The Social Cut | Thanmatra: Interrogating Memory


The Social Cut is a monthly column that critically analyses various media shows, movies and documentaries, from an intersectionalist feminist standpoint. In this article, Joanna Chacko analyses the Malayalam movie ‘Thanmatra’.

Cinema has been an extremely important form of entertainment in Kerala, and multiple films across varied themes have been produced by the Malayalam film industry over time. Cinema, being a powerful medium shapes the way a viewer forms an opinion about an issue. Of late, many proactive films are being produced, especially along the themes of mental health and self care. The film Thanmatra, directed by Blessy, is an adaptation of ace director Padmarajan’s short story ‘Orma’, literal translation being ‘Memory’. The film portrays the protagonist, Rameshan Nair played by Mohanlal, suffering from Dementia, a condition that falls under the category of Organic Mental Disorders. 

The story is about Nair, a State Government employee, the central character suffering from an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He leads a simple and happy life with his wife and two kids, a son who is in his 12th grade and a daughter doing her primary schooling. The family lives a typical middle -class life in a mini two bedroom flat, and uses a Bajaj scooter for transportation. Rameshan dreams big for his son, his greatest ambition is to see his son as an IAS officer, a wish he himself had failed to achieve despite being a brilliant student. This father- son bond is beautifully portrayed in the film, as Manu is equally hardworking and eager to fulfill his father’s dream and eventually turns to be successful. However, by that time, little did he know that his father was not in a state to celebrate the success of his biggest ambition. The movie organically depicts how memory loss affects Nair’s daily living, and outlines his forgetfulness, personality changes, paraphasia’s, changes in speech etc.

Their family was considered as an ideal family in their society, and neighbors used to look up to them for suggestions and solutions to their problems. What starts off as commonplace omissions and absentmindedness, quickly grows into handicapping cognitive and behavioral impairments. The first time we notice this is when he misplaces one of the important office files, and is searching all over the place. He turns the house up side down and finally finds it in the refrigerator. There are several instances that show that day by day he is losing his memory, especially when he is unable to recollect Bharatiyar’s poetry that he used to recite very often right since his childhood days.

In his conversation with his wife, he talks about the agony he experiences due to this memory loss, he specifies that the things he thought he would never ever forget in his life are also being erased from his memory, but his wife puts down his words and anguish as merely tension because his son is at a crucial turning point in his life. The family doesn’t take Nair’s condition seriously which is portrayed through a dialogue when his wife says that his behavior is like “Karumbu kaatil aana keriyathe pole” (like an elephant in a sugarcane field), because they were not expecting the disaster awaiting them. Rameshan was a very sincere officer, and his behavioral changes in the office coaxed one of his dearest friends to take him to the hospital. This happened after one fine day, Rameshan arrived at the office after buying vegetables and starts behaving as if he reached back home after office hours, removes his shirt, has a weird smile and speaks as if he was drunk.

The hospital visit reveals to them the reality, that Rameshan is suffering from Familial Alzheimer’s disorder, a condition which causes gradual loss of memory and cognitive abilities. The news comes as a grave shock to the family and turns their world upside down. Manu, Rameshan’s son is reminded of an incident when his father had a talk about his memory loss with him, but even after forgetting everything else Rameshan doesn’t forget his dream to see Manu as an IAS officer. Manu starts spending a lot of time with his father, which portrays an emotional bond between them. The doctor explains to the family that in such cases, it is the care givers who need the treatment more than the patient himself. Rameshan resigns from his job, as he realizes that he is not capable enough to continue. On his farewell day, he is not even able to give a farewell speech, or rather precisely not even able to read what is written and he completes the speech with the assistance of his son. 

The family takes the decision to go to their village house, considering that this would bring a change and would be better for Rameshan. Soon, Manu is reminded by his Grandfather, Rameshan’s father- in- law that now he is the one who has to take care of the family and has to think seriously about his future. He is forced by them to take a graduation rather than focusing on Civil Services, but Manu never wanted his fathers dream to die this way. He gets an interview call for his IAS selection, and to fulfill his fathers dream, heads to Delhi. Little did he know that he was seeing his father for the last time. That very night, Rameshan lost his life, but his wife didn’t let Manu know about his demise as it could hinder his interview. The interview scene in the film completes the family bond when Manu replies to the question ‘Who is your motivator?’ as, “He who leads one from darkness to light is the guru, my father is my guru, my motivator”. 

The Bollywood film U, Me Aur Hum similarly portrays the relationship between the caregivers and their loved ones suffering from dementia. The struggle to care for the person due to poor social support including from the family members who fail to understand the symptoms of dementia, in most cases, are common.  The symptoms depicted there ranged from forgetfulness, wandering behavior, agitation, psychosis, depression, regression, difficulties in activities of daily living. The fact that caregivers and care-receivers prefer homecare than institutions echoes across literature. This importance of addressing caregiver burden of dementia patients and their caretakers has been portrayed in Thanmatra. An interesting point to be noted is that the movie doesn’t dwell much on and does not even glorify the medical model or the social model of disability.

However, a drawback that ails in the film is that the management of dementia patients is not portrayed adequately, albeit realistically. The movie adds pessimism to the prognosis of the disease among the audience. When we talk about the audience, such films can convey a lot, and the technique of “Cinemeduaction”, coined by Alexander, in which commercial films are used to teach psychological approaches in medical care just as Miguel Sabido’s technique of “Education- Entertainment” does go a long way in educating the masses. The film Thanmatra, with all its problems and shortcomings, still manages to educate the audience about what the reality is in the houses of people suffering from Alzheimer’s to a great extent .

Joanna Chacko is an Editorial Intern at One Future Collective.

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