Wednesday, December 6, 2023


Release date:

December 1, 2023


Sandeep Reddy Vanga


Ranbir Kapoor, Rashmika Mandanna, Anil Kapoor, Bobby Deol, Tripti Dimri, Upendra Limaye, Suresh Oberoi, Saloni Batra  


Hindi with some English, Punjabi, Marathi etc 


At one point in Animal, a stark naked Ranvijay Balbir Singh (Ranbir Kapoor in his nth role as a man-child) steps out of his mansion to stroll around the compound. (Don’t get too excited, his body is blurred out.) His team of male bodyguards first gawp at his nude frame, then a frisson of joy runs through them and they raise their guns in the air to let out several volleys of celebratory fire. This goes on till Ranvijay’s Daddy (Anil Kapoor) comes running out of the house to lead him away. The exhibitionism, it turns out, was in honour of a happy turn of events I won’t detail here. Beta, says Dad, I know you want to celebrate, but this is not the way. 

I cannot remember the last time the gifted veteran actor’s dialogue delivery was this strained and this unintentionally comical. Can’t blame him alone. That scene is so ridiculous, the phallic symbolism so in-your-face, the attempt at profoundness so laughable, and the sum and substance of the episode so juvenile that I burst out laughing. 


Ranvijay is fixated on his nether regions throughout Animal. He keeps drawing attention to the area by either pointing at his crotch or baring it or talking about it or griping about his underwear. In one scene, he speaks of both his “penis” and “anus” – his choice of words, not mine. It is all meant to be very very cool.


Animal is directed by Sandeep Reddy Vanga who debuted with Arjun Reddy (Telugu, 2017), and remade it in Hindi as Kabir Singh (2019). Animal – edited by Vanga and co-written by him with Pranay Reddy Vanga, Suresh Bandaru and Saurabh Gupta – seems bent on enraging those who slammed his earlier works. That goal is evident throughout this boring, blood-spattered film – in Ranvijay’s bizarre remarks and deeds, the all-pervasive violence, misogyny and gore. 


So that’s 3 hours and 21 minutes of revenge against those who criticise misogynistic cinema. 201 minutes of a desperate desire to shock and/or offend. 


Don’t be deceived into considering it mindless though. Bloodshed and immaturity may rage across Animal, but make no mistake about this: the film is steeped in messaging about victimhood – male victimhood and an allusion to the majority community too. 


Vanga’s film is a painfully long account of a boy longing for his father’s love. The said Dad is the industrialist Balbir Singh who has no time for his children. His neglect translates into anti-social behaviour and obnoxious cockiness only in Ranvijay who becomes an obsessive son and entitled lover, while his sisters somehow grow into women who don’t resent or bash up all and sundry.


Daddy issues have been the subject of numerous films. The re-release of the iconic Malayalam film Spadikam this February, 28 years after its initial run, was a troubling reminder that male-dominated industries have for decades used paternal rejection to justify and normalise male violence, including a hero beating up a female romantic partner or spouse. Spadikam’s protagonist (Mohanlal) was an anguished soul who repeatedly struck his lover (Urvashi), but it was all portrayed as no big deal. In Animal, Ranvijay is aggressive with his wife Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna), going so far as to injure and scar her in an extended scene of violence, but it is all insidiously presented with deftly camouflaged empathy – for him. 


For the zillionth time, let me pre-empt the clichéd question that always comes from defenders of such cinema: violent men do exist in the real world and a violent man can certainly be the central character in a film – the issue here, as always, is the manner of the portrayal, the script’s indulgence towards him, the humour and coolth written into his fictional character, and the various means used to give him an allure despite his violent ways.


The strategised depiction of Ranvijay and his arch enemy Abrar (Bobby Deol) – arriving late in the second half – illustrates how the difference between a film’s gaze on two equally violent characters is used to steer audience reactions to them. Both commit horrifying acts, both treat women terribly, yet there is never a doubt about who is the hero or with whom the director wants our sympathies to lie. Animal may call itself Animal with reference to Ranvijay, yet his animalism is preceded by scene after scene dwelling on his childhood pain, his protective brotherly conduct, his aversion to sexual harassment, his advocacy of marital fidelity and so on, thus establishing him as a traumatised man with innate goodness. By the time his beastly side is exposed, a point has been firmly made that everything he does that is seemingly wrong is in fact done for the greater good. In contrast, the only Abrar we get to know is the brute who kills, rapes and terrorises. 


Abrar’s Muslimness is underlined by pointedly mentioning his family’s conversion to Islam. 


If Ranvijay rips up human flesh, it is to avenge an attack on his father. If Ranvijay cheats on his wife (mind you, after lecturing other men when they cheat on their wives), he does it for a noble cause. Poor misunderstood Ranvijay had sex only to save his family, you know. 


Ranvijay assaults Geetanjali and a defence is woven into the script. He proposes that just as there is a first kiss and a first time having sex in a relationship, so also there should be a first slap. And guess who gets slapped first? 


Sigh. Poor misunderstood, suffering, victimised Ranvijay.


Poor Ranvijay who has a solitary wife, and is up against evil, brutal Abrar with three wives. 


Bobby Deol’s Abrar has been shaped in the same mould as Alauddin Khilji from Padmaavat and other fictionalised interpretations of historical Muslim warriors who have dotted Hindi films in the past decade. Abrar eats cake in Animal in the way Padmaavat’s Khilji tore into meat. Abrar tears into his young wife in the way Padmaavat’s Khilji raped his wife. A filthy Abrar barges into a room filled with people and initiates sex with his bride, unmindful of the others’ presence.  


Now contrast this with the mellow tone of the scene in which Ranvijay converses with Geetanjali while examining the bruises he inflicted on her body. 


Note too that the relentless cruelty inflicted by Ranvijay on various people is bookended in this carefully constructed narrative by lengthy scenes emphasising his vulnerable nature. 


So, to circle back to that predictable question, “Violent men do exist, so what’s wrong with a film portraying reality?”, I repeat: yes, violent men do exist in the real world, and the issue here, as always, is the director’s gaze on them and their violence.


Animal brims with an intense dislike of women, outspoken women in particular, and evolved, gentle men. It begins with a derisive use of the word “toxic” in a fable narrated by Ranvijay about a monkey that harassed a princess. The contempt is obviously for the term “toxic masculinity”, popular in the feminist lexicon, that was widely applied to Vanga’s first two films. 


At one point, Ranvijay mocks Geetanjali for complaining because she has to change pads for four days in a month – he claims she complains, we don’t hear her doing so – while he, he tells her, has not complained though his body has been invaded by doctors during a life-threatening situation. Talk about false and stupid equivalences. Periods are a natural bodily function – often horribly painful, always incredibly inconvenient – that every woman bears for every single month of her entire reproductive life lasting for three to four decades. Ranvijay’s condition, on the other hand, is caused by a human aggressor; it is not the biological fate of all men. Here, Ranvijay is a version of misogynists who troll women for using the social media to raise awareness about cramps, excessive bleeding, agonising period pains and the trivialisation of these experiences by society. 


Oddly enough, the determinedly misogynistic Animal writes a feminist element into Ranvijay’s character – he explodes with anger when his brother-in-law roughs up his sister early in the film. There is no progression shown from that scene to his own extreme hostility to his wife. 


Animal’s terrible attitude to women runs alongside a cunning use of India’s religious minorities. 


Abrar and his cohorts are stereotypes diligently being peddled by Hindi cinema to echo the current Islamophobic national discourse. There is even a Muslim man in the picture who is described as a butcher from Istanbul. His sole contribution to Animal is a stomach-churning slaughter of men. 


The Sikhs in Animal are Ranvijay’s brethren and protectors, an extension of a positive stereotype: the fierce, fiercely loyal Sardarji. They are also his allies against Abrar’s marauding gang. All this leads up to a climactic confrontation between shirtless men on an airport tarmac – talk about Hindi film clichés! – in which a kirpan is handed to Ranvijay so that he can wrap up a fight unto death.


A Christian in Animal confuses Balbir Singh’s company logo with the Nazi Swastika. Since prominent Hindu religious symbols are ubiquitous, one assumes a Christian was chosen for that episode to play along with right-wing propagandists who project Indian Christians as alien Westerners. Presumably, the idea here is to hint at Hinduism being a globally misunderstood faith. 


Without giving away plot points, I can tell you this much: according to Animal’s underlying philosophy, Sikhs are family and very much in the Hindu fold, Muslims are family that chose the wrong path and are now out to destroy the mother clan, and Christians are the other. 


The mind games played by Animal are packaged in slick production design and cinematography, accompanied by a pulsating sound design, infectious music, and Ranbir’s immersive performance. 


Despite all this, I was bored stiff by the film. 


Startling violence is used here to compensate for a thin, trite storyline. In the first half hour, I was curious about where Vanga would take it, but I spent the remaining 171 minutes stifling yawns at the transparent effort to be disgusting. The camera zooms in on a pulverised human eye. A knife is run back and forth, back and forth, back and forth over a human neck in close-up instead of one swift slash that filmmakers usually favour. 


For the record, Animal is not the most violent film ever made in India. Others have done as bad or worse. It is ugly though – in both its use of violence and in its intent.


Ugly. Hate-filled. Tedious. Self-indulgent. And hawking a loathsome agenda. 


Misogynists insist that feminists hate men, although all that feminists want is gender equality. You know who hates feminist men? Answer: misogynistsYou know who hates men in general? Answer: misogynistsI cannot for the life of me imagine a feminist – female or male – ever conceiving a film that makes men look as foolish, puerile, self-pitying and pathetic as Animal does. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 0   


Running time:

201 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Saturday, December 2, 2023



Release date:

December 1, 2023


Meghna Gulzar


Vicky Kaushal, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Neeraj Kabi, Govind Namdev 


Hindi with some English  

How do you make a film on a national icon whose image of coolth in his lifetime was built not solely on extreme courage and brilliant war-time strategising, nor even just his sense of humour and forthrightness, but also on widely disseminated accounts of his sexist condescension towards a prominent woman politician? The task is especially challenging when the man in question is Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, a beloved Army Chief credited with India’s win in the 1971 war against Pakistan that led to the formation of Bangladesh.


A story that Manekshaw addressed the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as “sweetie” (She: Are you ready to go to war? He: I am always ready, sweetie) has assumed legendary proportions over time, with some fans repeating it as proof of his hipness and daring, while others have sought to deny it, and still others dismiss criticism of him by taking the position that women these days make much ado about nothing. Either way, the anecdote is an intrinsic part of the Manekshaw legend, and a truthful film about him cannot sweep it under a carpet. Would it be wisest for such a film to normalise sexism, or else to examine the subject through a critical, analytical lens even at the risk of irking Manekshaw’s adoring admirers?The dilemma is apparent in Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur that the director has co-written with Bhavani Iyer and Shantanu Srivastava, and is just one of the weak spots in an oddly pallid, superficial biopic. 


(Note: Manekshaw’s daughter has been quoted in the press this week praising the film after seeing two previews. This should put to rest the speculation about whether the “sweetie” saga is true.) 


Like most human beings, Sam Manekshaw was not easily definable. That patronising line to Gandhi is just a fraction of the abundant lore surrounding him, supplemented in Sam Bahadur by another not-so-well-known conversation: Manekshaw in the film tells Mrs G during an official, one-on-one meeting that she can always rest her worried head on his shoulders. Ugh! 


Since the film has not laid any ground for that exchange by suggesting a close friendship between them, his words are nothing less than an instance of over-familiarity and superciliousness that women at workplaces, including women leaders, are acquainted with. This is the same Manekshaw though who is known to have, and shown to have, unequivocally ordered his troops not to harm Bangladeshi women after India’s victory against Pakistan in 1971. To say he was complex, therefore, is an understatement, but Sam Bahadur’s script merely flits over various aspects of his personality and struggles to weave them into a comprehensible, relatable, engaging whole. 


The writers appear not to have come to terms with the troubling eternal reality that contradictory qualities often co-exist within the same person. Instead, in an ostensible bid to justify the unpalatable, they let on that “sweetie” was Manekshaw’s mode of address not just for India’s first woman PM, but for others too, both male and female. Err, talking down to another person does not become okay just because women are not the only ones at the receiving end. This was perhaps an opportunity to scrutinise society’s willingness to indulge distasteful conduct by men in power. Sadly, Sam Bahadur lacks the subtlety to handle this delicate point while simultaneously acknowledging Manekshaw’s incredible achievements.


The film is painfully conscious that its central figure was a giant among men. It declares that he was great, and expects us to believe it because it says so, but fails to distil the essence of who he was and why. In fact, Sam Bahadur is so acutely aware of his stature in Indian history, that initially it underlines a marginal brainwave as though it was an act of unprecedented genius. Later, when Manekshaw is accused of being anti-national, the charge is shown quickly collapsing under the weight of his grandiose pronouncements – this is another opportunity lost, if you consider the parallels with contemporary India, but for that resonance to be conveyed, a film would have to rise above the broad brush strokes that Sam Bahadur favours over nuance and detail.


The script jumps from one milestone in Manekshaw’s personal and professional journey to the next to the next to the next – from his marriage to his triumphs at various postings in the Army before and after Independence, internecine politics, his appointment as chief, 1971, his elevation to the position of India’s first field marshal, and finally, retirement – without getting to the beating heart of the celebrated soldier. It thus comes across as a listing of historical events rather than an in-depth exploration of the person behind the larger-than-life persona. 


If the goal was to offer a primer to students brushing up on their GK before a quiz, Sam Bahadur has served its purpose. As a biopic though, it is shallow.


The portrayal of Manekshaw’s relationship with his wife exemplifies the follies of the script in its entirety. They meet at a party, he is smitten at first sight, he says clever-sounding things, they gaze at each other through a long, moony song as they dance, we gather that they fall in love as that number plays at the party since that’s the purpose served by such musical interludes in Hindi films that feature a ‘heroine’ as a glamorous aside…cut to her in the bedroom of their home gazing at their sleeping child. That is literally how abrupt it is. That the director of the exemplary Raazi and Talvar would deliver a film this poorly structured and this lightweight is surprising.


Mrs Manekshaw, Silloo, gets a defining trait: an inexplicable animosity towards Indira Gandhi even before meeting her. The film implies that Silloo was insecure about Gandhi for no given reason, obviously playing into the stereotype that women don’t like attractive women. Eye roll! The antagonism results in some of Sam Bahadur’s silliest, unfunniest-albeit-meant-to-be-funny moments. It is disappointing that Mses Gulzar and Iyer, who co-wrote Raazi, opted to trivialise women in this film, first by giving an Army wife zero substance beyond her jealousy towards another woman, then compounding that diversion with a flash of what could be either innuendo or a genuine misunderstanding in at least one telephone conversation – presumably designed for comical effect – between Gandhi and Manekshaw. Worse, when he is shown patronising her, she has no reaction. Neither shock, nor confusion about how to react, neither anger, nor amusement. 


Are the writers implying that Gandhi was attracted to Manekshaw because he was a hottie? Can’t say for sure, but they’re certainly implying something. It is as if they could not fathom a normal working relationship between a good-looking, high-profile woman and man. 


No amount of contrived humour, no surface energy, no acting swag or rambunctious patriotic song – all of which we get here – can compensate for this passionless narrative.  


Not unexpectedly then, Vicky Kaushal’s performance as Manekshaw is as slight as the script. In Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham (2021), Kaushal seemed to grasp the freedom fighter Udham Singh’s emotions and motivations. Here, he effectively captures Manekshaw’s posture, gait, intonation and the twinkle in his eye, but never gets past his skin. The fact that Manekshaw had a big personality is no excuse. For a recent example of an actor steering an audience beyond a real-life character’s overwhelming exteriority and flamboyance, Kaushal and the writers of Sam Bahadur would have done well to reference Ranveer Singh’s brilliant, non-caricaturish, immersive turn as the flashy former Indian cricketer Kapil Dev in Kabir Khan’s well-written 83.


The talented Sanya Malhotra (DangalPagglaitKathal) is wasted in Sam Bahadur, cast as an insipid Silloo. So is Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who is unrecognisable after a while as Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan. Fatima Sana Shaikh delivers a stolid, dull Gandhi.  


The film is too much in awe of Manekshaw and too determined to lionise him to do justice to the other stalwarts on screen. Gandhi here, for instance, is nothing like the charismatic woman we saw in the public realm in reality, whose steely will earned her the nickname “Iron Lady of India”. 


Still, Sam Bahadur is not without qualities to recommend. The scenes of military action, for one, are captivating. In a decade when patriotism and even the national anthem have been weaponised by the Right, and Hindi cinema is bowing to prevailing winds by turning accounts of Indian heroes and their achievements into vehicles for chest-thumping desh prem, hatred of Pakistan and the stereotyping of India’s own religious minorities, this film is different. Sam Bahadur representspatriotism, not chauvinism. Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s song Badhte Chalo that runs through the 1971 war in the film is stirring, not jingoistic. This is not Akshay Kumar style aggressive nationalism, nor is it akin to the more polished propaganda of Uri: The Surgical Strike that Kaushal himself starred in. This is Meghna Gulzar style love for the country. This is cinema, not a war cry.  


Even when Sam Bahadur presents a broken Jawaharlal Nehru with Sardar Patel during the 1962 India-China debacle, it stops short of the right-wing ecosystem’s favourite trope that Nehru was a weakling and Patel the strong-willed one in the Cabinet. Their scenes are as broadly written as everything else in the film, nevertheless they are a marked contrast to the comically cowardly Nehru and gigantic Patel in Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1994) and in the current dominant discourse. 


Ultimately though, anything that Sam Bahadur gets right is overshadowed by its sketchy scripting and bombast sans soul in the protagonist’s speech, demeanour and actions. The film tells us Manekshaw tended to downplay his troubles with the signature line “I’m okay”. Okay is not good. Okay is not great. Okay is just okay. Like the film. Sam Bahadur is okay, I guess. Just okay. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2


Running time:

150 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Sunday, August 2, 2020


Release date: July 31, 2020 (on Netflix) 

Director: Honey Trehan

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Padmavati Rao, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Nishant Dahiya, Ila Arun, Shreedhar Dubey, Aditya Srivastava, Riya Shukla, Shweta Tripathi, Swanand Kirkire, Tigmanshu Dhulia

Language: Hindi

Sometimes a film has the power to grip you from the very second it takes off. Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai (RAH) does that, grabbing attention with a vice-like hold from the moment it opens with a chilling murder on a deserted highway in the inky blackness of the night. 

Fast forward to five years later, and there is another murder: a rich old man is found shot and with his face bashed up on his wedding night. Inspector Jatil Yadav is called in to investigate (yes, Jatil, not Jatin – there is an amusing story there).

The elderly victim had money and a wealth of people around him. Yadav realises within minutes of being inserted into their lives that no one is above suspicion: not the dead man’s pregnant daughter, not his drug-taking son or the son-in-law whose sole concern is his claim to the family fortune. Then there is the victim’s enigmatic sister and niece, an arrogant nephew, the young bride herself and the domestic help who seems to know more than she lets on. 

While sifting through clues and possible motivations, Yadav, who is edging towards middle age, must also deal with his pesky albeit well-meaning mother’s marriage goals for him.  

Trehan has so far been known as one of Bollywood’s top casting directors. The meticulousness with which he and his colleague Taran Bajaj have picked actors for even minuscule roles in RAH explains his reputation for excellence in that department. The confidence with which he has helmed this film belies the reality that it marks his directorial debut. 

Every frame of RAH, every technical aspect, has been handled with extreme care. The film plays out mostly in darkness. Open spaces late at night where fires are replicated by the reflective surfaces on which they fall and the red-tinted low-lit interiors of homes elegantly captured by DoP Pankaj Kumar set up, heighten and sustain the sense of intrigue and suspense in the narrative. It can be safely concluded that Kumar has superhuman abilities since his repertoire ranges from the visual philosophy of Ship of Theseus to the atmospherics of RAH.    

The writing by Smita Singh (who has been credited with the story, screenplay and dialogues) pays heed to even the minutiae in the life and demeanour of each character. RAH is an effective crime thriller, but goes well beyond that to also serve as a running commentary on state politics and the sociology of small-town north India. 

The most visceral statement emanating from Singh’s story is about the way society punishes women victims of sexual abuse, irrespective of class, and views them with suspicion while covering up the sins of their male predators. She also finds space for colourism, a telling reference to the double standards inherent in Hindutva politics, and a spectrum of hypocrisy where a target of prejudice may very well turn out to be prejudiced in their own way – like the man who is rejected by a woman because he is too dark-skinned for her taste, who in turn says her attire indicates that she is not as “susheel” (good, modest) as he would like his wife to be. 

Susheel” is translated as “virginal” in the subtitles, which is an interesting interpretation of the Hindi word. It is a measure of the importance Raat Akeli Hai gives to detail that the subs have been done by no less a personage than Abhishek Chaubey (director of Dedh Ishqiya and Udta Punjab, and one of this film’s producers) along with Utsav Maitra. 

 This team clearly has an affection for language and is aware that subtitles across Indian cinemas often wreck the director’s and writer’s intent. Singh’s dialogues merit every bit of that love. 

Despite the large ensemble of characters, Singh and Trehan make each one distinctive. 

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Jatil Yadav switches with characteristic ease from hard-as-nails policeman to a softer version of himself. 

Radhika Apte as the much-hated bride, Radha, embodies an oppressed yet defiant, despairing yet still spirited woman wronged. 

Each actor stands out in their own right, though I must say it was a pleasure to see Riya Shukla – who earlier played Swara Bhasker’s acid-tongued daughter in Nil Battey Sannata – here playing a significant part as the terrified household help. 

In his role as a senior policeman, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s natural timing seems particularly well-suited to the local flavour of the dialogues. 

Shreedhar Dubey makes himself likeable as Yadav’s gossipy deputy who personifies casual misogyny with his assumptions about who done it – a reminder that patriarchy is perpetuated not necessarily by men with horns on their heads but by the ‘nice guys’ too. 

And Ila Arun is utterly loveable as Yadav’s mother. I melted into a puddle as I heard her explain what his father meant to her. 

In the midst of so much that is good, two points about RAH are a cause for concern. Firstly, the relationship Yadav tries to build with a woman in the film is exploitative because of the unequal power equation between them, far worse than perhaps even a doctor wooing a patient or a lawyer wooing a client because when he first makes an aggressive overture towards her, he is in a position to destroy her completely. This is not to say that no man would make such a move in real life, but that this particular man’s behaviour here seems inconsistent with his characterisation until then and thereafter, and that the script does not bat an eyelid in the matter, which becomes noteworthy considering the progressiveness of the rest of the writing. 

The finale gets stretched for over 20 minutes after the big reveal, partly due to the Agatha Christie-style gathering of all the players in a single room for the detective to say his piece (which is sweet) and partly due to a needless bow to the conventional definition of happily-ever-after. The closing scene feels odd not just because it is unnecessary but also because of the lack of chemistry between the two actors and characters involved. By this time though, RAH had me completely engrossed and in a forgiving mood.

It helps that the film closes right then with one of the mood songs Sneha Khanwalkar has created for it. Khanwalkar’s soundtrack and Karan Kulkarni’s background score play a crucial role in RAH’s pensive tone

Raat Akeli Hai (The Night Is Alone / Lonely / Solitary) marks the advent on the Hindi film scene of a bold new voice. Here is some breaking news of the happy variety: director Honey Trehan has arrived.  

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5 stars)

Running time: 150 minutes

Photo courtesy: IMDB

Friday, July 24, 2020


Parvathy Thiruvothu is in a great place with her career. After back-to-back successes with Uyare and Virus in 2019, she is now preparing for her directorial debut. The National Award winning Mollywood star, who earlier forayed into Bollywood with Qarib Qarib Singlle in 2017, has had scriptwriting and studies to keep her occupied during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the ongoing national lockdown has not been easy on her. Although she is relieved that her loved ones are fine, she explains that she has swung on “a pendulum of calm to absolutely anxious” in this time due to the political climate in the country and her own personal challenges. 

In this freewheeling conversation, the actor speaks at length for the first time about her long-time battle with depression. She also discusses her home state Kerala’s response to COVID-19 and lessons from Virus, which is based on the true story of Kerala’s handling of a Nipah outbreak in 2018. Excerpts from an exclusive interview: 

What have you learnt about yourself during this lockdown?

I have learnt that I have incredible mind power. (Laughs) I apply that at my workplace most of the time, but the way I have treated characters that I have played is so much better than how I generally used to treat myself. (Laughs) So, this period has been a deep dive into how I am dealing with my deep-seated depression. I’ve had regular bouts of it that I have been taking care of, without medication at this point, with all the help I can get from online therapy and also being connected to my closest friends.

I’m used to taking time off after 2-3 films, but a choice to lock myself in is different from when it’s mandatory – it suddenly feels stifling. That feeling lasted for about a week of the lockdown. Now I’ve been focusing on my work. Currently I’m writing for my directorial venture and another project with a friend from the industry. It has been very rewarding, but being self-employed is difficult because it requires self-motivation. So, each day I realise a new facet of my mental strength.

What did you mean by saying: I treat my characters better than myself?

My research, pre-production work and under-production work are usually quite meticulous. That’s the period when the focus on Parvathy takes a backseat. Once the routine of getting up at 4 and shooting till 11 at night for about 45-50 days is over, you are suddenly accountable for a full-focus shift back to yourself. You need to do certain housekeeping for your mind and body, and of late I have found that when creating a character I utilise everything in my power for a great output, but with my own mental or physical health, I have not been that meticulous.

I am unlearning the mindset that working on yourself is vain. When it’s something outside of yourself there is so much more value attached to it. What you put out there is visible and tangible. Somehow, you tend to overlook the progress you make within and the importance of it. 

You are not using the word depression casually as people often do. You’re using it to mean clinical depression?

I only use it to mean clinical depression. Sadness and depression are different. I am still learning what all it entails but I understand what it feels and looks like when somebody says they have anxiety and panic attacks, because I struggle with it myself. I have been clinically diagnosed in the last 5 years.

How come you’re being open about it? That’s unusual in India because of prevailing prejudices and ignorance.

I have been open about it from a very young age. Whenever I felt emotionally low, I used to open up and talk about it with school and college friends. Unfortunately, some people I was close with used to say, “Oh my god, you’re addicted to self-pity. Snap out of it.” That was an issue because for a long time I did try that, you know. For years I thought I was making a big deal out of it, maybe I should just snap out of it. Then I realised I was repressing things, that I end up imploding sooner or later. No one would know what to do with me. So, I learnt to be honest with myself. I sought medical help. I figured ways to write down my feelings and tell people.

As an actress I’m used to people having an opinion on me – I stopped giving a damn a long time ago. And while I do suffer from depression, I’m proud of myself. I’m everything I am today, right now speaking to you in this moment, because of how I’ve survived. And continue to. At some point I switched to the mentality of a survivor rather than someone who is suffering every day. Sometimes it’s every waking minute, and I have to literally say out loud: no no, you’re not giving up. It has been an important journey to constantly unlearn the mentality of victimhood and to remind myself with every tool possible that I have the strength to overcome.

Some people do not like to talk about it. That is okay too, as long as they know there is help when they need it. I talk about it a lot but then I go quiet too. And it boils down to one point, Anna – I have benefited a lot from my loved ones making every effort to understand me, but I never expected that from others. First, it’s none of their concern. Second, they don’t owe me understanding. I owe myself understanding. I’d make the effort to let my closest people know what I’m going through, and if they had shamed me then that would have been another fight to win, yeah.

Who or what helped you realise that it’s okay to seek help, to not see it as self-pity?

A family member I am close to once reached out for help and said, “I don’t think I can do it on my own. I am unable to sleep, I am unable to take care of my mind, I am going out of control. Please take me to a doctor.” I was at that juncture when I was “snapping out of it”. The process of taking him to the doctor, seeing his courage, helped me see that I had been in denial and that I too needed proper care.

Initially it was very difficult to go see a therapist – I was afraid of being judged by a stranger. Another struggle was that I was surrounded by a few people who didn’t know what to do with me unless I was in a state of crisis. I held on to my crisis as an identity for a long time. It was difficult to manoeuvre my way out of that. I am no longer in touch with many people who eventually didn’t know what to do with me because suddenly I seemed more confident, open about my issues, dealing with it on my own.

Also, my panic attacks had started physically manifesting as illnesses, pain or breathlessness. It is typical of me that anything coming in the way of my craft will be immediately taken care of, so my initial reason for seeking help was that I wanted to focus better on work.  Now though, I have reached a point where I consistently work on bettering myself. Period.

It’s been a long, really curvy road. I don’t know where it began to be honest, I’m just thinking about it right now when you’re asking me. And now this interview has become about mental health – very interesting.

I wasn’t expecting it either.

How does one distinguish between sadness versus knowing a problem requires a psychiatrist?

I cannot speak for everyone, but I can tell you how it was for me. When my panic attacks first led to breathlessness, I was taken to hospital and nothing was found to be wrong with my body. The doctor said, this is an anxiety attack. The first time – and this was funny – I was at work, and my director and the rest of the team were like, “Wait a second, are you stressed at work? You seem fine.” I was like, “I thought I was fine too, I don’t know what’s happened.” I really didn’t know what was wrong. It was just years of repressed issues that I had okayed without being okay. Eventually the inability to physically perform, the fatigue, the darkness that would engulf me resulting in not wanting to get out of bed, the fact that despite being a stress eater, I even stopped craving that relief, all this told me something was really wrong. If anyone probed, even with the best of intentions, I used to spiral back into panic.

It took several sessions of therapy and me giving up on it too – because I was too scared, I thought they don’t know me, I can’t even relate to what they’re trying to help me with – before I realised that was just scraping the surface. It took a lot of courage to keep going back.

I realised I needed help when it became a norm to not lift my head off the pillow, not want to take care of myself. At the same time, if a loved one was in need I’d be up and helping them, but coming back to myself would immediately paralyse me. That happened a couple of times. I thought I’ll just be given medication to help me sleep, and I did take medication for a little while. That period turned my entire life, physical well-being and my body’s functioning completely topsy-turvy. So, I wanted something better. Ever since I went to therapy and I was clinically diagnosed, I have been on this path of trying different ways to just stay, not leave. To stay in with myself has been the biggest struggle. Yeah. 

Is it the sensitivity that has come from your own mental health concerns that caused you to issue an apology, a clarification, for using the word bipolar in an interview?

Yeah, it was. I was genuinely apologetic. Bipolar by definition alludes to absolute opposites, but that is not the meaning attached to the word in general parlance these days – the word has become synonymous with the mental health condition. So when somebody who I assume has experience with being bipolar called it out for me, I thought it was important for me to correct myself because I would have wanted that if I was on the other end and felt someone was stigmatising or slighting a condition. Yeah.

People often use words like “schizophrenic” and “Alzheimer’s” casually. Is it lack of sensitivity that we need to personally experience something or see a loved one suffering to become conscious of insensitive language, or is this understandable?

It takes a lot of sensitising in terms of either going through it yourself or someone close to you going through it. For example, I was sensitive to any facet of feminism and aware that I will always be a feminist, because I had personal experiences, but when I met further marginalised people speaking up about their struggles, it took listening to them intently for me to realise that you cannot equate your experience with theirs. You have to listen and understand that they are in pain and it’s not a pain that you have endured. It doesn’t cancel out your journey, but it’s important to know more about how uniquely terrifying each person’s struggle is. 

When it comes to language, we are trying to change words that are used to speak about feminists as well, words that used to be treated as a joke.

Words like feminazi?

Ya, like feminazi, and we would be told, “you’re not a good sport, you should just laugh at it.” It took me a long time to stop encouraging those terms, and to not laugh at sexist jokes even when the majority in the room would. Not participating would be my silent yet powerful way of saying I don’t think that was cool.

When did you first speak about your mental health in public? How did you get to a place where you could do that without worrying that people are judging you?

This is the first time I have spoken at such length. Ever since we formed the Women In Cinema Collective (WCC), fear took a good long vacation because everything was at risk. Well, everything is still at risk, so it gave me that sense of there’s no time like now to just be completely who I am. I started alluding to the episodes I have in certain interviews, when the context asked for it. But in my closest circles, since I’ve never been shamed, it’s still easy for me on a day-to-day basis to speak about my emotions. So that gives me confidence too, to be speaking like this to you. Yeah.

The Government of your home state, Kerala, as far as I can recall, was the first to speak about mental health during the lockdown, domestic violence and alcoholism. Was this surprising or expected?

It was completely expected. There was a lot of faith in our administration and our Health Minister, Shailaja Teacher (K.K. Shailaja), especially because of how she handled both waves of the Nipah virus – the first where I actually was in Calicut, the epicentre of the outbreak (in 2018), and the second was in Ernakulam (in 2019) when the movie Virus was about to release. The way hundreds of people were quarantined promptly (during the second wave) and there were no deaths, shows the focus and the immediate jumping into action that our Government has prioritised when it comes to health crises. I personally thought the first wave of Nipah would end up in a massive epidemic or a pandemic. So, the way they’re hitting it out of the park with COVID-19 is completely expected. Anybody who is pro or against, even the Opposition, would commend their handling of this situation despite the glaring lack of support from the Centre. I am proud of them and support them 100 per cent in this matter. Yeah.

People of Kerala seem to have confidence in K.K. Shailaja and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s handling of the pandemic. This public confidence is missing from the rest of India. Is this a correct assessment?

It is. I’m certain there are glitches here and there, but there’s an earnestness with which the Kerala Government has taken care of the situation, they are constantly at it, they hold regular press conferences. There is also a difference between the language of Kerala’s communication and the communication from other states. Kerala’s ministers and healthcare representatives are not just giving constant updates, they are also invested in boosting our morale. When they come on screen they always say: we will get over this, we are together in this. As a people, we can sense their confidence. This confidence is reflecting in the undeterred spirit of our nurses and doctors as well. The state government’s handling of COVID-19 has everything to do with it. That is definitely missing in how the Centre is handling this crisis.

In the middle of the pandemic came news that Kerala is the only big state in India with an infant mortality rate in single digits. But Kerala is not perfect. How do we guard against pedestalisation of the state because of all the great things it is doing?

It is critical for people to hold the Government accountable at all times. Like I am supporting what the Kerala Government is doing with COVID-19, but through WCC we have constantly sought answers regarding systems in the film fraternity. As citizens, we seek answers to why there is so much domestic violence and alcoholism in Kerala and what the government will do to solve these problems. We will not forget these things once we are done beating COVID-19. That’s something Kerala is always consistent with: the criticism never dies down. And it shouldn’t.

It is important to commend a government when we are benefiting, but whether you support or oppose the party in power, constantly see what area of society needs more work and keep at it. In Kerala, I know people who support the Government but are the most critical. This is missing in the rest of India. It’s difficult for me to have a conversation with a Central Government supporter with whom there cannot be any criticism. That’s a totalitarian leadership and behaviour of followers. Yeah.

Your film Virus shows the Centre pressuring the Kerala Government to view the 2018 Nipah outbreak as an act of bio-warfare but the state insists on investigating further. Seeing how COVID-19 has been communalised in India, what can we learn from that scene in the film?

That scene was vital to show the handling of such a situation, when we already have a certain blatant warfare towards this minority community. When the Tablighi Jamaat scandal came out, there were big debates happening in internal circles, but at no point did anyone I know (in Kerala) focus on a faith or its failings. This is not to say that Kerala is immune to such communalisation or that it is devoid of Islamophobia and the caste system, but that as of now these social ills are kept in check because we can see what’s happening outside – since our social fabric remains fragile, we must continue to stay alert. 

In popular culture you will notice in recent films a more sensitive portrayal of different communities and more inclusion. Malayala thanima (typical Malayali tradition) does not mean Thrissurile oru mana (an upper caste family home in Thrissur) and a main character is the head of that tharavadu (old household), that’s it. For years we had only one narrative while representing Keralatham (the idea of Kerala) or Malayala thanima. Now we get every aspect of different communities and their stories being told as a regular story, not an exceptional story. The ordinariness of each minority is shown in our popular culture a little more, and that has had a lasting impression on people. I hope this continues.

I’m not blind to the extreme cases of biases I witness in my circles despite all this, but this is what’s keeping us afloat, and that scene in Virus had to be there for us to take a page out of it now. It would be really cool for people to watch Virus at this time.

Why is it important for people to see Virus during this pandemic?

Virus gives an insight that no other film on a pandemic can give because it happened for real. The basic medical facts we have shown in the film are real, and it is an affirmation that things can get better if handled correctly. In Calicut, most people who got the Nipah virus got it because they tried helping someone who was already infected, but then it also took the entire population coming together in a systematic way to stop the spread. It shows the power of community spirit. That is the point of Virus, that is a message that needs to be driven into people, and there’s nothing like cinema to drive a point home. 

This interview was first published on Firstpost on May 27, 2020:

A Malayalam translation of this interview was published in the July issue of Grihshobha magazine: