Bollywood’s backwards portrayal of mental illness
Mental disorders aren’t often considered real illnesses in Indian society. Mainstream India remains largely ignorant of the nuances of mental health, allowing suffering to continue undiagnosed for a large portion of the population.
Over the years, abnormal behaviour has been a problem to be dealt with domestically, a shameful secret of the families involved. Such shame comes in the way of diagnosis and treatment. In fact, even the upper middle classes only have a partial awareness of mental illness, typically limited to depression or stress.
With a lack of trained mental health professionals, poor access to mental health services and high stigma, often the first treatment is to take the patient to a temple to offer prayers or to a shaman to drive the ‘evil spirit’ away. Alternatively, mental illness may be dismissed as personal weakness or a personality flaw for someone to fix themselves.
Bollywood films are telling of this ignorance. The industry overwhelmingly associates mental illness with mysticism. At its best it’s a magic or divine intervention, and at worst it comes from the devil, demons or a threatening unknown.
Bhool Bhulaiya (2007) depicts a young woman traumatised by what she believes to be her past life. Although her psychiatrist is inclined to diagnose her with dissociative identity disorder, her hysterical outbursts are enough for the audience (and eventually the psychiatrist) to believe that the only way to cure her is to resort to an exorcism. The movie includes over-the-top horrors that steer the story towards a supernatural explanation instead of a real diagnosis. It is easier, or at least more compelling, to treat madness as a case of spiritual possession than a simple malady.
In Koi Mil Gaya (2003), an alien with superpowers transforms a mentally ill young man into a great intellect, restoring him in society’s eyes. The young man goes on to teach a lesson to all those who treated him badly. While this movie advocates treating mentally ill people kindly, it nevertheless treats mental illness as a condition best treated supernaturally.
Their own little world
The romantic-comedy Barfi (2012) is about the blossoming love between two special people – an autistic girl, and a deaf-mute boy. Having been locked up in her parents’ home for years, the girl finds a friend in someone who is similarly at the periphery of society. The film’s dream-like style, far from the realities of life with mental illness, leave audiences all mushy and warm, glossing over tough subjects. The implicit message of the movie is that it takes one abnormal perons to truly empathise with another.
Romanticising mental illness
In the cult classic Sadma (1983), a young urban woman suffers from severe amnesia. The male hero rescues Sadma from a road accident, brings her to his small-town home and takes care of her. The movie ends heartbreakingly with her regaining her memory, unable to recognise him, as she sets back on a bus to her former life in the big city. The audience celebrates moments when she is childlike because it is endearing for the man. Her recovery is almost an emotional downfall. We empathise with the savior.
Such depiction reinforces mainstream belief in India that those suffering with mental illnesses cannot live normal lives, socially or professionally. They are considered incapable, as a burden and a misfortune to the caretakers, who get the larger share of empathy.
A more realistic portrayal
Although mainstream cinema continues to avert its gaze from real mental illnesses, some efforts do shine out. Margherita With A Straw (2014) centers on a young woman with cerebral palsy who wishes to study abroad in New York. It is the story of her self-discovery, her everyday quandaries that are not too different from those belonging to the rest of us. The movie does not fixate on her condition, but still portrays it realistically. The true success of this film was showing a woman aspiring to further her education, explore her sexuality and be answerable to no one.
Today, understanding of mental health is on the rise in India, albeit gradually. This growing acknowledgement has led to the awareness of politically correct language, but genuine acceptance and empathy, and, more importantly, a working understanding of the challenges people face, are conspicuous for their absence.
There is a strong need to portray mental illness in realistic ways not only by Bollywood but in the culture more broadly. Such portrayals provide a real chance for India to transform not just the language with which mental illness is discussed but also attitudes to people living with it.
- Article by Mili Sethia and Tarini Bandhu