Cinema reflects society and it is interesting to note the change in both
My earliest memory of developing shortsightedness – though I didn’t know what it was called then – is when I was in Class 8, and started finding it difficult to see the blackboard in my class well.
My discomfort must have started showing signs earlier than that, but I chose to ignore it. I managed to read the somewhat unclear hazy words written by the teacher, and if I ever failed to decipher a word or a sentence, I was quick to peep into the notebook of my friend sitting next to me and complete the task. Obviously, it happened more than once, and in fact, quite regularly.
That felt like a quick fix solution for the time being.
The fear of being judged
I must add that both my brothers by then had full blown myopia – a disorder commonly known as nearsightedness, and is a refractive error that makes it difficult to focus on faraway subjects. People suffering from nearsightedness can see objects close to them clearly and see far away objects blurry.
Now when I look back, I realise that for children – as also for older people – anyone not conforming to accepted norms of life that include one’s agreeable standards of a set pattern is considered inappropriate. Any unconventionality or deviance is undesirable and insupportable for others.
And, therefore, I endured poor vision for the longest time for the simple fear of being judged by my classmates: chashmoo, andha were monikers for the other two students in my class, who were brilliant in studies, but suffered the fate most bespectacled boys and girls do at the hands of fellow students. They seemed incongruous and more of an oddball to them, and even to their families, at times.
What made me shy away from admitting my malady of not being able to see distant things as well as others did – something that was inflicted on me for no fault of mine? Besides being called names, I also dreaded looking rather odd with a frame on my face and carry its burden for the rest of my life.
Was I being stupid? That would clearly be an understatement!
But then peer pressure, lack of awareness (there was no internet then and no Google to search for answers) and carefree blasé life got the better of all of us, and as long as we were able to read books, watch the occasional film on the telly and play some games with moderate success, my vision seemed perfect, and the going seemed pretty good.
As children, our exposure to the world around us is restricted to our neighbourhood, our school, and in many cases, what we read or what we watch on celluloid. And celluloid has had an uneasy relationship with portraying mental health challenges until recently.
Silver screen’s take on mental health
Since cinema reflects life, movies in India, more so in Hindi language, had a formulaic content where invariably love triumphed over evil, even illnesses, and there was no need felt for infirmities and debilities to reach any conclusive end, with the exception of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand and Mili in which both the lead actors Rajesh Khanna and Jaya Bhaduri had to succumb to the dreaded afflictions of cancer. Interestingly, both these films were character driven and showed the afflicted person’s delightful approach to life as they laughed their woes away and never once showed any signs of vulnerability for the audiences to sympathise with them.
Indian cinema has come a long way from the time it dealt with characters, which were either from the marginalised community or mentally slow and/or are shown to have some ingrained, hereditary or inherited syndrome that makes them suffer or get labelled as unfit and unsuitable for the society at large. In nearly all of them (Sanjeev Kumar in Khilona), (Guru Dutt in Bahurani), (Sharmila Tagore in Anupama), (Waheeda Rehman in Khamoshi), to name a few, the suffering of the aforementioned actors playing disturbed or mentally ill characters was half-hearted and even half baked.
Not that the actors portraying them didn’t try hard enough to do justice to the mental sickness. But since the portrayal wasn’t explained in detail there was no solution in sight either for the viewers to know that God forbid, if such a fate ever befell them or the dear ones, they would know how to cope with it. India of the 1970s and all through the 1990s even didn’t probably have the level of awareness that was needed then, or the kind of services available in both metros and B and smaller towns now.
Therefore, a sweeping mention and a straightforward trouble-free and uncomplicated panacea to any illness, mental or physical, was cursorily discoursed and hurriedly resolved in a happy ending set up.
Ankahee: In the 1980s it was in Amol Palekar’s Ankahi with Deepti Naval as the mentally deficient woman that we see a real issue being tackled with a believable resolution. In the story Deepti’s character is shown to be suffering because of her being disdained and deprived of love all her life, and by getting married, it is assumed that she would surely respond positively to marital love and get cured after experiencing the love of her spouse. A silly notion for sure, but the film’s premise was based on an astrologer’s predictions about a man finding true love only after he got married twice. Naval’s quiet dignity and unspoken resilience were the highlights of the film as the narrative sensitively handled the extremely complex and delicate moments with utmost compassion and understanding.
Khamoshi: In the 1960s, Waheeda Rehman in Khamoshi played a nurse treating Dharmendra whose unrequited love results in his becoming mentally disturbed. Rehman is specifically instructed by doctors to pretend to be in love with him as part of her process of cure and therapy. He recovers, and walks off hale and hearty leaving her forlorn and dejected as while play acting to be in love with him, she had really fallen for him. Subsequently, when another patient Rajesh Khanna comes to the hospital with a similar background, she is again entrusted with the responsibility of curing and treating him with the same strategy of feigning to fall for him. Only this time it’s she who gets affected even as Khanna gets discharged sound and fit as a fiddle. Rehman getting affected is so moving and thoughtfully and caringly carried most delicately by the director Asit Sen.
Taare Zameen Par: The film explores the life and imagination of Ishaan, a 9-year-old boy who, despite excelling in art, has poor academic performance, which leads his parents to send him to a boarding school, where a new art teacher suspects that he is dyslexic and helps him to overcome his reading disorder. The cheerfulness and optimism with which a serious subject was handled was not only endearing but it also taught many ignorant parents to not be stern and dense, and discover ways to treat learning disability as remediable and curable.
Arth: Smita Patil in Arth was mesmerising only because the portrayal of a schizophrenic woman who was labelled the ‘other woman’ in Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s marital life (his wife was played by Shabana Azmi), was realistic to the core. Confronted by Shabana at a social gathering, a guilt-ridden Patil falls into depression, withdraws into a shell and breaks down eventually. Based on director Mahesh Bhatt’s personal life when he was torn between his wife and his extra marital affair, the film – an agonizing indictment – showed Patil as mentally unstable who, ravaged by paranoia, insecurity, blame and self-reproach, conscience, begs the wife for forgiveness.
The severe blow that Patil receives seems so unquestionably heartfelt that her out of sync behaviour is note perfect and most convincing. Kudos to Bhatt who made audiences love her, and identify with her highly strung behaviour. Her medical condition was conveyed with not an iota of exaggerated melodramatic emotion; it made viewers sit and take note of the possibility of their own vulnerability if and when attacked personally for a supposed wrong they might commit.
Dear Zindagi: A coming of age film about a girl cinematographer (Alia Bhatt) who has had old issues with her parents. She spends sleepless nights in unhappiness and uncertainty, and seeks out Dr. Jehangir ‘Jug’ Khan (SRK), a psychologist, for her insomnia after inadvertently having heard him speak at a Mental Health Awareness Conference.
Karthik Calling Karthik: It’s a story about an introvert for whom a mysterious phone call changes his life from being a ‘nobody’ to a famous successful man. He suffers from a childhood trauma, is unlucky in love, is bullied at work, and is schizophrenic characterised by abnormal social behaviour and failure to understand reality. He has an alter-ego that is more assertive and advises him on how to live life. Later, it is revealed that the strange caller was Karthik himself. Mostly, a commonly observed trope in films represents schizophrenia as stereotypically criminal and violent characterised by misinformation about symptoms, causes, and treatment. The pervasiveness and nature of misinformation are difficult to ascertain because of the lack of empirically based studies of movies portraying schizophrenia. Not much of a box office success, this one was truly different.
Heroine: Revolving around the life of a once-successful film star whose career is on the decline, the story of actress Mahi Arora, is about her being unstable and problematic, as also damaged and lonely due to childhood trauma. She endures depression due to bipolar disorder. Kapoor’s portrayal was believable with reasoning and precise information justifying her state.
My Name is Khan: Referred to as a scholarly case study for its cinematic portrayal of autism and Islamophobia, the multi-star cast film narrates a fictional story where an autistic Muslim, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, sets out on a journey across the United States to meet the President when his Hindu wife, suffers from Islamophobic discrimination after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Khan’s consummate picture stayed with audiences as substantial and true-to-life.
Hichki: Naina Mathur, an aspiring teacher was rejected by many schools because of her Tourette syndrome until she is accepted at the St. Notker’s School, her alma mater. She is assigned to teach students from a nearby slum in Class 9F, which was created by the Government of India to fill a quota for the underprivileged. Flawless and informative, the film educated people about its clinical state and not once made fun of such characters, as it was done a few decades ago.
Chhichhore: Set parallelly in the 1990s and 2019, Chhichhore tells the story of Aniruddh, a middle-aged divorcee whose son Raghav tries to commit suicide after failing to clear the JEE entrance examination, and who, despite survival, is unwilling to live due to the fear of being branded as a ‘loser’. This makes a desperate Anni recount his own experience to Raghav of his own time at college, wherein he and his five friends too were called ‘losers’, and how they managed to remove that ‘tag’. As he continues to narrate his story, the other five join their friend and complete the story.
I vividly recall such characters in films and others in real world being dubbed ‘mad’, a much-abused term that was, perhaps, easy to label them with. But the severity of its blow that hit the wounded is unfathomable. Imagine a little girl or a boy, being subjected to all kinds of suffering and agony that came easy for others to ostracise them for. Rarely did anyone ever feel the need to look within or beyond what seemed ‘normal’ to them and empathise with them.
In such a scenario, I often heard avid cinema watchers sighing for Sanjeev Kumar as bechara in Khilona. In the film, he is shown as a deranged man who pines for a girl, Mumtaz, but gets rejected because of his unusual deviant behaviour.
With science taking giant leaps in the past two or more decades, there has been a huge transformation in people’s attitudes towards children with special needs.
Mercifully, there have been many changes – mostly positive – as far as incorporating a deficient character in a script is concerned. And undeniably this interpretation has come about due to our society’s raised awareness and long overdue sensitisation that has strengthened due to medical intervention on the one hand, and softened people’s attitudes towards it as they get more and more knowledgeable, discerning and thus, perceptive!