Manichithrathazhu – (The Ornate Lock) – 1993, Malayalam

-Manjula Jonnalagadda

“Humanity is so weird. If we’re not laughing, we’re crying or running for our lives because monsters are trying to eat us. And they don’t even have to be real monsters. They could be the ones we make up in our heads. Don’t you think that’s weird?” ― T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

          Manichithrathazhu is a film made by Fazil and written by Madhu Muttam. The film won the Best Picture Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment, and the Best Actress for Shobhana at the National Film Awards. It also won the Best Film Popular Appeal and Aesthetic Value, the Best Actress, and the Best Makeup awards at the Kerala State Film Awards.

          Fazil developed interest in plays during college days. He wrote and staged plays with the actor Nedumudi Venu. He started his career as a filmmaker with the film Manjil Virinja Pookkal. That is also the debut film of the actor Mohan Lal. Fazil made 31 films in his career. A few of them won the Kerala State Awards and Manichithrathazhu won the National Awards as well. His son  Fahadh Fazil is an acclaimed actor.

          Script writer Madhu Muttam lived near Alummoottil mansion. In the 1920s the owner of that mansion was murdered by his nieces and nephews. The building is said to be haunted. That gave him an idea to write the script for Manichithrathazhu.

          While the modern psychiatry availability in India dates way back to the 17th century, mental health awareness is not very good in India. In the rural areas many cases of mental illness are dismissed as pocessions by ghosts. Even in the urban area access to mental health care is not very good, though it is as bad as it is in the rural areas. Seeking mental healthcare is still a taboo in many families.

          The film opens with Unnithan getting Madampally mansion repainted and cleaned. The mansion is said to be haunted. 150 years ago the karanavar (the head of the family) of the mansion murdered his mistress, a dancer named Nagavalli and her lover Ramanathan. The ghost of Nagavalli tries to kill the karabanvar, but with a sorcerer’s help karanavar overpowers the ghost and locks it up in what used to be Nagavalli’s room.

          Nakulan, who is an heir to the mansion, arrives in the village with his wife Ganga. Nakulan’s uncle Thampi lives with three daughters in the village. The eldest one named Sreedevi is divorced, the middle child Alli is engaged to Mahadevan who lives in a house next to the mansion. Sreedevi was supposed to marry Nakulan, but his mother rejects Sreedevi due to some issue with the horoscope. Nakulan falls in love with Ganga and marries her. One day Ganga opens Nagavalli’s room. She is thoroughly intrigued by Nagavalli’s story. Strange things begin to happen in the house. Nakulan suspects that Sreedevi is mentally ill and is the cause behind these strange incidents. He invites his friend Sunny Joseph, a psychiatrist who lives in the USA to help treat Sreedevi. Thampi thinks that it is the ghost of Nagavalli behind the strange incidents. The rest of the film is about unraveling the mystery.

          While this film can be called a psychological horror, there are no gory scenes. The story keeps you engaged even though the setup takes some time. It is entertaining and does not bore you. It is story driven rather than character driven.

          The depiction of mental illness in film is empathetic. While Sunny Joseph’s methods may be frowned upon by the real psychologists and psychiatrists, the film treats the patient with no judgement. It is one of those films that does not attach a stigma to mental illness. An important thing for loved ones of the mentally ill is to separate the illness from the patient, the loved one in the film does that.

          One interesting incident in the film is when Sunny Joseph comes to Nakulan and Gangas’ home from Sabarimala which is a Hindu temple. In India people traditionally respected all religions. It was common for me to see Hindus at Muharram, Muslim and Christian friends would celebrate Diwali at their Hindu friends’ home.

          Performances in this film are excellent. Shobhana is fantastic as  Ganga. Mohan Lal as Sunny Joseph is very good as well. Nedumudi Venu who played Thampi is one of my favorite actors. Venu was one of the few actors who could easily traverse between commercial and arthouse cinema and left his mark everywhere.

          While the background score is good, this film could have done with songs other than the dance number. This is a commercial film, there were no commercial films without songs in those days.

          Watch this film for this is an excellent thriller that keeps you engaged.


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