Film examines silence around family member’s mental illness

News Jun 18, 2013 by Mike Adler Scarborough Mirror

For years, the secret of Pandi’s death was kept from her.

Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam last saw her uncle, Pandian Kumaraswamy in 1996 and was 12 when her father Ponnu, Pandi’s brother, told her he had died.

Ponnu wouldn’t say what happened, only that Pandi was “sick.”

“The silence around his death lasted for years,” Ponnambalam says in her feature documentary, Pandi, which had its world premiere at the Scarborough Film Festival this month.

The lack of clear answers from anyone about Pandi, who had desperately wanted to be a filmmaker and inspired her to be one, eventually drove the Greater Toronto-raised Ponnambalam to retrace his steps to Chennai, India, and uncover her uncle’s struggles with intensifying mental illness.

Ponnambalam’s first feature is about communication in her Tamil-Canadian family, how they could not frankly discuss Pandi’s mental illness when it was an unacknowledged elephant in the room but are seeing it now.

In Pandi, her uncle is an imaginative man who sometimes thought the chalkboard at his childhood school was a movie screen.

Frustrated by his experiences in Chennai’s movie industry, Pandi came to Toronto, took a course at Ryerson University and started working in restaurants and factories. As he worked 80 hours a week in one factory, he started saying people were spying on him.

Pandi’s relatives in Chennai didn’t know what happened to him in Canada, or much about his illness. “We never took it very seriously,” says Rathi, an older sister, adding professional opinions differed on what ailed Pandi and what could help him. “They all sounded like mismanagements,”

One doctor administered shock therapy, and Pandi was also taken to a waterfall known to cure mental illness.

A medical certificate says Pandi was bipolar but Ponnambalam’s family in India and Canada would only refer to his illness as “depression,” a word Ponnambalam said was used to subdue its severity.

Pandi, a former atheist, joined a church in India. Before he died, he wrote a movie script - brought to life in bursts of animation by the Toronto artist Jessica Palmer - in which he is called Pondy, an inventor who falls off a building and returns as a “Jesus Christ” seeking to write a “modern testament” of the Bible.

Two years after returning to India, Pandi wanted to return to Toronto as a permanent resident, but was turned down. He told Ponnu and others he wanted to kill himself, and then did.

“Madness,” Pandi says in some of the writing he left behind, “is you don’t know who you are.”

Following the screening at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Ponnambalam said working with her parents on the film, winner of the inaugural festival’s Audience Choice Award for features, was fun, but getting answers from her father was challenging.

Making a documentary is a powerful way to get people to open up to you, said Ponnambalam, who is currently community media project coordinator at the National Film Board Highrise project, which teaches tenants in “vertical surburbs” how to use cameras.

The video camera was an advantage she used: it showed her family she was serious about making Pandi and finding the truth, she said.

Ponnambalam hopes the film - which shifts between Chennai, once called Madras, home movies, and found footage Pandi shot himself at the family’s former apartment near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue - will raise awareness of the stresses immigration can cause in people predisposed to mental illness.

Lack of education about mental health isn’t confined to places like Chennai, she added. “I didn’t even learn about mental health growing up in Canada.”

Ponnambalam said more people need to know about mental health resources available here.

Overcoming the stigma of mental illness has long been an important issue in Toronto’s Tamil community, with some members suffering effects from a long and terrible civil war in Sri Lanka, the devastation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami or substance abuse in Canada.

Ponnambalam’s parents had not wanted the secret about Pandi to come out.

But after the screening Tiuley, her mother, said the movie makes Pandi’s life into something more than a sad story the family tried to forget.

Sharing the story, and “speaking about the things that hurt” makes them hurt less, she said.

It also made Tiuley feel more connected to others who have similar stories of their own. “It did change me. I’m a different person because of this movie,” she said.

Ponnu said he feels like his brother – whom he guesses would be surprised and happy with the film – has sort of returned through its making.

People have lately told him of their own family members or close friends who are mentally ill, he said. “We have this problem among us. We try to ignore it. I think it’s still a problem.”

Film examines silence around family member’s mental illness

Pandi winner of Audience Choice Award at Scarborough Film Festival

News Jun 18, 2013 by Mike Adler Scarborough Mirror

For years, the secret of Pandi’s death was kept from her.

Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam last saw her uncle, Pandian Kumaraswamy in 1996 and was 12 when her father Ponnu, Pandi’s brother, told her he had died.

Ponnu wouldn’t say what happened, only that Pandi was “sick.”

“The silence around his death lasted for years,” Ponnambalam says in her feature documentary, Pandi, which had its world premiere at the Scarborough Film Festival this month.

The lack of clear answers from anyone about Pandi, who had desperately wanted to be a filmmaker and inspired her to be one, eventually drove the Greater Toronto-raised Ponnambalam to retrace his steps to Chennai, India, and uncover her uncle’s struggles with intensifying mental illness.

Ponnambalam’s first feature is about communication in her Tamil-Canadian family, how they could not frankly discuss Pandi’s mental illness when it was an unacknowledged elephant in the room but are seeing it now.

In Pandi, her uncle is an imaginative man who sometimes thought the chalkboard at his childhood school was a movie screen.

Frustrated by his experiences in Chennai’s movie industry, Pandi came to Toronto, took a course at Ryerson University and started working in restaurants and factories. As he worked 80 hours a week in one factory, he started saying people were spying on him.

Pandi’s relatives in Chennai didn’t know what happened to him in Canada, or much about his illness. “We never took it very seriously,” says Rathi, an older sister, adding professional opinions differed on what ailed Pandi and what could help him. “They all sounded like mismanagements,”

One doctor administered shock therapy, and Pandi was also taken to a waterfall known to cure mental illness.

A medical certificate says Pandi was bipolar but Ponnambalam’s family in India and Canada would only refer to his illness as “depression,” a word Ponnambalam said was used to subdue its severity.

Pandi, a former atheist, joined a church in India. Before he died, he wrote a movie script - brought to life in bursts of animation by the Toronto artist Jessica Palmer - in which he is called Pondy, an inventor who falls off a building and returns as a “Jesus Christ” seeking to write a “modern testament” of the Bible.

Two years after returning to India, Pandi wanted to return to Toronto as a permanent resident, but was turned down. He told Ponnu and others he wanted to kill himself, and then did.

“Madness,” Pandi says in some of the writing he left behind, “is you don’t know who you are.”

Following the screening at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Ponnambalam said working with her parents on the film, winner of the inaugural festival’s Audience Choice Award for features, was fun, but getting answers from her father was challenging.

Making a documentary is a powerful way to get people to open up to you, said Ponnambalam, who is currently community media project coordinator at the National Film Board Highrise project, which teaches tenants in “vertical surburbs” how to use cameras.

The video camera was an advantage she used: it showed her family she was serious about making Pandi and finding the truth, she said.

Ponnambalam hopes the film - which shifts between Chennai, once called Madras, home movies, and found footage Pandi shot himself at the family’s former apartment near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue - will raise awareness of the stresses immigration can cause in people predisposed to mental illness.

Lack of education about mental health isn’t confined to places like Chennai, she added. “I didn’t even learn about mental health growing up in Canada.”

Ponnambalam said more people need to know about mental health resources available here.

Overcoming the stigma of mental illness has long been an important issue in Toronto’s Tamil community, with some members suffering effects from a long and terrible civil war in Sri Lanka, the devastation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami or substance abuse in Canada.

Ponnambalam’s parents had not wanted the secret about Pandi to come out.

But after the screening Tiuley, her mother, said the movie makes Pandi’s life into something more than a sad story the family tried to forget.

Sharing the story, and “speaking about the things that hurt” makes them hurt less, she said.

It also made Tiuley feel more connected to others who have similar stories of their own. “It did change me. I’m a different person because of this movie,” she said.

Ponnu said he feels like his brother – whom he guesses would be surprised and happy with the film – has sort of returned through its making.

People have lately told him of their own family members or close friends who are mentally ill, he said. “We have this problem among us. We try to ignore it. I think it’s still a problem.”

Film examines silence around family member’s mental illness

Pandi winner of Audience Choice Award at Scarborough Film Festival

News Jun 18, 2013 by Mike Adler Scarborough Mirror

For years, the secret of Pandi’s death was kept from her.

Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam last saw her uncle, Pandian Kumaraswamy in 1996 and was 12 when her father Ponnu, Pandi’s brother, told her he had died.

Ponnu wouldn’t say what happened, only that Pandi was “sick.”

“The silence around his death lasted for years,” Ponnambalam says in her feature documentary, Pandi, which had its world premiere at the Scarborough Film Festival this month.

The lack of clear answers from anyone about Pandi, who had desperately wanted to be a filmmaker and inspired her to be one, eventually drove the Greater Toronto-raised Ponnambalam to retrace his steps to Chennai, India, and uncover her uncle’s struggles with intensifying mental illness.

Ponnambalam’s first feature is about communication in her Tamil-Canadian family, how they could not frankly discuss Pandi’s mental illness when it was an unacknowledged elephant in the room but are seeing it now.

In Pandi, her uncle is an imaginative man who sometimes thought the chalkboard at his childhood school was a movie screen.

Frustrated by his experiences in Chennai’s movie industry, Pandi came to Toronto, took a course at Ryerson University and started working in restaurants and factories. As he worked 80 hours a week in one factory, he started saying people were spying on him.

Pandi’s relatives in Chennai didn’t know what happened to him in Canada, or much about his illness. “We never took it very seriously,” says Rathi, an older sister, adding professional opinions differed on what ailed Pandi and what could help him. “They all sounded like mismanagements,”

One doctor administered shock therapy, and Pandi was also taken to a waterfall known to cure mental illness.

A medical certificate says Pandi was bipolar but Ponnambalam’s family in India and Canada would only refer to his illness as “depression,” a word Ponnambalam said was used to subdue its severity.

Pandi, a former atheist, joined a church in India. Before he died, he wrote a movie script - brought to life in bursts of animation by the Toronto artist Jessica Palmer - in which he is called Pondy, an inventor who falls off a building and returns as a “Jesus Christ” seeking to write a “modern testament” of the Bible.

Two years after returning to India, Pandi wanted to return to Toronto as a permanent resident, but was turned down. He told Ponnu and others he wanted to kill himself, and then did.

“Madness,” Pandi says in some of the writing he left behind, “is you don’t know who you are.”

Following the screening at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Ponnambalam said working with her parents on the film, winner of the inaugural festival’s Audience Choice Award for features, was fun, but getting answers from her father was challenging.

Making a documentary is a powerful way to get people to open up to you, said Ponnambalam, who is currently community media project coordinator at the National Film Board Highrise project, which teaches tenants in “vertical surburbs” how to use cameras.

The video camera was an advantage she used: it showed her family she was serious about making Pandi and finding the truth, she said.

Ponnambalam hopes the film - which shifts between Chennai, once called Madras, home movies, and found footage Pandi shot himself at the family’s former apartment near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue - will raise awareness of the stresses immigration can cause in people predisposed to mental illness.

Lack of education about mental health isn’t confined to places like Chennai, she added. “I didn’t even learn about mental health growing up in Canada.”

Ponnambalam said more people need to know about mental health resources available here.

Overcoming the stigma of mental illness has long been an important issue in Toronto’s Tamil community, with some members suffering effects from a long and terrible civil war in Sri Lanka, the devastation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami or substance abuse in Canada.

Ponnambalam’s parents had not wanted the secret about Pandi to come out.

But after the screening Tiuley, her mother, said the movie makes Pandi’s life into something more than a sad story the family tried to forget.

Sharing the story, and “speaking about the things that hurt” makes them hurt less, she said.

It also made Tiuley feel more connected to others who have similar stories of their own. “It did change me. I’m a different person because of this movie,” she said.

Ponnu said he feels like his brother – whom he guesses would be surprised and happy with the film – has sort of returned through its making.

People have lately told him of their own family members or close friends who are mentally ill, he said. “We have this problem among us. We try to ignore it. I think it’s still a problem.”