaving as a child. The contrast in the pre-intermission and post-intermission personality of sometimes becomes unbearable; especially when we see him lying dead in a foetal position in the end with a dishevelled look on his face because once we remember him chiding his wife to wear her Sari properly telling her that his mother used say that you should be made up even if you are lying dead. It signifies that the person has lost everything he stood for in his life.

There are some points in this film where the use of cinematic licence goes overboard. One, the nuclear family is picture perfect, how come there are no differences of opinion or minor fights? Here the head of the family is an all-knowing demigod. Here the son follows his father’s diktats without slightest opposition or grudge and the daughter is too young to have an opinion.

Second, the doctor just pacifies Ramesh, (when he goes to him for the first time worried about his memory lapses), saying that he may be having an anxiety syndrome because his son is appearing for Board Exams. In this day and age when even a minor migraine is looked at with utmost seriousness by medical professionals this kind of response is least digestible (or is that they wanted to show that the doctors may also fail to notice the symptoms initially).

In conclusion we can use a quote by Nobel laureate Saul Bellow that "Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door." In ‘Thanmatra’ director poignantly shows what can happen if that wolf enters our home.

(A slightly edited version of this appeared in the Oct-Dec 2006 issue of Success & Ability. I had written a review of it earlier and also interviewed Blessy. Here I have tried only to focus on Alzheimer’s disease).