Thoughts on Madha: A case of ‘could have been’

The title sequence of Madha is coated with spookiness and is dedicated to instilling fear in the viewer with the potent use of music and imagery. Suffused with eerie images and anxiety-inducing background score, the sequence succeeds in creating the ominous mood that film carries in totality. The film, though, lacks the inflection that’s apparent in its title sequence.

The very first scene is set in what’s supposedly a classroom. The staging resembles a theatrical production, with light focussed on the speaker who introduces himself as a psychiatrist – “I’m a psychiatrist”, he says – as the students sit in the dark. The scene had me curious for two reasons. First, aren’t students aware of who the professor of their class is? Second, where can I find a classroom with such lucid lighting?

Moving on, the speaker asks a question, “What’s the most powerful weapon in the world?”

“Human brain, it has to be”, I said to my father, who was accompanying me in watching the film.

“Nuclear weapon”, says a timid student.

“Come on! You are talking to a bloody psychiatrist”, I said to myself. 

After some moments, the professor goes to the board and writes “the human mind”.

“I told you”, I exclaimed in joy, taking pride in staying ahead of the filmmaker, while my father hardly gave a damn.

With interesting staging and a promising foundation, the opening scene exhibits the filmmaker’s awareness regarding what he/she signed up for, despite the evident artificiality. The muddle lies in the artificiality, both visual and narrative. I discern that that film was produced in a shoestring budget. Sadly, the lack of privilege translates into amateurish filmmaking. Perhaps, they couldn’t shoot adequate scenes in the first act which comprises scenes that delude people around the protagonist, Nisha, that she is schizophrenic. It’s arduous to convince yourself with little exposure to the character. Although the narrative reaches where we wanted it to and it intended to, mental asylum, the path is bumpy. The first act, which is primarily dedicated to Nisha’s blossoming relationship with Arjun, a cinematographer with evil written on a face that creepily suggests, “I’m up to something, and you (Nisha) won’t see it coming”, coupled with bad acting.

Once again, I understand that a romantic plot is not of the utmost priority when the filmmaker is predominantly formulating the foundation for making a thriller, but if the diminutive romantic thread is the boat that sails the protagonist to the destination, the boat needs to be better. Madha heavily relies on ‘Tell. Don’t show’, instead of the opposite. The majority of the effectiveness is diluted, owing to this facet. When Nisha freaks out after seeing a ‘udumbu’ (monitor lizard) in her bathroom*, she reaches out to her neighbors for help. Post checking the area and not finding any such creature, the neighbors (a bunch of poor background actors) conclude that she has problems and that she has been troubling them for a long time. Wait! Has she created such an issue prior to this? I’m being told so. Exactly two more freak outs later, a cop informs her of the complaint Nisha’s neighbors lodged against her due to continual nuisance. By now, I surmised the filmmaker’s need to get straight to point.

“Police complained to a neighbor for one instance when she asked for help?”

“No.”

“Then?’

“Didn’t you hear them saying she has always been trouble?”

“What?”

Trishna Mukherjee as Nisha gives a competent physical performance as Nisha.

Nisha is branded schizophrenic and put in the mental asylum, yet, there is utterly no sense of fear nor anxiety. Mental Asylums are a gold mine for horror films. The place is a gift that keeps giving to scare the viewers. In this case, though, in spite of the frightful atmosphere it succeeds in building, neither tension nor the emotional disturbance exist. Despite the cruel treatment the inmates are receiving, none of the scenes hit hard as these people are merely flesh & blood and not humans. That’s how they are treated, both by the authorities of the asylum and the film’s writer. A little bit of burnish to the fellow inmates, had we been allowed to see what these ill-fated people are, the film would have disturbed the viewer. ‘Disturbing’ in this context stands for ‘impact’, and that’s one among what Madha primarily lacks.

On a completely related note, coming from an industry which has churned out comedy in the name of ‘mental health’ and ‘mental hospitals’, Madha finds itself on the completely another end of the ‘accurate portrayal of mental asylum’ spectrum, and we are yet to get a movie that accurately portrays the complicated place. 

Undoubtedly, Madha is a well-intentioned, ambitious film that dared to push the boundaries, and deserves to be applauded for striving to be different. Sadly, the ambition is marred by amateurish filmmaking, which by itself could a limitation of the budget. Srividya Basawa, who makes her feature debut as a filmmaker, is a voice to watch out for, and I look forward to the stories I she wants to tell.

SPOILER ALERT:

A bunch of questions out of the dozens I had after finishing watching the film:

*The bathroom thing: If the whole ‘lizard’ idea by Nisha was to project herself like a maniac, why would they show the lizard to us, the audience? If her neighbors were not intended to see it, Nisha could have conveniently fake the screaming (which she was already doing), without even planting a lizard. The repercussion would have been the same.

Also, if Ravi Varma really wanted to torture Nisha to death, why did he help her by calling Arjun (the hero, duh) and asking him for help?

Why does the film emphasize on ‘human mind’, when it is clearly the ‘immune system’ that serves as the plot point?

While the film certainly pins a ton of hopes on the final reveal, it cheats the audience by making it a different film. The protagonist enters a place where death wafts to achieve something, and we learn only in the end that it was a completely conscious choice. That’s KGF for you!

Madha by Srividya Basawa is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Watch the trailer of Madha:

Further reading:

15 best films set in mental asylums

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