Urvashi’s J Baby depicts mental health and caregiving with nuance

Suresh Mari’s Tamil movie ‘J Baby’ adds value to the discourse on mental health by taking into account socio-economic factors. It depicts the influence of income on getting medical aid, and the correlation between labour and care.
Maaran, Urvashi, and Dinesh in 'J Baby'
Maaran, Urvashi, and Dinesh in 'J Baby'
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Suresh Mari’s J Baby is a film about the complex nature of familial relationships and mental health, and is a social critique of care facilities for the elderly. The movie went unappreciated during its release, overshadowed by massive box-office hits like Manjummel Boys. It was hardly released in sufficient screens within Tamil Nadu, not to mention other big cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai, or Delhi, where Tamil films are routinely released. 

Like Manjummel Boys, J Baby was also inspired by true events from the life of the director’s own aunt. 

The protagonist, Baby (Urvashi), is a strong and feisty woman who single-handedly raised five children after the early demise of her husband. Owing to financial constraints, she is compelled to sell her house and ends up shuttling between her children’s homes. In her latter years, she is diagnosed with dementia and bipolar disorder. 

The story begins when Baby’s eldest and youngest sons, Senthil (Maaran) and Sankar (Dinesh), are called to the police station and told that their mother has taken a train to Kolkata. But there's tension between the two brothers—Sankar marries Valar, whose sister had left Senthil on their wedding day.

Complexities of familial relationships and responsibilities

At the core of the movie lies the relationship between a mother and her children—three sons, Senthil, Selvam, and Sankar, and two daughters, Sharmila and Selvi. While the movie discusses the ways in which parents take care of their children, it also shows the pressures that children face while taking care of their parents.

J Baby begins with a police officer chiding Senthil and Sankar for not taking care of their mother who often shuttles between their houses and that of their sisters and sometimes even goes to other relatives’ places to stay. Sankar himself seems to believe that she had left because he hadn’t taken care of her. Yet all five children find it hard to take care of their mother, who has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and bipolarity. They struggle to make ends meet, are in the middle of extremely difficult work schedules, and are occasionally compelled to get their mother out of ridiculous scenarios. When Baby locks up people in their homes, or steals postal letters, it is her children who are blamed for not keeping track of her actions.

Selvi (Melody Dorcas), the younger daughter, laments to the doctor at the government hospital that neither she nor her siblings are able to keep an eye on their mother’s actions because they are accountable at their jobs and homes. In fact, a nurse tells Sankar that numerous families abandon their relatives at the hospital and they are forced to stay there. Even at the elderly women’s home in Kolkata, we see the women who stare blankly at Senthil and Sankar as they search for their mother. These are, after all, women whose children will never come in search of them.

While children are often bound through societal codes to obey their parents, it is much more difficult for elderly parents to listen to their children. In a heart-rending scene, when Selvi and Sankar are in a moral dilemma about whether to leave their mother in the hospital, Baby takes the decision for them and leaves. She is not one to listen to her children and walks away from them angrily, as the food that Selvi lovingly prepared for her mother—the payasam from the Deepavali celebrations—splatter to the ground. 

Senthil seems aloof and uninterested in seeking out his mother. The only times that he says he wants to find her is when everyone expects Sankar and not Senthil to take the responsibility. Yet, we realise that Senthil is riddled with insecurities that he refuses to acknowledge even to his own family, especially to Sankar.

On the journey to Kolkata, the two brothers play cat and mouse. Senthil tries to stay away from Sankar and yet is completely dependent on him. But Sankar always tries to reach out to Senthil and wants to make amends. In a scene so rare in Tamil cinema, Sankar breaks down. For the first time, the two men have a heart-to-heart conversation and reveal their deepest fears—Sankar of never being accepted by the family again for having married Valar, and Senthil of his fear of being mocked. 

But families in this movie are made not just by blood relations. Baby takes almost everyone she meets under her care. She is in the hospital for only two days, but the other patients start seeing her as a mother or a friend—she feeds and takes care of all of them. Similarly, in the elderly women’s home in Kolkata, she starts speaking in Tamil to the other Bengali inmates. Even though they don’t understand each other, there is love shared between them. Baby calls Moorthy—the Tamil army officer in Kolkata who helps Senthil and Sankar find their mother—her own son and tells him that he has family back in Chennai if he ever comes there. 

Baby forges relationships wherever she goes. But her heart always ventures towards her own offspring and she is glad when her children come to get her. 

Humanising disability and disability care

J Baby’s portrayal of persons with disabilities and their treatment in society deserves mention. This is a movie about a low-income family for whom therapy and medical aid for psychological disabilities are almost impossible to get. Dominant narratives on mental health, although very much welcome, continue to medicalise the issue. However, this movie additionally discusses socio-economic factors, which of course, are political in nature. It depicts various issues such as the influence of income in procuring medical aid, the correlation between labour and care, and the loss of housing. Selvi’s lament to the doctor that they are unable to afford the time to take care of their mother, the loss of Baby’s own house, the intense discussion over which of the siblings will bring back their mother from Kolkata, and the state of affordable public medical care facilities are clearly seen in the movie.

Selvam—the second brother—works as a driver for a doctor who informally prescribes medicines for Baby. He tries to give it to his mother who refuses to have it. He then asks his wife to try and mix it in the tea.  Baby refuses to have tea at Selvam’s house stating that she always feels dizzy when she drinks it. This passing statement is taken either as a dig at the daughter-in-law or a quirk in Urvashi’s character. She refuses the tea at home and goes to the local tea shop. It is only much later that Selvam’s tactics to get her to take the medicines are revealed—he doggedly gives the medicines to the tea shop owner. But the second Baby realises this, she throws a tantrum, breaking all his biscuit jars and tea cups and yells that her son will take care of the cost of the mess. 

Baby is a proud and stubborn woman who refuses to accept that she is ailing. In fact, she leads a ‘thug life’, bullying police officers and walking the streets as though she owns them. The rap song “Little bit crazy” that accompanies this sequence reveals her shenanigans. Baby’s disability makes her both kickass and vulnerable. In J Baby, disability is normalised, even humanised. 

Most movies about disability use the sympathy card—a person with disability is often depicted as living a terrible life while the protagonist and others try to help them. In this movie, Baby is the protagonist. When a postman yells at Baby, she yells right back. When the doctor asks her questions, Baby says it’s the doctor who needs psychological help. She refuses to believe that she is unwell, though for a moment when she acknowledges that she sometimes forgets things and doesn’t know what she is doing. Yet, she never blames herself. She says, “Naa onnu thappu panaliye” (I didn’t do anything wrong). It is because of her dementia that she, instead of going to her relative’s house, ends up boarding a train to Kolkata. 

Maybe because Baby is a fighter and her struggles are peppered with humorous comments like “Naa yaaru theriyuma? Jeyalalitha friendu” (Do you know who I am? Jeyalalitha’s friend) that her disability takes a back seat in the audience’s eyes. But it is front and centre in the story. 

The movie also talks about social stigma and the institutions that govern mental health discourses. The doctor points out that if Sankar and Selvi had brought Baby to the hospital earlier they could have treated her better. While dementia is a psychological disorder, it is not necessarily easily identified. Acts of memory loss, and attention, reasoning, and problem-solving issues are passed off as being merely associated with old age. But the doctor identifies that the numerous losses that affected Baby over the years could have led to her dementia. 

Finally, the movie shows the stark realities of the government hospital’s psychiatric care facilities. The hospitals are understaffed and numerous patients are abandoned by families. One of the nurses agrees to take care of Sankar’s mother but asks with trepidation whether he would return, furthering Sankar’s guilt in abandoning Baby. It is this image of leaving his mother alone in an unknown place that haunts him when he travels by train to pick her up from Kolkata—the visual of Baby straining against the bars of the hospital reaching out towards her son who has left her behind. Sankar constantly feels that he failed in his duty as a son to take care of the woman who had shown him such love throughout his life—even when he had yelled at her and told her never to return! 

Landscape and language as both barriers and bridges

J Baby is also a physical and psychological journey. Sankar and Senthil have to go to Kolkata. But neither of them knows Bangla. This is depicted in the comedic scenes where they buy ‘anda biryani’ (egg biryani) because Sankar thinks it is made in an ‘anda’ (large vessel) or ‘aloo biryani’ (potato biryani) because he thinks it is ‘aalukku biryani’ (one biryani for each). 

The train scenes show a compartment filled with people, each of whom have a similar story to tell. How many people? How many stories? These shots highlight that the movie is indeed a social commentary and not just a family drama.

While the two men struggle with language, towards the end of the movie Baby is shown conversing ‘fluently’ in fake Bangla with the other women in the home. There is no barrier of language between her and the others. During her brief stay in Kolkata, she learns random words like “shasha” (cucumber), which impresses Moorthy. Moorthy himself speaks a mixture of incorrect Hindi and Bangla, which is accentuated when he gets angry. But these linguistic differences function as bridges that help people adapt to new circumstances.

Just like language, the landscape also acts as a barrier and bridge, and Chennai is mirrored in Kolkata—a shot of the Cooum swaps to the Hooghly; Chennai Central railway station is contrasted with Howrah railway station. The geographies are different, but the movie subtly hints at the similarities of physical and psychological spaces. For instance, the river plays an important role of division and unison for the two brothers—in Chennai, Senthil cycles on one side of the river and Sankar drives his share auto on the other side; but in Kolkata the two end up resolving their fight while stuck on a boat. 

When Sankar first gets down at a bus stop in Kolkata, he sees a family sleeping on the pavement. It is this visual that triggers a thought about the loss of one’s home. It is a momentary shot, but crucial, as it reflects the lives of the numerous families who travel across the length and breadth of this country in search of jobs and opportunities, but who are compelled to use the streets as their homes. Sankar immediately remembers the day that he and his brothers convinced their mother to sell her home. That too is the loss of not only the physical house, but the home of their memories. 

The children grow up, get homes of their own, and leave. But what of the mother? She cannot afford to keep her home. She feels she is a burden in the homes of her children. They have their own lives to lead. 

And yet, there is love. Families are complex. And love is complicated. J Baby shows all this and more through beautiful visuals and phenomenal acting. Numerous critics have stated that it was the acting that lifted the movie, but I beg to differ. While the amazing actors no doubt elevate the plot, the storyline itself is worth a nuanced discussion.

Sayujya Sankar is an Assistant Professor at Stella Maris College, Chennai.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Read: J Baby review: Urvashi dazzles in a story that tries too hard to pack a punch

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