This movie, unfortunately, dealt with an issue that I know way too much about to really enjoy. That “unfortunately” isn’t for me, as I will explain I’m actually remarkably fortunate to have had so much experience with it, but it is unfortunate for the film. Which I wasn’t really able to appreciate on its own merits.
I can’t really talk about this movie at all without talking about what happens in the 2nd half, so SPOILERS, I guess, for this entire review.
Mohanlal, an active young-ish family man, starts to have memory problems, eventually leading him to arrive at work and think it is his home. He is taken to the hospital and diagnosed with Alzheimers. His wife, son, and elderly father care for him, until he eventually dies the same day his son goes in for his final IAS interview, fulfilling the dream of his father.
Before I deal with anything else, I have to deal with why this story felt so odd to me. It felt slightly inaccurate, for one thing, and it felt way too unremarkable to be worthy of a film, for another. So I looked up some statistics to try and figure out why I felt like that.
First, I did remember correctly, Alzheimers is extremely unusual in people under the age of 65. Not only does Mohanlal’s character not seem to be 65, Nedumudi Venu playing his father really doesn’t seem to be 85. There is “familial” or “early-onset” Alzheimers, but again that would usually develop in their 50s or 60s, as early as 30s or 40s is very rare. And again, Mohanlal could maybe be believable as in his 50s or 60s, but I’m not buying Nedumudi as in his 80s. But, who cares? So it’s very unusual to develop in the 30s and 40s, but it is still technically possible, why not just accept that is the case in this film and move on?
Because this film is positioned to educate the audience and show the “typical” effect of the disease. I don’t believe the doctor ever says “This is an incredibly rare case!” He just gives the diagnosis of early onset and moves on. More importantly, this film makes you feel very sympathetic and distressed about certain results of the disease which will not be an issue for the vast majority of those who have it and their families.
But what really bothered me was, I was watching this thinking “wait, do they actually think the audience doesn’t know about this already?” Which is the same reaction I had to The Notebook and Still Alice. Do other people just not see their relatives? Why is it supposed to be this huge touching revelation that people get old and their minds get weak and their families take care of them?
(This movie drives me crazy. A magic notebook is not going to cure advanced Alzheimers!)
So then I looked up some more statistics. Alzheimers is the most common form of dementia, although there are other forms as well. And dementia effects 50% of those over the age of 85, and 19% of those over 75. So if the average life span is 80-95 years (as it is in my freakishly long-lived family), talking about dementia is about as exciting as talking about toilet training your toddlers. It’s just a thing that happens, and it’s kind of unpleasant and a lot of work, but you deal with it.
My family has always lived an extra long time, but America as a whole is catching up to us, with the average life span at 78 years. Which means cases of dementia are going up and up and up. It might feel like something new and exciting, like an epidemic, like something to “solve”, but really it is just an old familiar story that we are seeing more of because fewer people are dying of heart attacks or lung disease or the common cold or all the other things that used to kill them before they were old enough to get dementia.
And general health is improving as well. A 100 years ago, a 65 year old with dementia would also have difficulty breathing, walking, and a lowered immune system, today the body can be kept in excellent condition, which just serves to make the damage to the mind all the more noticeable. Before, it was just a general “getting old”; your mind is weak, your heart is weak, your lungs are weak, and then one of those things kills you. Now, you could live for decades longer if only your mind could be fixed.
(Princess Anne at 65. I was going to use a picture of Queen Anne for comparison, but she died at 49 in 1714 of “fever”)
Kerala, of course, has the longest average life span of any state in India. But even in Kerala, it is just 74 years old, and in India as a whole it is 63. So maybe the original audience for this film would be unlikely to have had dementia in their family? This would be a new story to them?
Which brings me to my other issue! If this is the only time, or the first time, you are seeing this problem, then it is not being presented very well. Because the things it shows are so atypical. For instance, the film deals with the effects of Mohanlal’s illness in terms of his career, that he is not able to keep working, that he can’t even enjoy his own retirement party, that his whole professional life is just gone in moments. That’s sad, sure, but that’s hardly typical of someone with dementia, since most of the sufferers are already past working age. More accurate would be to show how regular household tasks start to be lost, a woman can no longer make the traditional holiday meal for her family as she has for decades, a man can no longer advise his son with household repairs.
Or, another example, the film shows how the family’s whole life is uprooted, they have to leave their apartment in the city and move out to the family house in the country. This is the reverse of the typical process, in which the old family home has to be sold so that the sufferer can move to the city and live with his younger relatives. The sadness is not the loss of the wonderful future and present, but of the connection with the past.
(Yet another thing Bangalore Days did very well)
And then the biggest issue, the way it effects the lives and feelings of his family, is also where it feels the “wrongest” to me. If I was understanding the ending correctly, his son postponed further schooling and training and took a long and hard way round, so that he could stay close by and help care for his father. And Mohanlal’s father spend some of his old age caring for his son. And Mohanlal’s wife was there too, comforting him and making sure he takes his pills. And the daughter wasn’t mentioned much, but she was there at the end (I think?), aged up from 5 years to about 10 or 12, apparently growing up in the country.
I get the general idea, they wanted to show what happens when a Householder becomes ill. How the entire family structure relies on him, how the son has to post-pone his dreams to care for him, how the wife has to struggle with loneliness and confusion as she loses the man she loves, how heartbreaking it is for the father to watch his own son slowly slip away. I just wish they had used a different disease!
Because dementia doesn’t attack the “householder”. Or rather, it does, but not directly. Dementia is a terrible problem for the “householder” generation, because they are the ones who really lose their lives to it. Nedumudi should be the one with dementia. Mohanlal would still have to take early retirement to provide care for him, the son would lose his shot at his dreams because the family income is going towards medical care rather than schooling, the wife would be exhausted and worn down and lonely because her husband is spending more time taking care of his father than with his wife and children, and the youngest child would grow up isolated from her family and feeling unloved because all the energy was going towards care for the oldest generation, not the youngest. I mean really, you want to see a movie that shows the effects of dementia on a family, check out Kapoor and Sons! The way Rishi Kapoor has to constantly assert his presence in order not to be ignored, the way the stress of caring for him has helped destroy his son’s marriage, the way his grandsons dread going home because of how the whole family is under added stress and strain, feeling their dreams deferred. THAT’S the tragedy of dementia!
(I’m not saying this character had Alzheimers, I’m just saying there was some form of age related mental alteration going on which made him hard to live with)
This film is telling a story that is more the tragedy of, I don’t know, AIDs? Parkinsons? MS? ALS? Something that is more likely to strike someone in the middle-age, something that would progress very rapidly, something that can be fatal even with few visible physical symptoms. It feels like maybe they just picked early onset Alzheimers as the disease of choice because it’s more “buzz-worthy”.
It also feels like maybe they wanted to “raise awareness”, to make Alzheimers “sexy” by giving it to a youngish man played by a major star. To make the audience go “hey! I want to be like Mohanlal! Mohanlal has Alzheimers in this! I should care more about Alzheimers/treat Alzheimers patients better!” That’s laudable, but the thing is, Alzheimers patients aren’t “sexy”. If you go into it thinking they are going to be like Mohanlal in this, all sweet and young and moving easily, you are in for a rude awakening!
People with dementia are sweet and loving and deserving of respect and all of that, absolutely. But they are also very old, and very tired, and personal appearance is way down on the list of things they are worried about. Or rather, things their caregivers are worried about, because the dementia patients don’t worry about anything. And while dementia doesn’t have any direct physical effects, it does have an effect eventually. People don’t remember, or know how, to bath themselves, to feed themselves, to do all the necessary bodily functions. And they can get angry. Really really angry. Dangerously angry, like can harm themselves and others. Bruises and scratches aren’t unusual on both the patient and their caregiver. And they can get emotionally angry too. For a lot of people, is that the “forbidden” parts of their brain get unlocked. Sexual innuendo, racist remarks, abusive language, it all comes flooding out. Not like they are being the worst version of their previous selves, this is something completely different, something they would NEVER in their lives have even thought before, and now they are saying it. There’s a lot of lashing out, suspicion, anger. Your last memory of your relative could be them happily playing like a child, but it could also be them calling you a prostitute and a racial slur.
So, that’s why I have a problem with this movie. It’s kind of like when an IT person watches a movie about hackers and can’t get past how impossible it would be. Except a little worse, because I feel like the film had the opportunity to show the audience what most of them will be facing as life expectancies worldwide continue to grow, and therefore so do rates of dementia.
Oh, and as for the actual content of the film, I thought all the performances were excellent, Mohanlal did a really good job showing the parts of dementia that the film required of him (confusion, childlike happiness, fear, etc.), and I really wish they would have given him a dementia induced anger scene because I know he would have knocked it out of the park and been legitimately terrifying. The actor who played the son was so good that I looked him up while watching the movie to see if he had been in anything else (only one movie, Asha Black, which looks terrible). Nedumudi was really good, although I kept getting distracted by him playing Mohanlal’s father in this and older brother/employer/friend in Thenmavin Kombathu. The wife actress irritated me a little. But I’m not sure if that was on her or the director. I felt like she played the character a bit too wide-eyed and fragile and innocent and shaken by everything, I would have appreciated a little more stillness and strength in her portrayal.
The songs were really nice too, both the visuals and the music itself. And I loved the way they built the whole community and life of the family, through the song sequences and other parts of the film, especially in the first half (I wish I could find the song sequences online, I would drop them in here). The first half interactions between the family also felt really nice, it was only in the second half when it started dealing in detail with the effects of the disease that I started to have a hard time.