From derogatory songs to alcoholism and beards, mental illness has mostly been glorified and celebrated in Indian cinema.A talk conducted by SCARF points out that movies explain depression in wrong light while mythology dismisses it entirely.
CHENNAI: As Santha (played by Saroja Devi), starts singing Idhaya Veenai Thoongumbodhu in film Iruvar Ullam (1963), you cannot help but notice how well-dressed and breathtaking she looks. Though she sweeps away the listeners with the song, many fail to notice that the lyrics are indicative of her mental state. “A person with depression doesn’t have to be wearing tattered clothes or look gloomy. They can be well-dressed, social and still be dealing with mental illness. The portrayal in this song is a classic example of how you can fail to recognise depression,” explained historian V Sriram, during a recent talk on ‘Depression and Cinema’, organised by the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF).
This is not the only way depression is showcased in cinema. In most films, a person is depressed usually after a ‘trigger’. The first noticeable trace, especially among men, is the classic beard. In
Vaidehi Kaathirundhal (1984) and Amman Kovil Kizhakale (1986), the protoganist Vijayakanth has a beard. “It has become a hallmark of depression in our cinema. Depression is never diagnosed in cinema and the characters live with mental illness forever in the proverbial hall of fame,” shared psychiatrist Dr R Mangala.
Talking about ‘masking’ mental illnesses, actor Akshara Gowda who fought depression, narrated, “I woke up one day and wanted to end my life. But I decided to go for help and was blessed with a family who supported me. Otherwise, things could have gone differently.” But it took her over a year to admit she needed professional help. “To acknowledge the problem is the first step to fighting it,” she added.
She condemns films that glorify depression. “The most glorified of all is Devadas (1955 and 2002)! The recent movie, Three (2012) with Dhanush, became popular for a similar reason. Cinema should also explore how to treat depression,” she shared.
What about depression among children and senior citizens? “Kuzhandhaiyum Deivamum (1965) is about how parental depression affects children. This theme is more relevant in today’s time. But it’s much more difficult to identify depression among kids,” rued Mangala.
For instance, in Vietnam Veedu (1970), the story is about an ageing man trying to redeem his self-worth. “It was about life after retirement and how Sivaji Ganesan’s character feels powerless and worthless in the later stages of his life. That’s classic depression,” pointed out Sriram.
Movies like Saheb Bibi aur Gulam (1962) and Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) not only depicted the loss that depression can bring into one’s life, but could also be a ‘prediction’ of what happens to an artist in real life. “In Saheb Bibi…Meena Kumari was an alcoholic and her sexuality was denied in the movie. She was grieving because she couldn’t bear a child. Closely, a decade after the movie, she died. Likewise, Guru Dutt phased out in the movie industry. Doesn’t it make you wonder if he was trying to say something through Kaagaz?” said Sriram.