Fifteen years since the release of Aalavandhan, a look-back at Haasan’s assertive depiction of schizophrenia…
By Mani Prabhu
1. The ruthless handling of Nandhu’s introductory sequence
In the early scene where Major Vijayakumar brings his fiancée to meet his twin brother, Nandhu, for the first time, Haasan goes directly for the jugular. Right from the time, the man crawls naked on the floor, only to be elaborately secured with safety straps to the point where he is almost manhandled into the caged chamber and forced into a seat, there is no sugar-coating whatsoever of the beast that he had become. His head is bent down, his eyes fixed at something on the floor. One look at him eerily contracting his scalp, and you could instantly sense the terror. With the drooping eyelids, the protracted tics, the unpredictable hisses, the cyclical sniffs and the seeming escapes into an alternate world, Haasan brings alive the paranoid schizophrenic unapologetically in flesh and blood. It’s all tough to take in. The sinister flight of thoughts and laboured pauses soon lead on to irresistible delusions of persecution, as he starts visualizing his brother’s fiancée as his evil step-mother. The way this sequence ends – Nandhu biting off a piece of the concrete slab and spitting it out at the woman from his bloody mouth, even as he recites lines of twisted poetry while being hauled to the floor and strapped – it’s horrifying, almost like a nasty kick to the gut.
2. The super-indulgent presentation of the hallucinatory trip
After Nandhu makes an escape from the asylum, he takes the help of junkies to get himself drugged. Riding the white horse… that’s what the peddler calls it. The psychedelic trip that he embarks on for the next twenty minutes is presented to us in real time in all its twisted perfection, so much so that it almost starts getting to our heads. We almost feel the cocaine in our blood. As the homicidal thoughts start clouding his mind, it gradually becomes too weird to make any sense of. The warped settings become freaking-trippy to the point of questioning our own senses. To make matters worse, they start dissolving into each other. The mind-bending theme music makes any attempt at voluntary distraction futile. The Mc-Donald clown comes alive. Giant clocks transform into entry ways. Roads give way to waterways. Walls morph into giant TV screens. Characters start jumping out of them. Random persons appear like cartoon characters. And soon, the delusions take over. We end up inside the cavernous corners of Nandhu’s head, as reality merges with fantasy to create a whole new aberrant, space-time dimension. And in this terrifying world of irrational motives and auditory hallucinations, imagine being lost for what seems like infinity! Fascinating, yet brutal stuff.
3. Graphic depiction of violent behaviour
At a time when animation was still looked down as cartoons, Haasan resorted to graphic animation to get away with extended sequences of unimaginable barbarity. They occur at two places in the film – one in the hallway of a cinema hall and the other in a hotel room, both of which tamper with your minds in more ways than one. Are they just projections of Nandu’s visual psyche? Or are they happening for real? What kind of brute could actually behave in this way? A variety of cruel fantasies blended with the predominant persecutory delusions makes Nandhu lose himself to a voice which commands him to mutilate the person he sees as his step-mother. A particular sequence involving an actress, a knife and a coin takes things to a whole new level. The image of Haasan standing before the mirror with blood-soaked hands and face, even as his reflection segues into a sad face drawn out of blood – that’s pretty much what the film is about – dark, twisted and open to interpretation.
Would things be different if something as radical as this had released today? We would never know.