Chaos is a common occurrence in Kumbalangi. A comment or a peanut can ignite an argument. The cause of these outbursts are usually the four brothers who begrudgingly reside in the same house. Franky, the youngest of the lot, prefers being away at his boarding school where football offers him an escape and relief. Bonny has moved out and stayed with his friends from a dance studio. Saji and Bobby are the only full-time residents of the house, always itching for a fight in the living room or the local bar. The milieu then makes it natural for one to assume that when Saji calls on Franky through the window, a few days after he slapped him, another fight could be on hand.
Instead, the elder brother reveals his vulnerability in a desperate plea. He confesses that he is losing his mind and needs a doctor. I felt astonished. Madhu C Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights had immensely pleased me until this point with its marriage of a love story, familial drama, and a threatening undercurrent of fragile male ego, but it now seemed to transcend even those descriptions.
There’s a reason portrayal of mental illness in Indian films is a significant development – 47 percent of those surveyed by The Live Love Laugh Foundation were found to be highly judgemental of people perceived as having a mental illness. A National Mental Health Survey of 2015-16 found that nearly 15 percent of Indian adults are in need of active interventions for one or more mental health issues. A 2011 WHO report mentioned Indians as being among the most depressed in the world, with 9 percent having reported an extended period of depression in their lifetime and nearly 36 percent suffered Major Depressive Episodes. The few minutes Kumbalangi Nights spends on mental health delivers some of the film’s strongest messages.
Firstly, the act of Saji reaching out to a loved one and expressing his wish to see a therapist casually shatters the associated taboo in seeking professional help. The Live Love Laugh Foundation survey notes that as per their qualitative analysis, ‘people with mental illness are likely to avoid discussing their mental health concerns openly due to the fear of being labelled or judged’. The report further states that a belief exists in some people that mental illness can only happen to people who are ‘mentally weak’ and people ‘who have too much money and time’. “For these individuals, seeking support from a mental health professional is seen to be a sign of weakness.”
Screenwriter Syam Pushkaran has revealed that Saji was based on a man with suicidal tendencies he had encountered in his village in his youth. A WHO estimate put suicides in India in 2012 at 258,075, the highest in the world, with the highest rates of suicide among youngsters between 15-29 years of age at 35.5 per 100,000. While the study noted that the prevalence of mental disorders amongst those who died of suicide was at 60 percent, the number could be higher in a country where conversations around mental health and disorders are not embraced openly.
An article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry estimated the number of psychiatrists in India at around 9,000, stating that India was short of 27,000 doctors to reach the desirable statistic of at least 3 psychiatrists per 100,000 populations. News18 reports that as per the World Health Organisation, the number of suicides in India could be reduced by at least 1/4th if counselling is given on time.
In the scene with the psychologist, it’s important to note that audiences are never shown all the details which Saji is sharing. Bobby and Baby are instead used as conduits for the information on the family’s past. The result is that the focus is largely on ‘What’ Saji is feeling rather than the ‘Why’. Persons suffering from mental illnesses are often posed with semantical questions, voyeuristic enquiries, and unsolicited advice. The audience’s voyeurism might feel dissatisfied at first in being denied the complete story but Saji’s pain and hesitance is the subject of the scenes, not the details.
The first therapy session you go for is a nerve-racking experience. The idea of sharing your innermost feelings and secrets with a complete stranger has a dread and relief to it. A desire to let out all the pent up emotions is a strong one, especially in a safe space. I can almost feel a strange envy for Saji; we might not all want to embrace our therapists but we all dream of being as vulnerable and honest in that moment.
The director has stated that the scene between the two had been shot in just one take. The scene ends with Saji crying while embracing the counsellor. Loud laughter could be heard in the theatre as the doctor’s shirt is wet from Saji’s tears but I just watched it in respectful silence. It’s possible that the filmmakers sought to break the tension by aiming for humour. The effect was quite the opposite for me.
The first therapy session you go for is a nerve-racking experience. The idea of sharing your innermost feelings and secrets with a complete stranger has a dread and relief to it. A desire to let out all the pent up emotions is a strong one, especially in a safe space. I can almost feel a strange envy for Saji; we might not all want to embrace our therapists but we all dream of being as vulnerable and honest at that moment.
The narrative must move forward and so it does. The story isn’t just about Saji’s struggle after all. We aren’t given a neat resolution in the office. What did the doctor advise him? Will he go back for another session? Are the two hiding some important details away from the camera? The cinematic world of Kumbalangi isn’t interested in those answers.
We instead get a relieved Saji, smiling and embracing Franky as he walks home. A burden seems to have been lifted from the shoulders of the audience and their engrossing character. I felt relieved as well. It was after all possible to talk about mental health in an Indian film, albeit in a small but affecting way, without a character having to declare love for life by hugging a coconut tree. And more importantly, no one fell in love with their therapist.
Perhaps prejudice can be fought and acceptance can be normalised. One film at a time.