In one of the scenes in the recently-released film Atrangi Re, a psychiatrist-in-the-making fills a theatre with his ‘patients’ and explains to his friend that each of them is having the same hallucination. “This theatre is filled with people who have OCD, Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” the doctor says, suggesting that because of the existence of some mental anomaly, they are all able to collectively have the exact same visual and auditory delirium.
And this is where the film gets it wrong. Currently streaming on Hotstar, the Dhanush, Sara Ali Khan and Akshay Kumar starrer has left the audience with polarising opinions. Many feel that for a movie to be fundamentally based on a mental health issue, generalising different mental and behavioural problems and bringing them under one umbrella is dangerous and irresponsible — and even AR Rahman’s other-worldly music cannot salvage it.
Around the world, there is little understanding of mental health issues, which is also why they are stigmatised in real life. Mainstream media, therefore, has the enormous responsibility and opportunity of de-stigmatising it by getting it right, especially in the current times when more and more people — especially celebrities — are opening up and sharing their vulnerabilities, furthering this discussion.
To say that Indian films have, for a long time, had a problematic approach to diseases related to the mind would not entirely be wrong. In the past, many films did either of the following: dramatise a mental issue or make a mockery of it. So, to have and remember movies like Damini (1993) and Sadma (1983), among others — dealing with trauma and treatment — would mean they got something right, if not entirely it.
We reached out to some professionals to understand what filmmakers ought to do in order to treat mental health issues in films fairly and sensitively, so as to avoid regressing and risking disseminating the wrong message.
“Although, one can never know enough about mental health ordeals and sufferings, filmmakers can educate themselves by researching about the portrayal of a disorder by speaking to a mental health professional; they can even spend time with a patient and an informant. This will generate empathy,” Dr Prerna Kohli, clinical psychologist and founder of MindTribe.in, told this outlet.
The reason Atrangi Re has drawn so much flak, is because in addition to the aforementioned theatre scene, the plot is also peppered with moments of humour. Like, when a character hallucinates and interacts with an imaginary person — clearly displaying signs of schizophrenia — instead of addressing it, the scenes are romanticised and even made comical. As if, randomly glugging a strange-looking medicine can undo years of trauma.
Dr Samir Parikh, the director of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, had previously told indianexpress.com that while schizophrenia is treatable with medications that are “highly effective”, in films, “co-relation with mental illnesses should be done with extreme caution”.
Even in the West, there have been many instances when filmmakers have treated mental health unfairly. While promoting the 2016 film Split — directed by M Night Shyamalan — actor James McAvoy had made the gaffe of saying that while preparing for his role (he played a person suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder or ‘DID’ with 24 different alters), he could not find anyone with DID who would sit and talk to him, for him to understand his role better. “I spent a bit of time with some medical professionals and that was handy to an extent… What I really needed was to spend time with people with DID,” he had said during an interview with Today.
In the film, McAvoy’s character abducts three teenagers and Shyamalan almost presents him as a societal threat, whereas it is largely understood that DID is a result of acute, repetitive and consistent trauma — could be any kind of abuse — that may cause the human mind to switch and develop alters with which to protect the host. In that sense, a person with DID is no more of a threat than anyone else.
So, why do so many films still get it wrong?
“While, in the 21st century, we have excelled in our understanding of mental illnesses — and there are ways of treating severe illnesses like schizophrenia through psychopharmacology, therapeutic modalities, stereotaxic surgeries, etc. — the media has not outgrown the portrayal of mental health. This can be due to several reasons such as lack of research interest, focusing on the selling points rather than imparting information,” said Dr Kohli.
Concurring with her, Dr Parikh said comedy often takes away the sense of empathy and sensitivity from the viewer. “[Mental health in films] is also portrayed as an explanation for violence, or for crime and psychopathy. It again feeds into the stereotype of mental illness. It results in people feeling more scared of other people suffering from mental illnesses, instilling a sense discrimination,” he said.
The doctor also highlighted the flawed portrayal of psychologists, psychiatrists and medications. “A conventional psychologist would have a structured environment when it comes to therapy. It will not be a walk on the beach (as shown in Dear Zindagi, 2016). There has to be a scientific approach to it. Worldwide, one of the key reasons why people do not seek help even when they are struggling, is because they feel they will be discriminated against and blamed. Media has this opportunity, because of its mass appeal, to portray mental health in a sensitive manner.
“You can have your own creative ways of sharing factually-correct information, but it should not be at the cost of crossing the boundary when it comes to stigma and discrimination,” he told indianexpress.com.
Many things can go wrong with a film that has a wrong/misleading take on a mental health problem. Weighing in on this, Arouba Kabir, a mental health counsellor and a wellness coach added that our society doesn’t give regard to someone battling mental health problems, and that the “narrative of films” has “immense potential for making a certain ‘perceived notion’ about an issue”. “If a film wrongly depicts a mental health problem, it would make the social life for someone battling that condition deranged, with people tagging, outcasting and mocking them, or making them the topic of humour and behaving differently with them — all of which adds to their daily struggles,” she explained.
Kabir said that since Bollywood cinema largely revolves around humour or drama as the main genre, showcasing issues in such light till a point is “explainable” given that the film’s direction “takes the responsibility for normalising the condition so that acceptance is increased and people don’t look at that ‘hyped’ version of the illness”. “But I would still say, we need to be sensitive to it as it is a stigmatised area, and rather than invalidating it, we need to validate it.”
“The approach cannot be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, because we can be swayed by subjectivity or morality. We must focus on whether the current approach is helpful or not. The approach is helpful from the standpoint of entertainment, humour, and drama but highly unhelpful due to it lacking a scientific or even a realistic approach. But given that it is a movie and a work of fiction or an adaptation of reality that has been dramatised — which the audience often forgets — we must find a better approach,” Dr Kohli offered, adding that we do not need films that “glorify a serial killer or psychosis”, but those that “de-stigmatise getting help, offer hope, display subtle signs of depression, anxiety and yet harbor hope through the portrayal of treatment as well as positives like friendships, love, and support”.
Surely, while we have had subtler and urgent tropes in films like Still Alice (2014), Chhichhore (2019) and even Taare Zameen Par (2007), more work needs to be done.
As for the audience’s takeaway from an imperfect film on mental health, Dr Kohli suggested we check in with ourselves after watching a movie, asking if we learned something, and challenge the learnings as realistic or unrealistic. “We must also check if the facts presented are fictional or real. This makes the filmmakers as well as the audience more responsible and we are likely to overcome some — if not all — cons of a misleading film.”
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