3 years


Presence of Mind

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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Why were the films which established Shah Rukh Khan as a major star those that showed him as a psychopath?

DURING MY ANNUAL ‘Staff Development Review’, I was advised that I should take the Mental Health First Aid Course as part of my university’s commitment to reduce mental health discrimination, raise awareness and offer comfort. Many students confront issues of mental health, and I wonder whether this is due to an increase in psychological problems—often attributed to stress among the young, lack of family support and so on—or if it results from the increasing medicalisation of matters that were hitherto largely swept under the carpet. These caused vast distress to families and friends as well as the individual sufferer. I’m not a doctor (not that sort of doctor, anyway) and I’m no expert in these matters, so while I may identify the existence of a problem, I cannot treat the individual in question but pass students and colleagues onto trained professionals such as counsellors, psychotherapists and psychiatrists.

As part of our training in textual analysis, we read about psychoanalysis, which has been a powerful critical tool. Do we psychoanalyse writers, readers, characters in texts or the texts themselves? We don’t, as psychoanalysis requires one to be psychoanalysed first (unless you’re the founding father—and what fun the name Freud means ‘joy’!).

Film Studies was long dominated by psychoanalytic theory, with filmmakers such as Hitchcock being suspiciously too easy to analyse, as also Mehboob Khan’s Mother India with its supposedly repressed Oedipal Complex between Radha and Birju. Even the latter’s name is equivalent to his father’s (Shyam) and he returns his mother’s wedding bangles as part of restoring her honour. To further compound matters, the actors playing these roles, Sunil and Nargis Dutt, got married in real life. Radha in the film was associated with many goddesses: Mother Earth/Dharti Maa, Lakshmi, Sita (the furrow) and, of course Radha, the beloved of Birju and Shyam. And, of course, Mother India herself (though never Bharat Mata), armed with a gun rather than a trishul.

Yet what role does psychoanalysis—even in the form deployed by the film scholar—have to play in India? How does a system based on ideas of hydraulic emotions (repression, suppression, venting and so on) and ideas of family structures derived from Europe a hundred years ago connect to contemporary India and the culture of the Indian family? Scholars such as Sudhir Kakar have applied psychoanalysis to Indian culture, including cinema, but I remain firmly on the fence. I’m happy to use elements that I find useful, often inspired by the numerous aphoristic volumes of one of the most elegant psychoanalysts, Adam Phillips, who comments that as texts try to make coherent narratives, so does psychoanalysis—not to establish a truth, but to help an individual read and write her/his life carefully to make sense of it.

Hindi films, which form a major part of public culture, seem a wonderful source to look at popular ideas about mental illness in Indian society. These ideas are not always addressed directly as such, following wider understandings of personality and mental illness. For example, where someone is described as ‘highly strung’ or ‘sensitive’, I might suggest possible bipolar disorder; or cleaning that I might consider obsessive behaviour (OCD) is seen by others as a virtue. I am not claiming to be right, merely suggesting that readings may differ according to wider cultural practice and that my perceptions are indeed conditioned by my own.

Extreme psychological disturbance and associated behaviour, often called madness, may be valorised in different contexts. For example, the madness of love is famed in stories such as Laila-Majnu, and in vocabulary such as ‘paagal’ (crazy) to describe lovers. The divine madness of losing control of oneself to enter into union with the beloved deity as a religious practice is seen with the songs of Mira or Sufi devotion as ‘Khwaaja ki deewani’, while madness may also occur through possession by the deity. The madness of anger and hate in riots, particularly over Partition, is well known, with the famous story of Manto’s Toba Tek Singh querying where the madness lies.

It isn’t surprising that psychiatrists are often interested in the narratives of cinema. I’ve often talked with Mohan Agashe about these issues; while in London, Professor Dinesh Bhugra gave some fascinating lectures that I hosted several years ago, now collated in a book Mad Tales from Bollywood. He argues that the films moved from a gentle depiction of mental illness in the 1950s (Funtoosh, Khamoshi) to later images of psychopathy (Baazigar, Darr). He doesn’t look at substance abuse, alcoholism, etcetera, and his book appeared before a number of recent films that portrayed specific mental illnesses such as autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (Barfi!, My Name is Khan), depression leading to alcoholism and seeming impotency (Devdas), schizophrenia (Tere Naam, Karthik Calling Karthik), bipolar disorder (Heroine) and dementia (Black).

One doesn’t expect a realistic depiction of mental disorders, which would be somewhat pointless given the lack of realism in Hindi cinema, but the ways in which emotional distress or abnormal behaviour are depicted must be culturally appropriate to make sense to the audience’s understanding of mental health. These depictions also reveal how a character and his moral compass are understood. Is the villain evil, or is he a psychopath? Where does the difference lie? Why were the films which established Shah Rukh Khan as a major star those that showed him as a psychopath?

One of my favourite films of all time is Mahel, about which I wrote a paper called ‘Bombay Gothic’. The film is said to be a ghost story (supernatural genre), but it really concerns the breakdown of the central character, who is convinced by a woman that he is a reincarnation of a previous owner of his mansion. The film shows that his friends and family are aware of his mental illness—his friend’s cure is to take him to a courtesan, but he runs away. His family get him married, but he refuses to even look at his bride as he is bewitched by the ghostly woman. The music is haunting and indeed the whole film seems to be about evoking the uncanny Gothic feel of certain cities in Uttar Pradesh, which are haunted by their past.

Some films show Gandhi appearing to haunt India in the delusions of modern citizens, just as Her Majesty the Queen (God Bless Her) does to many British sufferers of psychosis. The central character in Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara comes to believe he killed Gandhi, although the film makes it clear we all killed Gandhi. In Lage Raho Munna Bhai, the Everyman hallucinates encounters with Gandhi, whose good guidance leads him to become the do-gooder he does.

This recent awareness of mental illness in cinema and in the film industry itself, notably Deepika Padukone’s brave admission of her struggle with depression and her role as an ambassador for Indian psychiatry, is to be commended. While the stigma remains and the Indian medical profession does not have enough capacity to deal with mental illness, it goes mostly undiagnosed and families struggle to contain it as best they can. Often the damage to the sufferer and the people around is tragic. Sometimes the sufferer commits suicide, while many lives are wasted while living with and containing the problem. It is not the role of entertainment cinema to be didactic, but the increasing presence of the topic of mental health shows that it is becoming an issue which can at last be discussed.

My old friend and co-editor, Jerry Pinto, published a wonderful novel, Em and the Big Hoom, which is based on his growing up with a mentally ill mother and the struggle of the family to cope. He has now compiled stories of others who have had to love someone with a ‘different mind’. These books have been significant in opening up the topic for discussion rather than see it as a matter of shame. Films and books and other cultural forms which normalise the issue may lead to a wider acceptance that mental illness, like other illnesses, is not a moral issue or failure, but one which needs medical attention, whether from pills or talking cures.