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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

If Thoughts Could Kill

This is not a review of the movie 404. Just some random thoughts on the mysteries of the mind triggered by the film

I liked 404 for many reasons. It’s not often that you get an Indian paranormal thriller that keeps both, the believers and the skeptics happy. It also works that it’s sit-fear and not slapshiver, usually made in 'Post' with spooky special effects and a Ramu-esque sound design. Also, you don’t often see someone pick up a very contextual issue like ragging in college campuses and then use it as a set-up for a paranormal thriller. The storyteller inter-twines two seemingly unconnected ideas and punches it together to craft a coherent and believable tale of ghosts in the campus. Though, in retrospect, wonder why no one’s made this connect before – after-all both play with the same emotion – fear.

The obsession with fear can sometimes be far greater than fear itself. (If you’ve not seen the film, skip this para and the next for it may contain spoilers). Like most paranormal thrillers, 404 plays on this obsession with fear. And gives it a medical twist. Not just by being set in a medical college, but by also exploring a medical condition that has paranormal-like symptoms. “It helps tie up all the loose ends of the film very well”, sums up an avid film critic and my better half, “Why the Prof was willing to defy ethics for the sake of an experiment; why Gaurav committed suicide in the first place and why the character of the genius-kid-spoilt-brat was built up and given more screen time”

The style and the treatment reminded me of some of Satyajit Ray’s short stories on the paranormal where he often wrote about the sinister and the macabre and set them in familiar surroundings. Like both the Prof and the student, Ray’s heroes too were almost always skeptics, atleast on the surface. Until an encounter with the dark crevices of the mind, forces them to explore the anatomy of fear. Like Ray’s ‘Night of the Indigo’, where an aspiring urban writer fearlessly agrees to spend a night in the same house where a British indigo planter had died a century ago. Or the transformation of the very ordinary and meek Ratanbabu into a scheming murderer when he starts feeling claustrophobic on meeting a man who not only looks exactly like him, but shares the same habits, thoughts, values and ideals. 

Did Ratanbabu suffer from bi-polar disorder? I don’t know, neither would Ray I guess, as these are new names to old symptoms. This syndrome is known to impair judgement, break down rationale thinking, and in its extreme form, help create an alternate universe where you can play God without realizing it. Believers call this the paranormal world of spirits, unexplained apparitions and ghosts. Skeptics and scientists would rather symptomise it as hallucination. A figment of imagination where reality no longer exists. It is born, bred and fed by the mysterious powers of subconscious that still lay unexplored. So potent and lethal that it’s a world where thoughts can create and kill. 

If you want to get a real sense of it, away from the movies, head to Behul, a village in Madhya Pradesh. Every year, around the months of January & February, this tiny village transforms into an international ghostbusters’ paradise. It hosts a ‘bhoot mela’, where hundreds of women, believed to be possessed are brought in, to be exorcised. These women are known to exhibit streaks of violence and claim that they can see the dead. But psychologists and skeptics who have visited this unusual fair have a rational explanation. According to their research, many of these village women are victims of domestic abuse. Faking madness or claiming to be possessed gives them a very valid reason to not just defend themselves but also attack their abusers – be it, husbands or in-laws. And if they’re not faking it, the psychologists are convinced that these women who are branded as witches need psychological or psychiatric help, instead of being subjected to barbaric shamanic rituals.

Closer home, I know someone who’s under medical treatment for a condition of the mind that has similar symptoms as the bipolar disorder. It’s painful to acknowledge that that person almost doesn’t exist anymore. It’s as if someone else has taken over. There is a strange glazed expression in the eyes. Sometimes suspicious, sometimes angry, sometimes puzzled… you wonder if the real person will emerge at all. But when it does, even for a little while, you see the fear in the eyes. A fear of being left behind.  Is there a cure? Perhaps, there is, if you can get to the root of the fear and kill it. But what if the root of the fear doesn’t exist. What if it’s unreal? What do you kill? You can only suppress or slow down. The mind is too complex and sometimes too strong to give up without a fight. 

The power of the mind, I’m told by Dan Brown in the Lost Symbol is now being scientifically measured by Noetic Science. Granted that his pop writing makes him a conspiracy theorist and an over-simplifier of research, but I like the idea of measuring the un-measurable – fear, obsession, telepathy. Imagine, the power of will force if it can actually be created and measured in lab conditions. Imagine its power if 1.2 billion minds generate it at the same time. Imagine. So, is true enlightenment all about knowing everything there is to know about our mind? Maybe our minds have been imprinted with all the answers – we just don’t have the right questions yet. Or maybe, just maybe it all adds up to 42, and we forgot to credit Douglas Adams as the man who wrote about the eternal truth :p