Bollywood’s troubled equation with mental health

Sohini C | Updated on: Sep 20, 2019
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A number of recent films headlined by B-Town stars reveals an awareness of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Yet, the problems are articulated mainly through women, while men play supportive anchors or mentors

In the recent Hindi film Judgementall Hai Kya (Are you judgemental), something happened for the first time. The story is about a woman protagonist with several mental health issues — two of the conditions the film explicitly names are acute psychosis and dissociative disorder, but reviewers have pointed to symptoms of other conditions, an umbrella of disorders, in effect. Kangana Ranaut, who plays the protagonist, is shown consulting psychiatrists and spending time in a mental health home. We see her taking her medicines, but also throwing them away, possibly annoyed by their side effects. But eventually, she cracks a murderer’s identity, and walks away jauntily.

This has never happened in a Hindi film. For the past five years or so, mental health conditions are being depicted with more care, more empathy, but they are ‘cured’ by the film’s end, in rhythm with the beat of society. Mentally ill characters have never been given an arc of acceptance where they claim their dissonance with pride and say this is who they are. In a beautifully realised sequence, Ranaut’s character walks down a road with all the voices — or persons — in her head, with the vim of a model walking down a ramp.

Something unusual, in fact, happened even before the film released: There was a protest against the film’s original title, Mental Hai Kya (Are you mental?). The term ‘mental’ is a colloquial use for someone who is not quite up there — it could mean anything from eccentric or oddball to disturbed or dysfunctional (which might include criminal behaviour). It does carry derogatory implications, but it can also be good-humoured. What it certainly is not is a term of admiration. Mental health practitioners and activists protested the film’s title, arguing that it denigrated those with mental health issues and undermined decades of work to bring dignity and understanding to those suffering from poor mental health. And the filmmakers listened.

It’s likely that the recent confidence of the mental health community — not only doctors, counsellors and social workers but also patients — stems from the Mental Healthcare Act 2017, counted as one of the Central government’s most significant achievements. It gives every Indian citizen the right to access mental healthcare run or funded by the government, and, most significant of all, mandates that admitting a mentally ill person to a residential facility, or institutionalisation, would be avoided as far as possible. The objective is to enable persons suffering from poor mental health to live in “the community” as productively as possible. Before the Act was passed, there were public service announcements on radio requesting people to stop the silence and stigma around mental illness and seek help. The weight of legal provision is probably the reason why the producers of Judgementall Hai Kya agreed to change the title.

People are indeed speaking up. In 2015, Deepika Padukone talked about having faced depression. In a number of interviews, the actor mentioned the struggle to wake up and the roller-coaster of emotions during the day, and her reluctance to take medicines for the condition. “The counselling helped but only to an extent. Then I took medication, and today I am much better,” she said in one of the interviews. Few public figures in India had spoken in public about a mental health condition before this.

The Hindi film’s graph had begun to change around the same time. In 2014, there was Hasee Toh Phasee , where the heroine, played by Parineeti Chopra, suffers from an anxiety disorder. But she is a high-achieving intelligent and functional person, a post-doctoral scholar in chemistry, who has returned to steal money from her father to fund her research work. Made on a budget of ₹27 crore, the film, according to official figures, ended up earning ₹98 crore.


Positive spin: Dear Zindagi featured Alia Bhatt as a professional experiencing depression and Shah Rukh Khan as her therapist


In 2017, there was Dear Zindagi , where the heroine played by Alia Bhatt suffers from an episode of depression that unsettles her life and career. Bhatt’s character is a successful film professional, with career prospects in the UK, an independent ambitious woman living alone in a big city. Her psychologist is played by Shah Rukh Khan, who guides her to a realisation rooted in a childhood separation, and its happy resolution. This is the film that is most ostensibly about mental health, given that the therapist is the second most important character in the film and played by a huge star. Dear Zindagi did well at the box office, earning ₹130 crore on a budget of ₹30 crore.

The same year, in an indie film called Phobia , made in the format of a horror film, a young woman is diagnosed with agoraphobia after a sexual assault. Agoraphobia is the fear of going out, and, on the advice of her counsellor, she spends some time alone in a flat, staying indoors and, by implication, journeying inwards with adventures that appear to erode her confidence. By the film’s end, it is not clear if she has been cured of her agoraphobia, but she does venture out again with a new show of artwork. She is apprehensive, but she is armed with a vision she did not know she possessed earlier. Once again, a happy sort of ending.

Until a decade ago, the Hindi film had shown the mentally ill either incarcerated (Waheeda Rahman’s Khamoshi , the Salman Khan films Tere Naam and Kyon Kii ) or as lunatic serial killers in the Mahesh Bhatt camp of filmmaking which has produced Dushman , Sangharsh , Murder 2 and, recently, Ek Villain .

The filmography of Kangana Ranaut — who has with accomplishment played characters with a history of substance abuse, schizophrenia, depression and other problems — has a lot to do with the change. But what’s striking is that even in the recent batch of optimistic mental health portrayals, the experience of mental health problems is articulated through women, while men play supportive anchors or mentors. Even when male characters are clearly depressed or disturbed, they are seldom shown in treatment. The film Talaash (2012) is a striking example of this: Both the hero and heroine, played by Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee respectively, are grieving the death of their son, but only the wife goes to a counsellor. The husband, meanwhile, stays up nights unable to sleep and broods alone — classic symptoms of depression. The counsellor asks the wife to bring the husband along and she stays silent. There is one film which explores the schizophrenia of a man, Karthik Calling Karthik , where the lead, played by Farhan Akhtar, receives phone calls from his alter-ego. But the film did poorly, both at the box office and with critics.

Yet, according to the 2015 data on suicides from the National Crime Records Bureau, the last year when such data was made available, 1.3 lakh people committed suicide in India. At 68.5 per cent, the number of men taking their lives was double that of women. If Hindi films give the impression that it is mostly women who experience mental health problems, the reality is the opposite.

This is why Judgementall is such a smart film: It suggests how the male mental health problem may be normalised, hidden in plain sight, blinding us to criminal behaviour even.

When you look at it this way, you see how, for instance, a film such as Kabir Singh camouflages the mental health problems of its protagonist. A man who abuses numerous substances, his patients, and the women in his life is seen as a tragic hero suffering incomplete love. This is how it is in the motherboard of every Kabir Singh story, namely Devdas , and all its editions, too. Alcoholism, in particular, is seen as a suitably male response to any kind of suffering.

In this sense, two films are interesting. In Aashiqui 2 , Aditya Roy Kapur’s drinking has no reason in particular — he has a successful career in music, a father who seems concerned about him and calls him often on the phone, and a loving partner. He kills himself at film’s end. The film never mentions mental health, but suggests depression and addiction strongly. In Udta Punjab , Shahid Kapur has a similar arc — a successful music career with a cocaine problem. All the junkies in the film have no particular reason for their addiction, at least the film does not explore them. It is presented instead as a Punjab problem. Haider does this too, actually — the “rotten” state of Kashmir is the undoing of Haider.

The madness of men is seen as the manifestation of larger politico-economic developments, or coping mechanisms for the wounds inflicted by women (the Devdas model), or simply unarticulated.

Have we learned the stereotype of the “hysterical” woman so well that we don’t even see the maladies of men?

Or perhaps the Hindi film is acknowledging a different truth — that women are more likely than men to acknowledge they are unwell and seek help.

Sohini C is a journalist and a writer

Published on September 20, 2019

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