Not much method in the madness

Bollywood’s history of manhandling mental health goes a long way, but there’s still hope

It was 2016 when a film created waves for depicting a social issue aptly on-screen. The “issue” I am talking about is mental health – which, even in the 21st century, remains a taboo. People find it difficult to openly converse about it – justifying the famous saying that it is easier to say you have a toothache than heartache!

Coming back to the film, it was Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi – starring Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan.  For the first time, Bollywood depicted mental illness like never before. The film revolved around a woman in her 20s, a successful cinematographer, who suffers from depression.  It had an ease with which it portrayed how the protagonist sought therapy. It attempted to break the stigma and shame surrounding depression or therapy. It was pathbreaking, and successfully initiated conversations on mental health.

I was in college, and I vividly remember how this film made me think that depression is not a taboo after all, and wondered why it wasn’t discussed without hesitation. But then, this film also brought back my memories of how I was about 10 when I first watched a Bollywood film on this topic. Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya (2001), starring Urmila Matondkar, was the story of the protagonist’s obsession with a married man.

But the way it distorted the protagonist’s mental illness – making her look like a violent stalker (sort of like Darr), who ended up in an asylum when her love wasn’t reciprocated, was — to say the least — insensitive. It undermined her childhood trauma of losing her mother and that she needed medical help, and focused more on her stalking and obsessing over the man.

This is not the only time Bollywood showed insensitivity while dealing with this topic. Let’s take for instance Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan starrer Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007). A woman who is suffering from schizophrenia was “cured” by a “dramatic enactment” of a certain event. Moreover, the way it made this illness synonymous to “possession” by a ghost is definitely problematic. These films made mental illness look like something scary, and beyond the realm of reality.

Anjana Anjaani (2010), starring Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, tried to depict ‘romance’ between two individuals who were suicidal. And instead of seeking medical help, they make a “pact” to die together, but then the all encompassing “love” saves them, rather cures them of all their issues. I wonder then how all psychiatrists would have made a living, if love was indeed the cure!

Then we also had Parineeti Chopra and Siddharth Malhotra starrer Hasee toh Phasee (2014), which undermined the female lead’s anxiety issues by trying to make it look “cute.” Also, Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone starrer Tamasha (2015) took a rather toxic take on the protagonist’s mental health – who it seems was suffering from bipolar disorder. But then the climax shows how he magically cures himself by making some drastic changes in life.

Again, Mahesh Bhatt’s Woh Lamhe (2006) – which was infamous for being based on his and Parveen Babi’s affair – gave the impression that schizophrenia makes those suffering from it extremely violent. Though Bhatt did depict some of the true life events from his experience with Babi, but probably he wanted to add “masala” to spice up his film – and thus came scenes where the woman (played by Kangana Ranaut, portraying Babi) stabs his lover! Could it be more dramatic?

Similarly, dark dingy mental asylums were often used in Hindi films to create an aura of spook and horror. Electric shocks given to those suffering from mental illnesses were also a common sight. And in films like Tere Naam (2003) starring Salman Khan, we see mental patients being chained and tied down. Similarly, if one sits down to make a list of more such films then the list will be longer.

One must argue that these are just films, at the end of the day. But how can we ignore the fact that films possess the immense potential to influence the minds of audiences? Those who have little knowledge of how a patient suffering from so-and-so illness behaves or needs to be treated, these films need to depict the truth and not distort it – just for the sake of adding drama. I, for instance, had wrong notions for the longest time – based entirely on my cinematic experience.

But again, not all is bleak. Like Dear Zindagi, many films did get mental health right on screen. Taare Zameen Par (2007) is one of the first of such films, which perfectly depicts the struggle of a child with dyslexia. Mention, in this regard, must be made of films like Barfi, Hichki, 15 Park Avenue, Margarita with a Straw, Judgemental Hai Kya, Chhichhore, among many. Unfortunately, the numbers aren’t too many, but it seems like Bollywood has finally started to get it right. Though there is a long way to go.

What we need is more films where patients suffering from mental illnesses are shown in a humane light, and not as violent beings or stalkers or destructive. Sensitivity while portraying such characters, is of utmost importance and so is getting the facts right. We need more works like Dear Zindagi, which will make us empathise, yet feel empowered. After all, dimaag ka doctor – as Alia Bhatt calls her therapist SRK in the film — is what cures mental illnesses, and not love or drama!

(Cover Image: A still from Dear Zindagi     Credit: IMDB)