Let me start with a confession – I walked out of the theatre after the movie in quite an ambivalent state after watching Siddharth Bharathan’s Nidra. I suppose I was kind of upset and angry but still unclear whether the anger was with the movie or with what the movie told me. Some movies talk to you consciously – they tell you things on the face and make you react instantly while some others work at a sub-conscious level – you don’t necessarily know what the movie meant to you, atleast initially. Probably Nidra has such an impact…
I haven’t watched Bharathan’s original Nidra; in fact, not even heard of the movie, so there are no comparisons that I can make. On second thoughts, it is not even needed – every movie has to talk for itself and not for it is supposed to stand for. Nidra is about a man’s descent into a world of insanity, watched helplessly by his wife and the society as it looks at him half in jest and half in bewilderment at a condition that they don’t understand or even don’t want to understand. It isn’t an exploration of what drives him into this quagmire but an observation of how he sinks continuously into it with no support.
In the initial scenes, we are told that Raju (Siddharth) has had a past where he suffered from a mental illness after the death of his mother. The doctor Vijay Menon (who played Raju in Bharathan’s original movie) explains it as a feeling of extreme paranoia where the character is extremely fearful of everything around him and cannot trust anyone. He sees his brother and friends as aggressors who interfere in his activities and don’t allow him to live life the way he wants to. He is intelligent and talented but there is no one who understands or appreciates him; his scholarship abroad or money spent on projects are only to ensure that he does not go berserk.
Aswathy (Rima Kallingal) enters into this world – maybe as a substitute for his mother – and is at once sucked into the vortex of this issue. Now, I did wish that the movie explored the mother-son relationship more so that we can try to understand his anxieties more but it leaves that idea to our imagination. Raju needs love to protect him from the outside world that his mother may have provided for earlier and now his wife hoped to do but she’s alone in shielding him from emotional taunts of the society. They share a passionate and sensuous relationship and her support helps him to sail in the boat of normalcy for some time. She throws in a cloak of protection on a couple of occasions and hopes against hope that things would change, but they go worse till it hits rock bottom.
She realizes that Raju lives in a different world in the bed of Nature, away from the human population. Raju’s idyllic land is an allegory for a place where Man and animals live together and there is no fear of each other (even a snake is seen as harmless in his eyes) unlike the real world where he faces being hounded by hundreds of eyes all gunning from him. It’s probably true that there is more to be afraid of the human world with all its avarice and terror than the rest of the universe which goes about its life obeying the laws of Nature.
Raju is ultra-sensitive, which is a disqualification in a world that puts a premium on being tough and street smart (killer instinct as we take pride in saying). Every glance or remark is interpreted by his muddled mind as an attempt to chain him down and push him further into a state of madness. But there is a thin line between sanity and insanity and at times, it is difficult to separate the two and then the mind asks the question who is truly insane – someone who seeks to destroy the tranquility of Nature or somebody who protects it and finds peace within it. In one of the scenes, when his anger reaches a crescendo, he is even willing to kill but even then a part of his sub-conscious mind prevents him from doing so.
The movie largely operates from his view point and so everything is mostly seen as a violation of his freedom. His piece of land which is decorated with books and his inventions is far away from human existence and the only place where he can find his peace of mind. Through Sameer Thahir’s lens and Prashant Pillai’s BGM, Chalakudy is exotic but there is a deliberate attempt to shoot Raju’s world in all its romantic colours to magnify the rift between his house and the world that he seeks refuge in and also raise a concern towards environmental degradation.
There are two worlds in the movie and in Raju’s mind – his sane secure free world and the insane greedy world inhabited by the rest of the populace. There is a stretch of water that separates the two worlds and the twain can never meet; eventually, when his place is being ripped apart, the dam of emotions breaks loose and it comes to a point of no return. There is bound to be an element of ambiguity and lack of clarity when a movie deals with a subject that it cannot totally explain and I’m willing to give benefit of doubt to Siddharth when we find ourselves lost at times in the movie.
Siddharth looks and plays his part as the mentally-disturbed Raju but I think he has the makings of a better director than an actor and the audience may connect to the the character with a better performer. He is raw and angry inside but I was searching for a sense of fear and insecurity that I did not find in him. I wanted to empathize with Raju but could not get myself to do that – the repeated bouts of insanity and our necessity to rationalize every act makes it difficult to take that extra leap of faith, I suppose. Rima shakes off her normal urban sophistication and gets down to playing an anxious wife, unable to handle her husband’s frequent outbursts. She pleads, cajoles and compels him to listen to her and make him understand his follies but the panacea is not so simple.
Even though the film plays out through Raju’s viewpoint largely, it does not isolate the rest of the cast as negative. His brother and relatives do not get along with him well but there is a concern that is shown between them and we are not looking at a black-and-white divide between a man and his greedy family. They try to help him out at times and are tolerant of his unusual behaviour but are equally weary about it. The family is helpless and after a point of time desperate to turn its back towards him but this is also due to their inability to handle the situation – after all, it is not just the patient who struggles but also his near and dear ones in these circumstances.
Mental illness is a theme that people are not very uncomfortable talking about – maybe if you paint it as a melodramatic piece as Blessy’s Thanmatra did, they find it easier to handle. If you can manipulate the audience and get them to sympathize with the character and get a good actor to play the part, most of the work is done. But if it is raw, disturbing and inexplicable, we don’t want to face it; we want to rationalize it but putting on a logical cap in a world where logic has no role to play makes it difficult to appreciate the problem. No one really knows for sure what causes mental illness, and why it happens or what is its cure. Is it genetic, social, circumstantial, sheer grit or something else?
From an audience perspective, the deal breaker is their lack of emotional investment in Raju’s character. In Thanmatra, we are exposed to Ramesan Nair’s aspirations and are involved at multiple levels with his family, his work and his attempts to get his son to fulfill his dreams. In Sibi Malayil’s gut wrenching Thaniyavarthanam, we relate to Balan Mash’s victimization as he is pushed to the edge of his sane self (remember the poignant scene where the students are scared of him in the school) and we root for him in all his suffering. There are defining moments in these movies that we hold close to our heart, enabling us to transcend their state of mind. But to many of us watching Raju’s agony, he comes across as a remote figure with little sense of his emotional upheaval and the trials and tribulations in his mind – maybe it is deliberately done but I think you can only empathize with the character when you know him sufficiently enough.
As someone who has seen mental illness from a very close range, it is difficult for me to look at the issue in its entire sense of objectivity. There are memories that play back to and froth and it is difficult to express that anguish on the wider lens and it is understandable why people find it difficult to sit through a movie like Nidra. There is no redeeming factor and no prescription for the issue and you could argue that it is pointless to indulge in self-flagellation. It’s difficult to say what I felt about the movie even now – maybe it was disturbing is a good enough thought – and I don’t expect too many people to warm themselves to it….
PS: Also sharing a few thoughts here on mental illness that I had written a few years back as I observed it from close quarters….