‘Hurt people hurt people’– is no excuse for the abuser who inflicts pain on someone because the abuser was also possibly once abused, neglected, and is craving for love. bell hooks wrote extensively on how the society has taught us that a hurt man’s externalised pain erases the injustice suffered by the woman he abuses.
The woman is expected to abandon herself, empathise with her abuser and love her abuser…like there is something in his past, acting within him to ‘make him’ hurt people such that he’s never really accountable for his actions nor does the society believe in his ability to heal and transform into one capable of love.
The 2019 Malayalam film ‘Kumbalangi Nights’ depicted the pain of adults who grew up in a dysfunctional family without proper parental care, leading to low self-worth, cycle of abuse and intergenerational suffering. It also explored coping mechanisms like avoidance and alcoholism that traumatised individuals indulge in, in order to survive, resultant depression and suicidal ideation. Being an adult who was diagnosed with PTSD from the severe parental abuse I experienced in childhood, I recognise the sigh of relief that overcomes me when I see art interventions that move society into awareness and facilitate healing.
‘Kumbalangi Nights’ appealed to the humanity of Kerala’s audience, prompting reflection and empathy. It became a transformational intervention into the serious misery of mental health that’s been swirling as vigorous underwater currents, hurting the state’s population belonging to all age groups. The story of Saji’s healing was told without demonising him, without infantilising him and without dehumanising him. However, this isn’t the case with Basil Joseph’s Tovino Thomas starrer, ‘Minnal Murali’, marketed as Malayalam’s first, homegrown superhero film.
Fair skinned superhero and dark skinned, mentally troubled villain
Kerala has a population of 34.63 million, out of which 2.77 million are diagnosed with mental health disorders while the state only has a total of 626 mental health professionals. The diagnosed number only includes depressive disorder, neurotic and stress related disorders and substance abuse. When a state only has 0.62 clinical psychologists available for every one lakh of the population that are diagnosed with mental health disorders, and the rest of the population struggle with their mental health or simply live with undiagnosed issues, art becomes the sources for most people’s understanding of mental health.
Studies show that the portrayal of mental health in films becomes educational even when it isn’t intended to be. Art has the power to sensitise society and remove the stigma of mental health. Artists have the power to save lives, to save the next generation from abusive parenting, to move families from dysfunction to love.
Artists have the power to bring love. With power comes the duty to commit oneself to learning what one hasn’t lived and experienced. It is the duty of an artist who addresses mental health with their art to think about the society they live in and to grasp the gravity of responsibility that comes with their art’s potential to impact.
Therefore, it is highly concerning when Shibu in Minnal Murali (Guru Somasundaram) is introduced as a ‘Vattan’ and the character develops to become violent, all along conforming to the colonial binary of two thunders – dark-skinned villain Vs light-skinned hero and many more.
One can make art that demonises a person with mental health disorder at a point in time when we live in world with no alcoholism, no domestic violence, no depression, or no suicides. However, one making art that demonises people struggling with mental health when 11.6% of Kerala’s adult population are diagnosed with mental morbidity is an annihilation of humanity. As bell hooks taught us, the mere portrayal of violence in art is not an intervention.
One can argue that it is not the individual but the society that has been critiqued by depicting how Shibu was constantly ascribed with the burden of his mental health, eventually turning him into an evil predator. But what this over simplification of Shibu’s arc misses out is that the eventual fate of Shibu where he turns into a vengeful threat to the village from whom the superhero Minal Murali ‘saves‘ them, does not punish the very system that has accelerated the isolation of Shibu. It only depicts, and normalises the idea that a socially marginalised, mentally troubled individual cannot ever be redeemed, and must be wiped away from mainstream social existence. Such depiction is not effective critique.
‘Theppu’ or ‘Vanchaki’: Demonising women’s agency enables ‘Crimes of Passion’
There exists very little research that connects substance abuse which is the form of mental health disorder prevalent amongst the men in the state or depression which is the form prevalent amongst women in the state with internalised colonial thinking – the pressure on men to be the breadwinners, Brahmanical patriarchy, toxic masculinity, women’s repressed rage etc.
Gender-based violence in the state has increased by 256% from 2009 to 2018. The apathy that’s evident in the state’s cis-men population is also visible in the state’s rising instances of men’s violence against women, especially the ones belonging to a category that we have misnamed as ‘crimes of passion’.
Minnal Murali uses labels like ‘theppu’ or ‘vanchaki’ (unfaithful, cheater) to insult the character Bincy (Sneha Babu), who decided to end a relationship, while idolising her controlling brother who operates within the toxic masculinity ideal that the sexual purity of a family’s woman signifies the honor of the family’s men.
Did the writer, the film-maker, the producers and the many people involved in Minnal Murali wait to think what message it sends out to a state where 12 women have been killed by scorned men who stalked them? It hasn’t been long since Abhishek Baiju, a college student, stabbed a young woman to death simply because he has been socialised to become an entitled man who cannot accept a woman’s ‘no’ for an answer.
How is it that a few artists could together create a charming main character whose attitude towards women is close to that of Abhishek Baiju and not worry about its impact on the young men who are in dire need of education to unlearn the patterns of their abusive behavior towards women?
One can make art that demonises women who exercise their agency by making important decisions in their life such as ending a relationship with a man, when we live in a world where men no longer stab and murder women in the name of unrequited love, where the loss of women’s lives are no longer labelled ‘crimes of passion’ and when there is no threat of incel violence.
However, making a movie like Minnal Murali that demonises a woman who dumps a man, normalises stalking, glorifies a man’s consistent overstepping of a woman’s boundaries and desensitises the society to other forms of harassment perpetrated by men against women in a scenario where gender-based violence in Kerala has increased is irresponsible. The movie is a blatant endorsement of misogyny and perpetuation of toxic masculinity.
Isn’t it just science fiction?: Should fiction be political, can artists not exercise creative freedom?
Art has the ability to make one feel because they are crafted truths of human living experience. Art was fundamental to every revolution in human history because art let’s one’s expression become an emotional experience for others. So art is political.
Are we burdening the writers, moviemakers and other artists of our generation to cure us from the coping mechanisms we adapted to survive colonialism and casteism? No. They have the creative freedom to choose only the themes that truly move them, matters on which they have embodied knowledge so that the emotional experience they offer the world would be truthful.
Art can very well mirror the society as well, but art can never be neutral. Therefore, art can mirror society but it has the inherent power to move our thoughts, feelings and values. It either moves our minds against the humanity of women, people struggling with mental health, people who do not conform to Eurocentric beauty standards and people who are crushed by the neoliberal power structures or it can mirror society and move our minds to align with movements that work tirelessly to restore the dignity of marginalised groups.
“The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see”, said James Baldwin, Black writer and civil rights activist. Likewise, excusing the normalisation of mental health stereotyping and toxic masculinity in relationships in Minnal Murali is highly problematic. It is understood that the film perhaps broke new ground in the superhero genre, opening up Malayalam cinema to larger artistic and business prospects.
But acknowledging that aspect does not make Minnal Murali immune to political accountability. I would prioritise self-preservation and refuse to engage if this was a Shaji Kailas movie. As a woman, I offer feminist critique as a loving declaration only when I hold hope in the growth and transformation of the subject.
It is possible to admire the team that created Minnal Murali and still hold them accountable, outside of the exclusive binary that we do not need to live by. One can appreciate the work of Basil Joseph, Tovino and the whole team for breaking many barriers without dismissing the social responsibility they seem to have overlooked.
Featured Image Source: Glamsham