If there’s something that commercial Indian cinema never fails to offer to its audience, it is grandeur and largely overstated portrayals of common life experiences. Generic gender tropes and stereotypes have for far too long dominated narratives in mainstream Bollywood films.
The industry’s emphasis on amusing and enthralling its audience has compelled it to pursue a direction that portrays several real-world concepts in a rather distorted light. The portrayal of mental health is one such area and Bollywood’s attempt to address it has been notoriously hit or miss.
According to a study by the Indian Centre for Medical Research (ICMR), one in seven men are affected by mental health disorders and in a country where only 0.16% of the government budget is allocated towards mental health facilities, it’s not news that India as a nation is still vastly unprepared to tackle the mental health epidemic sweeping across the country.
Powerful narratives in any medium have the potential to alter public perception and cinema has historically been a highly influential medium in India. The Indian cinematic representation of mental health was earlier just confined to the ideas of madness and insanity. This unidimensional approach is now being rethought as several strides have been made to make this concept more easily perceivable for audiences.
Homegrown takes a look at male characters in recent Indian films that may or may not have been accurate portrayals of male mental health.
I. Shutu, A Death in the Gunj (English, 2016)
Directed by Konkona Sen and set in the late 70s, A Death in the Gunj gives us a glimpse into the unusual dynamics of a dysfunctional Indian family. Vikrant Massey’s portrayal of Shutu is a commendable attempt at identifying the gravity of poor self-esteem, ignorance, bullying, depression, trauma, and suicidal tendencies.
Shutu’s character is often subjected to emotional abuse, scapegoating and bullying by his own blood. His emotional vulnerability unravels through the entirety of the film in small, nuanced ways. The film also delves into toxic dynamics held within traditional family settings that are often detrimental to one’s mental state of being.
II. Deepak, Masaan (Hindi, 2015)
This Neeraj Ghaywan classic has been lauded for more reasons than one. Masaan as a story unearths the complexities of loss, guilt, and grief placed against the landscape of the holy city of Banaras. The film dabbles with dialogue surrounding caste, community, and cultural barriers. Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) hails from the Dom community, the traditional caretakers of Varanasi’s cremation grounds. Over the course of the film, he falls in love with Shaalu, an upper-caste girl.
As the young couple navigates the complexities of love, caste, and social inequalities, the film brings to fore the brevity of human life. The act of cremating the dead is used as a powerful metaphor to guide us through the layers of Deepak’s character.
III. Shaji, Kumbalingi Nights (Malayalam, 2019)
Easily one of the most unbiased and untouched portrayals of a character’s battle with his mental health, the film sheds light on Shaji’s character by displaying his mental health as what it is without offering explicit opinions on the same or even a definite resolution. Furthermore, by refusing to distil or filter the powerful story that the visuals convey, the movie makes a very promising attempt at viewing mental health illnesses from an objective point of view.
IV. Das, Soodhu Kavvum (Tamil, 2013)
This story revolves around a schizophrenic kidnapper who struggles to cope with the death of his partner. Although the film heavily leverages comedy as a genre to unravel a thrilling action-drama, it subtly brings out the effects of a mental illness through its complex and multifaceted anti-hero played by Vijay Sethupathi.
V. JOJI (Malayalam, 2021)
This loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth takes us into the lives of a heated family feud. The protagonist, Joji is also seen displaying several traits of a psychopath. The layering of Joji’s character also brilliantly reflects the effects of poor family conditions and the lack of a reliable support system. Joji is an unreliable protagonist with an unstable personality. The story gives the audience a bird’s eye perspective of how a mental illness grips the life of not only the affected person but also the people that surround them.
V. Tamasha (Hindi, 2015)
Protagonist Ved Vardhan (played by Ranbir Kapoor)‘s struggle with his loss of identity has been one of the most prominent portrayals of a mental illness in a commercial Bollywood film. The story that follows Ved’s journey in rescuing himself from acts of self-sabotage that he subjects himself through the entirety of the film.
However, public reception of Ved’s character did not really bode well for the film. The mixed responses from the audience sets interesting precedents for what film-goers expect from a such portrayals of mental illnesses
Although Indian cinema is years away from making a significant breakthrough with regards to the portrayal of mental health, several promising attempts in the recent past shine through as glimmers of hope for a cinematic future that establishes realistic precedents for how mental health is to be perceived.
Feature illustration by Natasha Abrol for Homegrown
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