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Indian films’ equation with mental illness

Indian film industry is the biggest film industry in the world, with over 1700 movies made every year. These films are an essential part of our society, with escapism they also affect attitudes of people. Because of their entertainment nature, the films are really hyperbolic. We know that the depictions of the social and mental health issues are not up to the mark.

(Image Courtesy: Penn State University)

It is out in the open that mental health issues depicted in Indian films are either wild or romanticised or both. If we look at certain mainstream films, almost every film would represent mental illness as madness. But still, India is not a country which is dicey in terms of accepting mental health as a disease. So why does our film industry rarely create content which correctly portrays mental health for a general population, that is aware of mental health issues and some of them even suffer from? It is astonishing to see that well-read and socially “woke” filmmakers are tempted to exploit certain elements of psychological disorders as critical plot elements, but wrap entire movies, without ever shedding any actual light on the given disorder.

The portrayal of mental health in Indian films is terribly one-dimensional. From discriminatory behavior, to mocking characters with mental illnesses through forced jokes - as seen in Krazzy 4 (2008, dir. Jaideep Sen), to sensationalizing psychological disorders, or framing them as wild and ridiculing them as seen in Humshakals (2014, dir. Sajid Khan). Often, a romantic twist is also given to mental illnesses to carry forward the narrative of the film. For instance, Anjaana Anjaani (2010, dir. Siddharth Anand), which tells the story of two individuals who attempt suicide several times. However, they bump into each other during one such attempt and end up falling for one another, and in the best bollywood way, live happily ever after. But that's not even remotely true to what people struggling with suicidal thoughts go through in real life.

There are also films that give a supernatural/paranormal angle to mental health. Bhool Bhulaiya (2007, dir. Priyadarshan) which is actually a remake of a Malayalam film Manichitrathazhu (1993, dir. Fazil ) is one such example. This film not only supernaturalizes mental health, but also portrays a psychiatrist as an exorcist doing exorcism. It is either this, or the psychiatrist gives electric shocks to its patients in an obnoxious manner as seen in Kyon Ki (2005, dir. Priyadarshan), which is also a remake of a Malayalam film Thalavattam (1986) by the same director.

Akshay Kumar in Bhool Bhulaiya

Not only this, there is another trend to romanticise troubled artists. The idea of a sad, depressed, and tortured artist is worshipped so much that it has become actually aspirational. Rockstar (2011, dir. Imtiaz Ali) is one such film that comments on the notion of tortured artists, but by the end falls in the pit of sensationalising it. Can you think of a film (any language) wherein a writer or painter or actor is happy and merry while creating their piece of work? Well, I really couldn’t.

Already the representation is inadequate, and on top of that, there is a lot of misinformation around in terms of the nature, causes, and prevention of mental health disorders. Usage of words like “depression” and “schizophrenia” to explain mental illness in films only shows the lack of research. When such untrue information is disseminated to large groups of people via films, it then creates a hysteria among them, thus people think that mental health issue is “just a phase”. There is also a lot of confusion related to mental health and learning disability. Learning disabilities are not mental illnesses, they are neurologically-based (Learning Disability Associations of America).

(Image Courtesy: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)

But as times are changing, new wave filmmakers are taking up the responsibility to depict mental health in its real shape and form. 15 Park Avenue (2005, dir. Aparna Sen) is a movie that is lauded for its realistic portrayal of mental illness. The film deals with trauma that can trigger mental ailments, as well as the challenges that a serious illness poses to familial relationships. Dear Zindagi (2016, dir. Gauri Shinde) is also one of the films that depicts mental health in a just manner and also removes the disgrace associated with seeking therapy for mental illness.

Anniyan (2005, dir S. Shankar), a Tamil film dubbed in Hindi as Aparichit, is a film that tells the story of a man suffering from multiple personality disorder due to deep emotional scars. The story has a right conclusion which stresses on the fact that mental illness can be cured with help of right doctors.

Popular stars coming out and talking about their bouts with mental illness has really helped destigmatise the taboo of mental health, but there is a long road ahead. Mainstream media must also take special care in portraying mental health stories so as to not sensationalise the disorders. Mental health disorders are also an illness, and it is high time that we look at it as one.


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