Through Trance (2020), a film that has recently hit Keralite households across India and the diaspora, a unique conversation is possible about life as we know it, and mental health. Starring Fahadh Faasil, and directed by Anwar Rasheed, Trance takes mental health seriously. Visual depiction of men seeking medical assistance has been a surprise element of recent Malayali filmscape. Last year, we saw a protagonist in Kumbalangi Nights (2019) bawl his eyes out in front of a therapist when he was talking about his childhood.
The film rewards the young men who are aware of their derelict emotional and material worlds by showing how they are better off acknowledging their imperfections than hiding behind facades of normalcy. The villain in the story showcased classic characteristics of narcissism dressed as the perfect male figure who looms large over his family like a hawk who is looking for prey. Trance takes this depiction of toxic masculine behavior certainly much more seriously than Kumbalangi Nights. It shows how fatal masculine power hierarchies can be, when egged on by blind faith.
Trance takes this depiction of toxic masculine behavior certainly much more seriously than Kumbalangi Nights. It shows how fatal masculine power hierarchies can be, when egged on by blind faith.
Trance opens with the protagonist, Viju Prasad, a young male who is seeking help of a doctor to manage his younger brother’s unstable mental health. He recognizes the need for intervention, and yet the prescribed pills let him down. His younger brother is not only unstable; he doubts the medicines and decides to stub out his own life, when he realizes his elder brother does not trust him not to hurt himself and others around him. The brothers face the trauma of having watched their mother hang from the ceiling after not finding adequate help for herself.
Through the misc en scene, Trance shows how these are two individuals whose lives are imbued with intergenerational trauma and thereby, suicidal tendencies. Deep rooted poverty and stark living conditions make their worlds dimmer and overwhelm every aspect of their lives. Viju tries to wade through this darkness with a belief that these days are short-lived and one way out would be to rise out of poverty. Even as trauma inflicts serious physical and psychic wounds on his brother and him, he copes by placing his happiness on his will to transform his life through sheer positivity. As a certified life coach, he beats down his demons everyday by staring at them in the mirror. The quandary that Viju faces with his brother’s health is one that many working class families face in India: how to ensure that life doesn’t fall apart.
The only help Viju has, is a doctor who tells him which pills to give his brother. For Viju’s brother, survival itself seemed to kill him bit by bit. When he writes a letter to his brother saying he is off for a long journey, the director wants you to hope that is the case. Neerad then squashes this hope by showing the audience his feet hanging at the edge of the screen. The audience sees the finality of his death first, and waits for Viju’s response when he discovers them. This death is not only a mere origin story for Prasad’s journey as a dubious miracle worker, but a scepter that never really stops haunting Viju even at the height of his success. But that is exactly trauma is: a set of unresolved memories and fixated emotions that need resolution in ways that psychotropic drugs cannot address.
Through the misc en scene, Trance shows how these are two individuals whose lives are imbued with intergenerational trauma and thereby, suicidal tendencies. Deep rooted poverty and stark living conditions make their worlds dimmer and overwhelm every aspect of their lives.
Mental Trauma And Its Need For Acknowledgement
For many Indian families, recognizing mental trauma is a significant step towards treatment. However, the only vocabulary they find are pills or religion. Both are insufficient in coping with the kind of intergenerational trauma, which creates violence and chaos almost at the cellular level. Trance expresses this lack of liminal space and a frank disillusionment with both medical and religious interventions to counter trauma. The music, sound design and camera work undergird the screenplay and perfectly showcase the mania that is possible through a dopamine rush. The mass gatherings of people swaying to religious chants in the film could have been a sketch out of an EDM festival as well. Thus the film is very aptly named Trance.
Where the film simplifies trauma is in establishing medicine and religion as silently cahooting to profit out of peoples’ trauma and sickness. Neerad not only acknowledges, but also takes Marx’s quote “Religion as opium of the masses” — too literally. Yes, evangelical Christianity and over-prescription of drugs are currently two of the biggest concerns in working class populations of United States. The current opioid crisis is seeing several populations hooked onto habit-forming and addictive forms of hydroxyzine (and other chemicals).
However, the answer out of a religion and drug induced high is not going cold turkey on prescribed medication. In a country, where very few families acknowledge violent and self-harming behavior as mental illness, such a simplification can do harm. Doctors overprescribe, that is one truth. But there is also another side of the truth: those who make you feel better. They talk to you, give you strategies and ‘alternate’ ways to stabilize you enough to help you identify and cope with stressors. In the world of late stage capitalism and catastrophic climate change, that is more helpful than throwing Marx at you. It’s not enough to chant Marx when you are truly alienated.
Doctors overprescribe, that is one truth. But there is also another side of the truth: those who make you feel better. They talk to you, give you strategies and ‘alternate’ ways to stabilize you enough to help you identify and cope with stressors. In the world of late stage capitalism and catastrophic climate change, that is more helpful than throwing Marx at you. It’s not enough to chant Marx when you are truly alienated.
Medication in themselves are not the answer, but neither is total disengagement. It is also pertinent that anti-depressants have a whole lot of range, and not all involve sleeping through the day or bursting on the stage shrieking ‘Hallelujah!’ But the ill intent of some doctors has spawned a specific distrust of prescribed medicines, one which is as ill informed as going to an astrologer for one’s past trauma. Not that left leaning intelligentsia do not have their own set of misplaced faith.
Johann Hari raised doubts about over-prescription of drugs to cure depression in his Lost Connections (2017). He ends his accusatory expose on the pharmaceutical industry ganging up with doctors on patients, alienating them while ignoring larger societal dispositions that triggered the person. The book was criticized on its lack of scientific basis and extrapolating too much from restricted data. Hari in later responses qualified his stance and said he never asked people to get off their anti-depressants and that it is the responsibility of society at large to address the issue and not just the individual’s problem.3
For me, there are way too many men talking in this corner. Does Masculinity play a part in the lack of options available to us? The Delhi riots show what a lack of self awareness and hallucinatory use of religious rituals does to the communal mind. The call to action to become Hindu frees you from all forms of social responsibility and you become part of a manic fever that kills. Could a liminal space of self- awareness and dialogue have been options to channel this misogyny that unleashed the sheer violence?
There is an urgent need to engage with the caste and masculine hierarchies that mark our homes and how they inflict trauma. Not surprisingly, the last scene of Trance is a black screen with the sound of shattering glass that a woman broke to free herself and come out of a glassed box. The liminal space is thus open.
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