Good Treatment

Dear Zindagi’s radical break from Bollywood’s portrayal of mental illness

Dear Zindagi’s treatment of pareshaani and tanhaayi—anxiety and loneliness—as clinically legible phenomena is incredibly significant. {{name}}
01 January, 2017

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).

Against the predominantly biological work of psychiatrists, psychotherapists use clinically established verbal practices, or non-verbal methods such as arts-based therapy, to treat patients experiencing psychological problems, often without blatant signs of “abnormality.” There have been only a handful of psychotherapists in Hindi film, and most of them have not been depicted realistically.

Movies overtly featuring mental illness in men have usually either caricatured the afflicted, as the comedy Funtoosh (1956) does, or demonised them, as in Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016). In Funtoosh, Dev Anand plays the titular character, who cycles out of his asylum bedecked in the gifts given to him by fellow inmates—a feathered hat, a pair of sunglasses, a silk robe with holes in it, a pipe and a tawdry ring—cutting a ridiculous but endearing figure. Pagla Kahin Ka (1970), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) and Krazzy 4 (2008) play the antics of the mentally ill for laughs. Sometimes, song sequences set inside asylums—such as ‘Meri bhains ko danda kyun mara’ from Pagla Kahin Ka, and ‘Jhatka maare’ from Kyon Ki (2005)—also have psychiatric patients behaving like buffoons for spectators’ amusement.

Then there are films such as Ittefaq (1969), Khilona (1970), Anhonee (1973), Red Rose (1980), Dilwale (1994) and Tere Naam (2003), in which the mentally ill protagonists are anti-heroes. In Ittefaq, the main character is declared insane by a court after he violently assaults his wife. In Khilona, the lead character molests his caregiver in a manic fit. In both Dilwale and Tere Naam, the protagonists physically threaten and intimidate the objects of their desire. Even when there are cack-handed attempts at providing a sympathetic view of the actual diseases—as in Shabd (2005) and Karthik Calling Karthik (2010)—the characters’ behaviour is always injurious and abusive.

Tere Naam (2003) is one of many films that have portrayed the behaviour of mentally ill people as injurious and abusive. {{name}}

Most of the emotional and mental disorders that appear in Hindi film are never well defined, and are left unlabelled. But one can see some of these ailments informing prevalent tropes: for instance, those of inteqaam, or revenge, gussa, or violent anger, and paagalpan, deewanapan or deewangee—synonyms for madness brought about by obsessive love. The character types that emerge from these tropes have been organised by scholars into eras in correspondence with the political climate of their respective times: say the violent “angry young man” from the politically radical 1960s and 1970s; the psychotic anti-hero of the post-globalisation 1990s; and the more compassionately drawn characters in recent films, from a period of relative economic stability.

The mentally unwell people in Hindi movies are almost always upper-caste, upper-class and male. But exceptions to this rule have appeared periodically. In art films such as Ankur (1974) and Nishant (1975), the protagonists are from marginalised backgrounds, and the trauma of caste oppression is explored through them. But this is done at only the level of story, not at an affective pitch, and the films address an elite viewership rather than the subaltern people whose tales they purport to tell.

This is reversed in the case of Krantiveer (1994), which does not directly address caste or religious oppression, but manages to connect with marginalised groups. Last year, while I was assisting on a study in Trilokpuri and Sundernagri, predominantly Dalit and Muslim neighbourhoods in east Delhi, I often heard Krantiveer cited as a favourite by local residents, as a film that reflected their lived experiences. In the movie, children challenge authority blithely, and the plot revolves around the fictional slums of Laxminagar being torched by a powerful nexus of politicians and industrialists. The zehreelee hansee, or poisonous laughter, of Nana Patekar’s character, and the hysterical, manic laughter of Dimple Kapadia’s character, are deeply suggestive of a traumatic condition.

Unlike with schizophrenic ailments, direct depictions of what are called mood disorders, such as depression, are almost impossible to find. But here again, numerous films’ implicit attributes point towards their characters suffering from such disorders. The titular character of Devdas (1955), for instance, can be seen as the proto-majnu, before the actor and director Guru Dutt’s dispirited romantic heroes came along in the late 1950s. Dutt’s majnu protagonists exemplify the melancholia of many romantic heroes of the period. Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) star him in roles that epitomise the “loss or sacrifice of love” and “withdrawal into the self” that Sigmund Freud listed as signs of melancholia. But even reading closely into such characters, the pickings are slim. One strains to discern flashes of mood disorders in a wide range of movies from across the decades. These are often couched in stories about marital discord, romantic failure or substance abuse, or in songs descended from Urdu shayari, where mentions of deewangee, deewanapan, paagalpan, pareshaani (anxiety), udaasi (sadness) and tanhaayi (loneliness) are abundant.

Dear Zindagi departs from this lexicon. Its defining anthem, ‘Just Go To Hell Dil,’ finds a new vocabulary for expressing sadness and heartbreak by turning to Hinglish. The film’s treatment of pareshaani and tanhaayi as clinically legible phenomena is incredibly significant.

Alia Bhatt’s character in the film is part of a lineage of Hindi film heroines secretly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Unable to show the aggression that is the salient feature of schizophrenia in Hindi cinema, depression is the malady women most often get to perform on screen. The figure of the depressed woman has appeared, although intermittently, in films from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) to Queen (2014). Meena Kumari’s iconic character in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, the lovelorn drunk Chhoti Bahu, reflected the actor’s own persona as a reclusive, aloof alcoholic. The ambiguous, undiagnosed despair of women is another site for Hindi films’ portrayal of depression, which typically appears as an intensely private, almost unspeakable suffering.

It is revealing to compare the portrayal of a woman’s internal distress in Dear Zindagi with that in a film from an earlier time. Khamoshi (1969) features Waheeda Rehman as Nurse Radha, a character maddened by the grief of being forgotten by her lover. In the movie, the modern, urban, family-less Radha’s emotional isolation is intense enough to result in her being committed to an asylum. In Dear Zindagi, Kaira’s tale is no romantic tragedy, and she does not suffer the same fate. The film shows her sexual needs being met in a way that Radha’s could not have been in that film’s more conservative era. But Kaira struggles with the fear of being discarded, slut-shamed, bored and emotionally unfulfilled in the new, ostensibly liberal, sexual economy. She is self-absorbed, and unwilling to bend to male desire unless it is on her terms. Gone are the quivering lower lips of suppressed anguish from yesteryear; instead, there is in Kaira a flinty, bitchy coldness. In one scene set in a club, Kaira tells a suitor who has just invited her to begin an exclusive relationship to leave, and then proceeds to dance with other men. This must have caused many a man in the audience to gasp unprintable expletives. Such behaviour is quite unprecedented in the history of Hindi cinema’s female protagonists.

The place where women’s psychological maladies play out in Hindi films has almost always been the home. In Raat Aur Din (1967), the female protagonist’s schizophrenia is attributed to her repressive childhood, and it is a love marriage that finally “cures” her; in Baharon Ki Manzil (1968), the heroine undergoes psychiatric treatment because she loses all memory of being a wife; in Baseraa (1981), a mentally ill woman must return to the asylum when she realises she has lost her husband’s love; in Anuradha (1960), the lead character must come to terms with her alienation from her surroundings within the sphere of wifely duty. In many horror movies, too, which often allegorise mental illness—as in Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Anita (1967) and Mera Saaya (1966)—conjugal relations are of prime importance for the well-being of the afflicted woman.

In recent times, films such as Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and Kapoor and Sons (2016) have attempted to question the patriarchal, abusive notions of the family so valorised in Indian culture and cinema. Dear Zindagi picks this thread up and reimagines the concepts of home and family that girded earlier female characters. Kaira’s rootlessness and alienation from home make any rehabilitation within the family incredibly challenging—and yet, the film betrays its Bollywood soul in the end by having her reconcile too easily with them. Dear Zindagi does not finally commit to a rejection of the bourgeois family, with its class prejudices and heteronormativity, despite attempts in that direction.

While, in Hindi cinema, recovery for women depends upon their resumption of domestic, often wifely, duties, for male schizophrenics, the pyaar and mohabbat of a good woman is the treatment de rigueur. There have been only a few films where the trend has been reversed. The restoration of male sanity, otherwise, often comes at women’s expense. Examples abound—in Khilona (1970), the female character puts up with mistreatmeant and sexual violence in order to restore the male protagonist to normalcy; in Pagla Kahin Ka (1970), Khamoshi (1969) and Kyon Ki (2005), the women either get deeply depressed or are driven mad themselves after helping troubled men get well; in Shabd (2005) and Karthik Calling Karthik (2010), they help heal men despite the distress this causes them.

This is where Dear Zindagi again charts a different course. How do you cure the newfangled illness of a seemingly unloveable woman from an unloving family? There exists an India of women for whom traditional sources of security—such as arranged marriage and happy khandans (families)—are a hard sell amid much uncertainty about finding love. Sure, there is a possibility of a new relationship for Kaira at the end of the film. But there is no guarantee of a happily-ever-after—the possible new relationship is just another stab in the dark, like all the relationships before it.

Dear Zindagi presents Bollywood with fresh possibilities in how to heal broken hearts, championing sources of care and support rarely highlighted in Hindi films about mental illness—such as the love of friends, and the advice of therapists. In subverting the dominant trope of female labour being exploited for male well-being, the film relies on a relationship dynamic rarely seen in Hindi cinema: it is the professional and non-romantic attention of an older man that enables a young woman to recover.

This article emerged from the author's work as a research assistant to the Brown University anthropologist Bhrigupati Singh on his study, "Transformations of Sadness in Contemporary India: Explorations within Cinema, Psychiatry and the Everyday Life of Urban Poverty."