26th of June

Exploring the portrayal of mental illness in Hindi cinema

From October to December 2000 I took up a short-term history of medicine fellowship from The Wellcome Trust to examine the portrayal of mental illness in Hindi cinema.

I examined 12 films which have at least one character with some degree of mental disorder. The following article from Wellcome News describes the work:

Indian psycho

Dinesh Bhugra is exploring the portrayal of mental illness in Hindi cinema.

India makes more films than Hollywood,” points out Dinesh Bhugra. “It’s a very operatic film style with a lot of singing and dancing.” ‘Bollywood’ films generally feature strong messages, often reinforcing traditional principles such as family values and acceptance by society. A psychiatrist by training, Dr Bhugra is exploring Bollywood’s portrayal of mental illness and its effects on the family within the broader historical, cultural and social context of Indian society.

All of the 12 films chosen by Dr Bhugra have at least one key character with some degree of mental disorder. “We are talking about mental illness in a Western context – the psychiatrist’s definition of schizophrenia and manic depression,” he explains, “but I hope to look at the portrayal of possession states, trance and reincarnation too.” In most of the films, psychosis is poorly defined, with people shown hearing and responding to voices. This depiction of mental illness is not solely the filmmaker’s interpretation as these films were adapted from popular novels, which sold millions of copies at railway stations around India. “It will be interesting to see how those authors got their ideas about mental illness.”

In terms of their portrayal of mental illness, Hindi films tend to represent the mentally ill as comedic supporting characters that add an amusing sideshow to, for example, the central ‘love story’. “There may occasionally be slapstick and jokes between two characters,” he says, “so it will be interesting to perceive what subtext is conveyed to the audience.” Part of his research will be to disentangle ‘operatic licence’ – a characteristic of Hindi cinema – from any portrayal of mental illness.

His study also focuses on the treatment of the mentally ill. Dr Bhugra’s previous research, at the Maudsley Hospital in London, of ancient Ayurvedic texts has provided him with an insight into the traditional Hindu system of medicine. “Mental illness is seen as an interaction between personality, seasons and food etc., rather than taking a biological or social approach.” In India, he says, “People take a pluralistic approach to treating the mentally ill, incorporating Western treatment with visits to an Ayurvedic physician, and prayers at specific temples.” The extent to which this is represented in films is a matter for investigation.

The films Dr Bhugra is studying all had considerable mass-market appeal, and were seen by a significant slice of the Indian population. Undoubtedly, political factors coloured the portrayal of mental illness. “In the 80s and 90s, whilst India was amid much political restlessness, successful films made at that time included a psychopathic hero who always gets punished for his bad deeds.” Cinema audiences would cheer on their wayward hero, despite knowing that retribution for his behaviour was inevitable. Evidence of social factors influencing film scripting does exist and Dr Bhugra is keen to investigate the extent of such influence given India’s past political climate.

Compared with Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness, Indian cinema is perhaps less enlightened. As Dr Bhugra points out: “There are fewer Bollywood films that look at mental illness in a serious sympathetic way. Only one film discusses psychoanalysis at length and depictions generally refer to asylums or the traditional model of psychiatric hospitals.” This, he argues, gives an impression that: “Indian cinema may be 30 to 40 years behind Hollywood’s image of psychiatry.” This may again reflect differing social attitudes to mental illness: “There are cultural differences where family contact, religion and pilgrimage may be the ‘nonprofessional’ ways of dealing with it.”

By addressing these issues, a broader aim of the project is to influence public attitudes and foster a more sympathetic understanding of mental illness. “In India families that care for the mentally ill need to realize that this is a genuine illness and not an act or an hysterical phenomenon,” he explains. Moreover, he hopes that his study may encourage film directors to modify their portrayal of the mentally ill and thus reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. “Hindi cinema is a cultural and ideological force that creates and reinforces perceptions and attitudes in its viewers.” As such, it could have a profound influence on the Indian population’s attitudes to a mental health.