Into the atomic levels of Thanmathra

Thanmathra is beautifully narrated film where every sound, word, object, and movement is created to communicate with the audience.

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For someone like Rameshan Nair(Mohanlal), who took pride in his talent to memorise everything, memory was his super power. It forms a huge part of his identity that when he realises his memory is slipping away from his control, he is broken – although the feeling of being broken affects him only at times, and that too momentarily.

Rameshan Nair suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) right from the beginning of the movie although it is not as pronounced that an unsuspecting audience would notice. Blessey employs foreshadowing by characterising Rameshan as someone who is fascinated by the concept of memory and his impeccable mastery over his memory. From forgetting about his teenage sweetheart’s adorable nickname to misplacing his office files, Rameshan is distraught at knowing his memory is fading, even though it sounds silly and comical to the ones around him. Even before a formal diagnosis of Rameshan’s AD, the audience is given hints to what awaits them from the time when Rameshan’s memory begins to miss out parts. The first instance of this is when Rameshan tries to recollect memories involving his dead aunt.

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While most of his memories of his childhood are intact, he explicitly finds difficulty in remembering something that was crucial to this particular memory – the name of his cousin/ex-girlfriend. Mohanlal brilliantly emotes this feeling, and the extra-diegetic background score, which is ominous, haunting, and foreboding, hints the audience about what is going to unravel before us. When Rameshan walks away in the middle of sex with his wife, fascinated by a lizard on the wall, we are certain things are not fine. 

Rameshan’s bathroom door at his house has a tiny hole. It would seem inconsequential, but it is a similar hole on the bathroom door at his office that convinces him to take a shower at his workplace.

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The hole on the door is also metaphorical – a tiny gap in his perception of real and “imagined”. Rameshan convinced that he is at his house is challenged by the shopkeeper who tells his colleagues that Rameshan had forgotten his scooter at the shop. This account by the shopkeeper points at Rameshan being “drunk” or “insane”, or rather accusing Rameshan of being a liar.  Although for Rameshan, both his understanding that he is at his house and the shopkeeper’s “insinuation” seem real which leads him to have a breakdown. His disease has not yet conquered all of his memories and there is a tiny gap through which he navigates between present and past.

When the doctor explains AD to the family, Manu, his son, remembers what Rameshan had told him about AD and Dementia and the hapless fate of the people who live without the memories that made them what they are. Rameshan calls it the return journey of the mind from the body, like the sea that calls back the waves, the mind crawls back in time getting rid of the things it learnt on the way, the countdown begins for the AD patients as their mind runs back from old age to birth.

Identifying its mirror image as self is a crucial and joyous moment for a child who has not yet understood the fragmented inner experiences. The child recognises the ‘false’ or reflective image on the mirror as a whole, unfragmented image of the self, the recognition of “I” or “Ego”, as Jacques Lacan described it. During the song “Ithaloornu veena”, there is a scene when they shift houses and Rameshan peeks into the mirror in childlike joy.

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In contrast to the Lacanian mirror stage, here, the “new” Rameshan, whose inner experiences are fragmented and disoriented, is looking at himself probably unable to recognise his reflection as himself. His subjectivity, “I”, is lost as he cannot comprehend his inner fragmented memories anymore in relation to the image he sees on the mirror. Anecdotal stories describe the struggle in AD patients when they don’t recognise the mirror reflection as self, but as someone else.

In Thanmathra we observe Rameshan’s journey into death, but psychologically it’s a reverse journey to his birth. When Rameshan dies, probably due to cardiac arrest, his position is similar to a foetus in the womb. Lekha even asks him if he is enacting “how a baby sleeps in its mother’s womb”.

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Instead of focusing on Rameshan’s inner experiences as an AD patient, Blessy looks at the caregivers of the AD patient. Rameshan is blessed with a family that empathises with his struggle. His wife, however heartbroken she is in seeing him slip away, calmly dotes on him. When Rameshan’s memories make the return trip, it’s Lekha who suffers an unimaginable loss. Rameshan’s ex-girl friend, his cousin, is frequently mentioned as a thing of the past, while it was ‘destiny’ that brought Lekha to his life. It could only be assumed that Lekha and Rameshan had an arranged marriage, and their relationship was only 17-19 years old when he was diagnosed with AD. Lekha and Rameshan until then had a really happy and satisfying marriage life where both of them cared and adored each other. But as Rameshan’s mind runs back, it’s a race against time for Lekha who is losing her husband, her lover, her friend. As his mind regresses, Lekha becomes a stranger to Rameshan while Lekha becomes his life long caretaker. In a normal situation, middle-aged Rameshan would have taken care of his elderly father and young teenage son, but the roles evolve : for the elderly father it is a revisit to Rameshan’s pre-adult life, and for Manu, it’s a role reversal that he performs with devotion (for his father) and adoration (for his present child-like behaviour). But, Lekha is destined to love him knowing that it is not going to be reciprocated. Lekha has to suffer the pain of her broken heart in silence as she sees his husband running towards his ex-girlfriend like he did as a young boy in love.

By the end of the movie Rameshan has otherized everyone around him, probably including himself but we are not privy to that information. To him, possibly everyone else looked like intruders to his space that he calls them “kallan” (thief). It is impossible to believe that Rameshan’s memory was revived the night before his death, as it could be only Lekha’s wistfulness in moments of loneliness. But what is noticeable is that how effectively those scenes talk to us about the role of memory in bringing back the intimacy between the couple. Without memories, Rameshan is only physically present for Lekha and she understands that for him, she doesn’t exist.

Alzheimer’s Disease is devastating because it primarily takes away the patient’s perception of who they are. We do not get a glimpse into Rameshan’s mind once he is diagnosed and the narrative moves on to depict his journey along with his family’s emotional struggle. We empathise with the family more than we do with Rameshan because his state of mind is unperceived. 

Songs in Thanmathra

The songs form an integral part of the narrative text in Thanmathra, to go as far as adding more poetic meanings to the text. The four songs come at crucial points in the film.

1. മേലെ വെള്ളിത്തിങ്കൾ, താഴെ നിലാ കായൽ

മേലെ വെള്ളിത്തിങ്കൾ, താഴെ നിലാ കായൽ

കള്ളനെ പോലെ തെന്നൽ, നിൻ്റെ ചുരുൾ മുടിത്തുമ്പത്തെ

വെണ്ണിലാ പൂക്കൾ മെല്ലെ തഴുകി മറയുന്നു

പൊൻ നിലാമഴയിൽ പ്രണയം പീലി നീർത്തുന്നു
(Mele Vellithinkal)

The first song of the film is when everything is seemingly normal. It underlines the intimate and intense love between Rameshan and Lekha and establishes the family dynamics as well.

2. Katru Veliyidai Kannamma
The song occurs when we begin to doubt things are going awry. Rameshan is fond of the poem by Baharathiyar as it also has ties to his past memories of love and had sung it proudly earlier in the film. When he realises that he is forgetting the lines, he gets distressed about it. He forces himself to remember it and when he does it in between shower, he rushes outside to write it on a paper because he is afraid he will forget it again.

3. ഇതളൂർന്നു വീണ പനിനീർ ദലങ്ങൾ

തിരിയേ ചേരും പോലേ

ദള മർമ്മരങ്ങൾ ശ്രുതിയോടു ചേർന്നു

മൂളും പോലെ
(Ithaloornu veena)

This song happens when Rameshan and family move back to his native home. The song is a mixture of feelings – it tries to be hopeful but also reminds us that everything is transient. I’m particularly fond of the first line “ഇതളൂർന്നു വീണ പനിനീർ ദലങ്ങൾ തിരിയേ ചേരും പോലേ” (The fallen petals piece together to revive the rose flower), as it summarises Rameshan’s journey. It’s a process in reverse, a rewind of an act, like Rameshan’s mental journey back to the beginning.

4.വളര്ന്നു പോയതറിയാതെ വിരുന്നു വന്നു ബാല്യം, ഇവനില്

തണല്മരം ഞാന് നേടിയ ജന്മം കുരുന്നു പൂവായി മാറി

ആരോ ആരാരോ പൊന്നേ ആരാരോ

ഇനിയമ്മയായി ഞാന് പാടാം മറന്നു പോയ താലോലം
(Mindathedi Kuyile)

Mindathedi Kuyile is probably the most heart touching song that reflects their life after Rameshan’s diagnosis. In contrast to the first song, Mindathedi Kuyile reflects the revised family dynamics. The song is a painful reminder of how everybody’s roles changed with Rameshan’s illness. For his father and son, who naturally expected Rameshan to be their safe shelter, Rameshan has now become their child to be cared for. The song is like a lullaby for Rameshan who is now cared for by everyone like a child who throws tantrum often, who has peculiar wishes, who is in a journey that no one understands.

If you have reached until here, how do you think the title “Thanmathra” relates to the movie about an Alzheimer’s patient? For me, I think memories are like atoms – it is as integral to one’s identity as atoms are to matter. Alzheimer’s Disease attacks Rameshan’s memories and his whole life comes crumbling down. Can there be a more appropriate title?

4 thoughts on “Into the atomic levels of Thanmathra

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