An Inquiry into Madness: A Feminist Reading of Manichitrathazhu


In the ghost motif in Indian popular culture wherein, almost invariably, a woman lingers post-death seeking revenge, equipped with supernatural powers, there are usually two alternatives: the story garners sympathy for the ghost so that its aim is met and has been avenged properly, or, the ‘evil’ ghost is exorcised through traditional magic. In Manichitrathazhu (The Ornate Lock), both these aims are carried out with a clear departure from the conventional narrative. The psychiatrist, Dr Sunny allows the madness its full rein, before outwitting the patient using an unconventional technique of ‘exorcism’—not a coupling of science with traditional ritual, as the film says, but more of a mechanical ploy, in which science and tradition merely produce the backdrop. As the title itself makes explicit, the focus of the story is the ‘lock’, the confinement of madness, the secure manacling of the unpleasant, unknown mental forces within social acceptability.

The focus of the film is, obviously, not Ganga, but the psychiatrist—how he discovers the elusive ‘patient’ and how he heroically cures the madness and saves his friend’s marriage. Therefore, the image boost given to the legendary dancer and her ghost from the beginning of the story is underplayed when the outwitting of the frenzied patient borders on the farcical—a dummy replaces Nakulan, as ‘Nagavalli’ is about to strike him with her pre-given sword. Seeing the cut-up torso and the fake blood, the mad woman is appeased, her revenge done, and she falls unconscious. Moreover, the treatment is not quite conclusive, albeit Dr Sunny claims otherwise, because nowhere in the film does Ganga show complete self-composure, as opposed to the sedately moderate Sridevi. The apparently unintentional frights she gives people even before her introduction in the film, and soon after are a part of her flawed identity. The arching eyebrows and inappropriate facial-behavioural expressions that fluctuate from the apathetic to emotional extremes—all betray a dormant madness within Ganga.

Ganga’s favourite poet, Mahadevan is discovered to be Alli’s (a cousin of Nakulan) betrothed. Alli’s name has a fatal conjunction with Nagavalli, a coincidence with grave import. Later, Alli would become an interference with Ganga’s impersonation as Ramanathan’s beloved; Alli is the unworthy usurper of her lover. Curiously enough, he lives in the very house where Ramanathan had been staying. The inaccessible tantalizes Ganga’s mind once again, as in her childhood. However, ambition in the mild-mannered Ganga remains latent until she hears of Nagavalli’s legend. Now the cause becomes externalized as well as intrinsic to her. Mahadevan is Nagavalli’s lover who had been kept apart from her due to the restraints of the tyrannical landlord. The ‘confused’ Ganga quits her passivity and becomes dynamic all of a sudden—her cause and Nagavalli’s become one and the same, as does the fusion of Mahadevan and Ramanathan, and of Nakulan and the Karanavar.

The maternal aspect of the Durga-manifest, well explored in other female-revenge movies such as Kahaani (2012, Sujoy Ghosh), is absent in the Ganga-Nagavalli changeover.  The Kannagi image becomes more prevalent in this respect. That they do not have a child comes as a surprise to the uncle; the movie gives a wide scope of conjecture regarding the couple’s childlessness. The absence of a child might be the missing link between Ganga and Nakulan, something that helps Ganga effortlessly posit the latter as the impersonal Karanavar. The cinematography gives ample evidence to the supposition that all is not well between the couple, contrary to the apparent tenderness between them. The motif of waiting pervades the film in the form of a recurrent song (curiously enough, one of Mahadevan’s poems) which once ends with Ganga silently reading from his book: I hope futilely for love to come my way [my translation], as the camera zooms out to show a Nakulan immersed in official work.

The fear of the mad (read “possessed”) woman threatens the composure of the characters; it is Nagavalli, the murdered, unavenged, repressed woman who is more to be feared than the Karanavar, the despotic tyrant. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” closely parallels the character delineation in the film. The narrator’s husband is a replica of Nakulan:  “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures”. Similarly, both refuse to acknowledge that something is not right with his wife, and Nakulan goes even further when (without evidence) he pins all blame on his former fiancée, Sridevi, the scapegoat of patriarchy. Just as the protagonist in the short story gradually becomes obsessed with the wallpaper and sees herself trapped behind it, Ganga pathologically empathizes with the portrait (literally and figuratively) of Nagavalli. In an interesting scene, Ganga inspects the Thekkini room for the first time when Sridevi suddenly calls her name from downstairs. Ganga’s instinctive reaction is to look in the direction of Nagavalli (her life-size portrait). Ganga seems to think that the other, alive but captive, might be calling out to her.

Madness in both texts is a release and normalcy a trap, suffocating one’s space. However, unlike the obviously deteriorating mind of Gilman’s madwoman, here, Ganga is psychologically strengthening by undergoing a release of repression and becoming a ‘stronger’, potential self. However, because the threshold of sanity is sacrosanct for a woman, it is cataclysmic to be mad and even more grievously, to be branded mad (unlike the male priest, also in the film, who goes mad from fear). A mentally deranged wife is like a Mrs. Rochester—“I learned my mistake; she was only mad . . . . I found her nature wholly alien to mine; her tastes obnoxious to me; her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger . . . . her violent and unreasonable temper . . . I restrained myself; I eschewed upbraiding, I curtailed remonstrance. I tried to devour my repentance and disgust in secret; I repressed the deep antipathy I felt . . . . Bertha Mason . . . dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste”—though wonderfully the film has Nakulan doting on his wife once he learns about her illness, compensating for his erstwhile lack of attention.

Belief is a key impetus to Ganga’s venting of madness. When Nakulan decries all the ghostly signs as hoaxes—hallucinatory, superstitious, figments of imagination—something shatters or breaks in the room each time. Initially, the Nagavalli-impersonation seems to survive only on others’ fears, slowly gaining conviction as people are manipulated into believing the existence of a ghost. The fears that Ganga experienced as a child, the succumbing to a greater force, she impresses in others. The history of Ganga’s madness is a gradual strengthening of her belief that she is the powerful ‘other’. Perhaps, when the doctor too takes her word for it and impersonates the Karanavar, the unsure footing of her identity swap is resolved to a great extent. The psychiatrist, in doing so, was perhaps allowing the mental imbalance to run to its full hilt before curbing it “forever”. The madness is no longer in her mind, but manifest in the real-world challenge of overcoming the tyrant, demarcated by the husband-master figure, the unfortunate Nakulan. The alter-ego is a hysterical individual, moving only in emotional extremes. Hysteria, traditionally considered a “metaphor for everything unmanageable in the female sex” is in feminist terms, “an expression of women’s anger, women’s oppression, and of the power of a misogynistic discourse to define what ‘woman’ means, and to exert control over women’s lives”. The climax of the frenzy is reached in the travesty of dance that she performs as a prelude to the murder of the Karanavar, the patriarchal, overbearing overlord.

A misfit in both story-worlds, Sridevi has no substitutable persona in Ganga’s delusional world. Sridevi, a Mangalik (chovva dosham), had matched horoscopically well with her cousin, Nakulan. But his mother disapproved of the match, and in turn Sridevi’s father, so as to spite his sister, married her off hastily to another (on the very day Nakulan married Ganga), keeping the dosham a secret. When her husband came to know about it somehow, he sent her back saying he did not want the girl. After that, Sridevi became a recluse. Sridevi represents a kind of freedom that Ganga has never known. Having married her off, Sridevi’s father has virtually no authority over his daughter; having been abandoned by her husband, she is outside marital subjection. As such, Sridevi is free from direct patriarchal control. Perhaps it is envy of this freedom that drives Ganga to shift the blame of her actions on to Sridevi. (There is no occasion where just the two of them share screen space, save the one in which Sridevi admonishes Ganga for transgressing rules and entering the forbidden room. It is also noteworthy that Sridevi is not shown to receive any especial gratitude from Ganga, nor any formal leave-taking). Ganga, in her struggle to attain what was denied her, is fascinated by anything that represents freedom of movement and imagination—the dance(r), poetry, books, the forbidden (as in an unattainable love), and so on. Sridevi, freed from any reaction against patriarchy (though in a limbo of uncertainty and inconclusiveness) is an antithesis to Ganga’s response.

Sridevi is a much-persecuted character in the film; everyone is easily led to believe that she has gone mad, possessed by Nagavalli’s ghost, even though she is the only character, other that Dr Sunny who, considering the dangerous circumstances the family is beset with, takes interest in the practical side of things, in giving counsel and censure. Sridevi’s status is, in the view of patriarchal society, a hiatus. Sridevi is a regression of the accepted order, and being outside the normal, is prone to madness or “possession”. Her branding as a madwoman is based on trivial and unconnected snatches of her conversation that is surreptitiously overheard by an easily frightened, susceptible member of the family (who, ironically, is dubbed “an outsider” [by marriage] by Sridevi’s father in an earlier scene). Natural gestures, isolated from their contexts, appear ridiculous and crazed to the suspecting family. And so they do not oppose when she is falsely framed for everything that goes awry, wordlessly watching the spectacle of her being locked up. Here, the presiding, all confirming voice of science (represented by the doctor), and blind superstition form a fatal conjunction, against which the helpless individual would futilely resist.

As if in compensation for grievances, the storyline has the doctor offering a proposal of marriage to Sridevi, which she mutely accepts. The waiting motif continues as the film ends showing Sridevi, hopeful again, looking on at the receding car while the recurrent song of waiting (previously reserved to contexts related to Ganga) plays in the background. This suggests that the rescue (from the self) as well as safety (from patriarchy) of a woman has to come from an outside force, necessarily male intervention. The self-discovery of freedom from within Ganga had proved both fatal and futile, her old self reclaiming her.  In Sridevi’s self-asserted independence and reclusion too, she had been a victim of patriarchal violence, from which she can be rescued only by marriage—in Freud’s words, the “withdraw[al] from the strife into the calm, uncompetitive activity of [the] home”.

The madness of Ganga in Manichitrathazhu is, in one way, empowerment. The passive, Ganga metamorphoses from within to become the psychically well-endowed Nagavalli of yore. She attains an unfeminine physical strength, superhuman agility and intuition and an unknown potential of unconsciously imbibed knowledge. This ‘empowerment’, though remarkable, is also unbecoming in a woman. Ganga is torn with self-loathing (the self as Ganga) when she consciously becomes aware of her alter ego. Interestingly, it is at this point that she completely surrenders to the dominant personality of the other. This transformation, thus, arises from Ganga’s subliminal awareness of her own submissiveness and her self-hatred for the same. Her hyperactive imagination confuses reality with myth and Ganga is able to transit easily into the mental make-up of the other—the opposite of everything that Ganga is. Madness is, at once, both a way of making peace with one’s suppressed self (in its plurality of personas) and an escape into a customized, private space which no external force can disrupt, as the narrator in Gilman’s story says: “There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will”.


2 thoughts on “An Inquiry into Madness: A Feminist Reading of Manichitrathazhu

  1. This is the best analysis I’ve ever read on Manichitrathazhu. Your article is like a pair of glasses that has helped me enjoy the movie better! Thanks for this. Please keep writing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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