Survival as an act of resistance: ‘Madithattu’ open doors of hope to understanding ableism in modern society

Director Gopal Menon's short film underscores the need for creating a more compassionate world for those living with intellectual challenges.

BySoumya EM

Published Feb 23, 2024 | 6:00 PMUpdatedFeb 23, 2024 | 6:00 PM

Devi Ajith and Sreelakshmi Pookkad in Madithattu

Following its much-anticipated premiere, the short film Madithattu (In The Lap), directed by documentary filmmaker Gopal Menon, has sparked a wave of positive acclaim.

Audiences are buzzing with admiration for both its compelling content and exquisite craftsmanship, with an immense potential to resonate with global humanity.

Madithattu‘s screening marked the beginning of a fervent conversation, praising its impact and leaving viewers empathetic to intellectually challenged children around us.

The 35-minute short film is about a woman’s daily plight to raise her intellectually disabled teenage daughter and how it takes a bad turn when the sexual-predatory society makes things worse.

Shobhana, the mother (played by Devi Ajith), works as a domestic help and struggles to give her daughter Sangeetha (Sreelakshmi), enough care and keep her safe and protected.

Madithattu depicts the realities of countries like India, where there is no basic support system for nurturing disabled children. On the other hand, the short is also hopeful and perceives a humanitarian angle by bringing solace and peace to disabled people and their caregivers.

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The facts

Devi Ajith and Sreelakshmi Pookkad in a still from Madithattu

Devi Ajith and Sreelakshmi Pookkad in a still from ‘Madithattu’. (Supplied)

Past six months, there have been numerous incidents where mothers, specifically, killed their intellectually disabled children.

One-and-a-half months before, a tragic incident occurred in Ambalapuzha—a suburban town in the Alappuzha district of Kerala, where a mother set her child on fire before committing suicide.

In another heart-wrenching incident a few days prior, a mother took the extreme step of ending her own life after deliberately drowning her child in a well.

Though media outlets reported these cases, a comprehensive analysis of the Crime Records Bureau reveals a shocking absence of data on such incidents involving mothers taking their disabled children’s lives before committing suicide.

The whole idea of body and body functions has been normalised based on an “able” body.

No infrastructure or systems are placed for people with their bodies (/minds) that deviate from these standards to live respectfully and with dignity.

The mothers/caregivers of such children often find themselves on an emotional tightrope, dealing with the daily intricacies of care while constantly battling societal perceptions.

The fear of their child being misunderstood, mistreated, or subjected to ridicule adds an extra layer of emotional burden.

Shobhana’s character in Madithattu is a poignant representation of the silent strength that mothers of intellectually disabled children exude, facing the world with resilience and determination.

The short film does not shy away from portraying the harsh realities of societal perceptions towards individuals with intellectual disabilities.

The neighbours, who should ideally provide a supportive community, become unwitting contributors to the challenges faced by Sangeetha and Shobhana. Neighbours, as depicted in Madithattu, become agents of isolation and stigma, creating an environment where the mother and daughter are forced to navigate through a sea of judgement.

The common psychology of society often involves misunderstanding, ignorance, and an inability to empathise with the unique struggles faced by families dealing with intellectual disabilities.

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Society and stigma

Directed by the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Gopal Menon, the film delves into the complexities of the lives of intellectually disabled people, shedding light on the stigmatisation faced by the mother and her disabled daughter while surviving in an able-istic society with a patriarchal structure.

The short film raises important questions about the need for empathy, education, and societal inclusivity to break down these barriers and create a more compassionate world for those living with intellectual challenges.

It also showcases the unseen struggles that mothers of intellectually disabled children endure beyond the physical and emotional care they provide, the constant fear of societal judgment and the psychological toll of battling stereotypes contribute to the mental health challenges faced by these mothers.

The film brilliantly portrays how, despite their best efforts, mothers often find themselves in the shadows of societal expectations, grappling with a range of emotions from guilt to frustration.

The societal psychology depicted in the short film reflects the prevalent lack of awareness and understanding surrounding intellectual disabilities and the tendency to view individuals with disabilities through a lens of pity or as burdens on society perpetuates a cycle of discrimination.

Sexual abuse and trauma

Madithattu also speaks about how disabled children, especially girls, are prone to abuse easily as it makes it difficult for them to resist or, at times, realise the acts of violation.

In patriarchal societies, where the female gender is often the object of abuse and harassment, being a disabled girl makes the situation even worse.

The dominant sex, being men, often tends to violate them, and so do they judge them as the reason for such acts. The blame is often placed on girls or women who are molested and raped while the abusers manage to flee.

And most often, the abusers are familiar members of the family, neighbourhood or other men who are near the child. This worsens the situation despite all efforts to keep such children safe and protected. The trauma heightens, and the caregivers are left hopeless without any lending hands of support and understanding.

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Performances

Pratap P Nair and Gopal Menon on the sets of Madithattu

Pratap P Nair and Gopal Menon on the sets of ‘Madithattu’. (Supplied)

Cinematically, Madithattu stands out because of the amazing performance of Sreelakshmi Pookkad, an emerging actor, who performs the role of an intellectually challenged teenager who does not know what to do when she menstruates.

Devi Ajith also does extremely well as the constantly struggling and pained mother.

Jolly Chirayath, a state award-winning actor, as Subaida, has done a brilliant performance by turning out the emotional arcs of the movie.

Saritha Kukku, Shiyas Tso, and Navin Raj deliver outstanding portrayals in their respective significant roles.

The film’s aesthetics are crisp, and the script and directorial treatment move beyond the moments of melodrama.

The audience instinctively connects to the characters who are vulnerable and helpless, especially the young girl who is hardly aware of herself, what is happening to her, and how to respond to her body or mind.

As the music embellishes the silent pangs, the supporting characters add such fine details to their performance that the story turns out to be so gripping and heart-wrenching.

The irritated and hostile stranger depicts the unsympathetic society, while the auto driver remains the ray of sunshine seldom found.

The cinematography team, led by Pratap P Nair—a recipient of National and State awards, has visually crafted the film letting the audience move with every character’s emotional state.

The film’s use of music, composed by Veetrag Gopi, complements the narrative and enhances the situations and emotional states of the characters.

Rafiq Ahmad’s lyrics are heart-touching and equally liberating the thoughts of the audience.

Art director Roshan Jameela Raheem, and associate directors Siddarth and Mahesh Krishna are the core pillars of the crew.

Director Gopal Menon concludes this enchanting short film with Rafiq Ahmad’s verses, reminiscent of an approaching rain cloud beneath the sky.

Like rain after the scorching summer, the audience, Shobhana—who faces the turbulent sea of hardships, and her daughter wear a smile.

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Building a support system

Nowadays, parents who have an intellectually disabled child may be closely scrutinised for any sign or symptom of abuse or neglect of their children. Parents live in fear of having their children taken away.

Many others are not identified as having an intellectual disability and try to hide their disability, depriving themselves of any opportunity for accommodations.

Madithattu leaves us with lots of questions about our involvement as a person or a society in the lives of intellectually disabled children and their parents/caregivers around us while we all thrive for certain status games.

Studies done by the International Journal of Innovative Studies in Sociology and Humanities (IJISSH) report that most such parents/caregivers do not have good psychological well-being due to their multiple responsibilities.

To improve their psychological well-being, the parents of intellectually challenged children should undergo therapies such as psychotherapy, relaxation, and stress management techniques.

It is also applicable to the family members of the intellectually challenged children.

Referral services can also be given to parents and family members to lead their lives positively since it lets the parents help their child in a better way.

The motivational approach and support from the family members and the relatives help the parent/(s) support their child in a better way. It also helps them to have hope and confidence in their child’s development through which these parents can help their child to have regular special training and rehabilitation for their disabilities.

Proper counselling services are also helpful for the parent/caregiver to lead their life positively and it also helps them to have a good psychological well-being.

Despite the short film’s brief duration, Madithattu only scratches the surface of the profound challenges faced by individuals with disabilities.

This thought-provoking short film serves as a good reminder that even in its limited time, cinema can spark crucial conversations about the complex and often overlooked issues surrounding disability.

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It’s born out of desire: Gopal Menon

Sreelakshmi Pookkad and Gopal Menon

Sreelakshmi Pookkad and Gopal Menon. (Supplied)

Gopal Menon is a renowned figure in Indian documentary filmmaking and has unfolded numerous untold stories of injustices and caste-based violence through his impactful documentaries. Works such as Hey Ram: Genocide In The Land Of Gandhi, Naga Story: The Other Side of Silence, Marching Towards Freedom, The Unholy War, PAPA 2, Let The Butterflies Fly, and I Am Hadiya stand as testimonies to his dedication to shedding light on the social issues plaguing the nation.

The director says, “This film was born out of a desire to create awareness of facilities to families facing these issues in their lives bravely but unable to make decisions because of their emotional stakes.”

Gopal Menon emphasises the film’s departure from traditional documentary aesthetics. “As documentary filmmakers, we tend to prioritise content over form. However, for this subject, we need to adapt and employ innovative storytelling techniques to raise awareness about harsh truths.”

The filmmaker sees this creative shift as a moral obligation to connect with a broader audience.

Madithattu producer PKM Siraj, also the General Secretary of the Humanity Charitable Trust based in Kozhikode, has been actively involved for the past 27 years in various endeavours aimed at uplifting the intellectually disabled communities.

Dr MK Jayaraj, the Kerala Government’s one-man commission on intellectual disability, PKM Siraj, and Gopal Menon conducted a thorough analysis of all the families where murder-suicides have happened in families with intellectually disabled children.

“We agreed to find a social solution and that we needed to work with organisations and people who support these kids to survive such situations and to become defenders from being victims and survivors. Some of my friends approached me to take a documentary on the day-to-day struggles faced by persons with disabilities in our society. However, I believe movies have always had a better impact on the common people than documentaries. So, I suggested to producer Siraj that we create a movie. Due to financial constraints, we could only manage to make a short film,” Gopal Menon recalls.

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Audiences in awe of Madithattu

News on the first screening of the short film Madithattu has surfaced, and a person named Abid from Kakkattil in Kozhikode, after having attended the screening, spoke evocatively about a tragic incident that occurred in his place involving a child facing a serious intellectual challenge and the mother.

He discussed the necessity of creating awareness in society.

Many individuals, similar to Abid, are urging for the screening of Madithattu in various places through 8 March to shed light on the tragic incidents that necessitate attention.

“I appreciate the film’s brevity in delivering a powerful message. It’s a wake-up call for all of us to be more inclusive and understanding of those facing intellectual challenges.”

“The soundtrack and cinematography elevate the film, creating an immersive experience. It’s a perfect blend of storytelling and technical brilliance.”

“Sreelakshmi Pookkad’s portrayal of an intellectually disabled teenager is nothing short of extraordinary. The authenticity in her performance is heart-wrenchingly beautiful.”

Madithattu is a pulse-pounding exploration of societal challenges. The twists and turns in the narrative had me hooked, showcasing the raw realities of life.”

These are some viewer’s responses after the screening.

The trailer of Madithatu made its online debut through the social media platforms of prominent public figures, including sound editor and director Rasool Pookutty, lyricist Rafeeq Ahmed, poet K Sachidanandan, singer Sitara Krishnakumar, actress Mamta Mohandas, directors/screenwriters Muhsin Parari and Harshad.

In addition to these figures, female directors Ratheena Pt, Shruti Saranyam, Vidhu Vincent, Mini IG, and Indu VS shared the trailer on their social media profiles.