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Bollywood and Mental Illness

A hundred years ago, the birth of Bollywood created a revolutionary change in India’s entertainment industry. The advent of black-and-white films and radio broadcaster- Doordarshan was initially available to India’s upper-class and elite. Over time, Indian cinema steered away from the privileged sections of society. It was soon accessible to individuals in the most remote corners of the country. Over time, Bollywood has evolved from the stereotypical ‘hero’, ‘villain’, and ‘item number’ format to having complex characters and addressing more significant issues that strongly impact India’s youth.

Have ever you spent hours sobbing over emotional films like ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ or left feeling much empowered watching strong protagonists in ‘Neerja’ and ‘Pink’? With the de-stigmatisation of mental illnesses over the years comes the evolution in the film industry. There exist a broad reach and influence in our county. However, does Bollywood truly depict an accurate representation of mental illnesses?

Over the last few decades, the Bollywood industry has showcased a growing sensitivity in the portrayal of mental health issues in films. You may relate to watching movies like ‘Taare Zameen Par’ with your eyes welled up in tears and hearts heavy with emotion. Released in 2007, the film revolved around an 8-year-old boy and his struggles with dyslexia. Initially being rejected by family and society, the film shows the child’s growth as a compassionate teacher embraces him and his disability. With recognition worldwide, the tear-jerking Bollywood film represented the learning disability using cinematics for individuals of all ages to sympathise with the protagonist. The movie centred around learning disabilities, creating an atmosphere of inclusion. The two-hours de-stigmatised mental illnesses and accomplished the change that society could not self-impose over the years.

While on the one hand, certain movies such as ‘My Name is Khan’, ‘Black’ and ‘Dear Zindagi’ have represented mental health issues. On the other hand, there is a long history of misrepresentations and stereotyping mental illnesses in the Bollywood industry. One of the highest-grossing films and slapstick comedy ‘Golmaal’ stars a mute character ‘Lucky’ as the films leading role. Other than portraying a disability, the film makes a mockery of the character. Another such part is played by Akshay Kumar in ‘Housefull 3’, who suffers from a dissociative disorder - Multiple Personality Disorder. Each time Sandy has an episode and takes on his alternate personality – Sundi, his character turns into a caricature and becomes the comedy relief for the audience. The character himself refers to the dissociative psychological disorder, using the phrase “buy one get one free”. It is this sheer lack of accurate representation of mental illnesses that misinforms the majority of our nation.

The media and entertainment industry has the potential to reach and influence remote sections of society. Indian filmmakers have progressed in their approach to portray new and sensitive topics. However, there still exists a massive potential for change. Here are the ways that Bollywood can be more inclusive towards mental illnesses:

  1. Mental Illness is NOT Comedy. Slapstick Bollywood films misuse mental disorders as an element of comic relief. It is important to note that there is nothing comical about mental illnesses. These disabilities are not fictional. They are based in reality, having devastating consequences on the individual and families.

  2. Include Sensitive Language. Actors on-screen often misuse terms like ‘mental’, ‘psycho’, and ‘lunatic’ as colloquial terms. There must be a common ground of sensitivity by discouraging derogatory terms regarding mental health.

  3. Have Open Conversations. Mental health is a highly stigmatised conversation in Indian society. To de-stigmatise mental health, Indian cinema can increase its portrayal of these disorders to spark more significant conversation.

There exists a flaw in our very system leading to the lack of nuances and sensitivity. Does ‘yeh Pagal hai’, ‘paagalkhane lejao’, or ‘mental hai kya’ ring a bell? To exploit comic relief opportunities, Indian cinema continues to portray irresponsible and inadequate representations of mental illnesses. On the one hand, A-list celebrities such as Deepika Padukone and Shaheen Bhatt share their experiences with depression, inspiring thousands across the nation. On the other hand, Bollywood showcases tremendous medical inaccuracies and fictional accounts regarding mental disabilities. Indian filmmakers use Schizophrenia and Dissociative disorders as enigmatic plot-twists to transform characters into caricatures. The tremendous progress that our society has made over the years often gets clouded by these misinterpretations. As a citizen of a developing nation that takes pride in its growing entertainment and film industry, we must break stereotypes and reinforce our progressive ideals. Schizophrenia is not becoming ‘crazy’ (or ‘pagal’), suffering from multiple personality disorders is not being ‘mental’, and living with a disability does not resemble comedy.

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