classic film

Five-star cinema: Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’

A serial killer uses his camera as a weapon in one of the best studies of voyeurism.

It’s not every day that the word scoptophilia, or the pleasure derived from the act of looking, pops up in a commercial release, but then Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is no ordinary film.

More relevant now than it was in 1960, when it was eclipsed by Alfred Hitchcock’s far more popular Psycho, Peeping Tom is the chilling story of the multitasking Mark, a focus puller working at a movie studio, a part-time photographer for girlie magazines, and a serial killer. Mark films his victims in their dying moments, especially focusing on the moment when fear causes the women’s eyes to dilate and blank out, and watches his loot in the privacy of his apartment. The movie opens on a close-up of a feverish eye, soon followed by a woman being looked at through a camera lens. She is a prostitute operating in one of London’s seedy neighbourhoods, and she doesn’t blink when she sees her customer with a camera. Yet another stuffed shirt with a kink in his armour, says her expression. But as she undresses, Mark flashes a bright light on her, and the horror begins.
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The trailer of ‘Peeping Tom’.

Mark is no Jack the Ripper or twisted fetishist. He is in search of the perfect death on camera – something is always not right in his home-made films – and he is not being ironic when he says, “I hope to be a director very soon.” He has all the makings of one.

Mark at work.
Mark at work.

Mark’s murder run is interrupted by a kindly tenant who lives in the building that he owns. It is to the transparent and guileless Helen (Anna Massey) that Mark reveals the source of his behaviour – his merciless scientist father (played by Powell), who constantly filmed the terrorised expressions of the young Mark (Powell’s son Columba) in an attempt to understand fear. The movie’s writer, Leo Marks, was perhaps anticipating the rise of the personal documentary, in which cameras lay bare deeply private and often uncomfortable aspects of human behaviour.

One of Mark’s victims.
One of Mark’s victims.

In a film that is all about the act of seeing, it is fitting that one of the most memorable characters is blind. Helen’s mother (Maxine Audley) does not trust Mark – “He walks stealthily” – she simply says, and is the only one who understands his sickness. The sequence in which Helen’s mother discovers the extent of Mark’s depravity is bathed in the sensitivity that Powell brings to potentially tawdry material. She caresses the screen on which one of Mark’s victims is pictured, and then tenderly feels Mark’s face to read him better. Otto Heller’s Expressionist camerawork, with its vivid colours, dramatic close-ups and daring framing, is best realised in this shocking and yet deeply tragic sequence.

Mark and Helen’s mother.
Mark and Helen’s mother.

Like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), about a doctor who becomes the target of a poison pen, and Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971), a study of violence and social conditioning, Peeping Tom was savaged in its time. A movie about a camera that serves as a medium of expression of a sick mind and is a recorder as well as a weapon (the tripod conceals a blade) shocked critics and resulted in a backlash that severely damaged Powell’s reputation. One half of the Powell-Pressburger team that produced such classics in the 1940s and ’50s as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, Powell had exposed one of cinema’s worst-kept secrets – its ability to encourage voyeurism. Few movies have acknowledged the exploitative aspects of the camera and of cinema itself as well as Peeping Tom, and few have attempted to understand the sickening thrill of watching somebody die on the screen. Peeping Tom anticipated the slasher movie genre, the blood-letting of Quentin Tarantino, and the destruction porn of every third tentpole production. The device featured in Kathryn Bigelow’s fascinating Strange Days (1995), which plays back images pulled out of a person’s cerebral cortex and recreates the sensations and emotions present in these images, might have had Mark’s approval.

Played with the right mix of creepiness and torment by German actor Carl Boehm, Mark is forever peering through windows and hovering on the edges of social propriety. Shy and petrified of female contact, Mark is humanised by Helen’s presence. In her own wide-eyed way, Helen forces Mark to confront his unacceptable urges, thereby unwittingly setting off the denouement. In a movie filled with a commentary on what is seen and being seen, the climax is a fitting coup de grace – and it does not go unrecorded.

Helen and Mark.
Helen and Mark.
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.