Shah Rukh Khan, perhaps India’s most well-known actor, built his career in the early 1990s playing characters ranging from misogynistic psychopaths to unhinged stalkers, in films such as Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam. There is a deliciously subtle irony about the fact that in Dear Zindagi, released in November, it is he who essays the role of Dr Jahangir “Jug” Khan—a hip psychotherapist who helps Kaira, a girl in her early twenties, played by Alia Bhatt, deal with anxiety and depression.
Dear Zindagi’s portrayal of mental illness is as atypical for Bollywood as the role might once have been for Khan. Historically, Hindi films have only acknowledged psychiatric disorders with symptoms that can be dramatically demonstrated, as in the case of schizophrenia—delusions, hallucinations, nonsensical speech and so on. In Dear Zindagi, clinical counselling helps ease the internal suffering of a character who seems “normal” to all outward appearances. It is almost unprecedented in Bollywood for a character’s depression and anxiety to be presented as treatable by therapy.
Hindi films have most often dabbled in what the latest International Classification of Diseases, the standard categorisation system used by the World Health Organisation, codifies as “schizophrenia, schizotypal and delusional disorders.” These diseases are most often treated through psychiatry, which involves medication, and sometimes also physiological interventions such as surgery and electroconvulsive therapy. Given the dramatic possibilities in portraying especially these latter treatments, psychiatrists attending to schizophrenics have been almost as abundant in Hindi films as schizophrenics themselves—from Raat Aur Din (1967) to Main Aur Charles (2015).