CHENNAI: Vaishnavi Jayakumar could not believe what she was watching. The Chennai-based disability rights activist and co-founder of The Banyan gaped as movie star Ajith beat several men after they knocked the bottle of pills he was clutching from his hands. She was watching the recent hit Nerkonda Paarvai after she read a petition against the portrayal of bipolar disorder in the film.
The petition, started by a peer-support group called Mind Matters Circle, asked for the removal of certain scenes from the movie that offered a misleading portrayal of the illness. Ajith’s character in the film is ostensibly able to beat up several men in a state of acute mania triggered by being unable to take his psychiatric medicines. And yet, as Saravana Raja of Mind Matters Circle points out, the mania passes instantly when the fight ends. For Saravana his first tryst with full-blown mania took weeks to pass. He had to be admitted to a psychiatric facility for treatment. He says he has yet to see an accurate depiction of his illness bipolar (Type 1) in a Tamil film. Instead, he says, movies such as Three directed by Aishwarya R Dhanush and NKP directed by H Vinoth provide misleading information to youngsters. In NKP, aside from the violence, the hero’s doctor tells him that if he goes off his medication it would be more dangerous for others around him than for himself.
“I have heard of youngsters who have been diagnosed with bipolar and just days later end their lives,” Saravana says. “How can a movie which is so progressive about violence against women be so regressive with regard to mental health?” he asks.
Jayakumar spent 15 years living and working in close proximity with women with mental illness at The Banyan, which works with homeless persons with psychosocial disabilities. Very little she saw in the film rang true to her experiences as a survivor (she is clinically depressed) or caregiver. “I couldn’t believe that the misinformation would be so explicit. Why not simply invent a fictitious condition that fits the story’s needs rather than take a real condition and misinform people about it?” she asks.
The film’s director, however, told Express that he had researched the illness. “There are different types of bipolar disorder. We spoke to a doctor and asked if such behaviour was possible. The doctor said that it was possible during a phase of acute mania,” he says, asking why people were focused on such a small aspect of the film instead of on its larger message.
Indeed the film, as Saravana points out, does have a progressive message. However it does appear to contribute to negative stereotypes about mental illnesses, especially in the absence of more accurate representations. In fact, persons with mental illnesses say that their lived experiences are more often than not at odds with what is depicted on the big screen.
“They (filmmakers) exaggerate to focus on violence or self-harm,” points out Dr R Mangala, assistant director at the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF). While movies such as Three and NKP do create some awareness by making the illnesses a talking point, they can also cause harm.
Take Saravana, for instance. Now nearing 40, he did product marketing at a software before embarking on a sabbatical to start something on his own. He says he was often depressed in his younger days. He started taking anti-depressants in his early 20s. It was only some five-six years later that he first experienced mania. “I had delusions, grandiose thoughts. My doctor was sceptical and continued treating me for depression since that was the most dominant aspect of my illness. A few years later, when a major depressive episode ended I experienced full-blown mania that lasted two weeks,” he recalls. He was irritable, delusional, angry, argumentative, fearful and had to be admitted to a facility for treatment. He had another major episode a couple of years ago and had to be admitted again. “When mania settled, I was completely shattered. I started fearing myself. I wondered if I could live a normal life,” he says. Finally he decided that he couldn’t just rely on the medicines. He had to learn to cope with it himself. Thus, in addition to taking medication, he also made lifestyle changes, and making note of his triggers. He developed strategies and shared his symptoms with his caregivers. He finds therapy useful in helping with depression. “I am just a normal person who is creative and struggling in many areas. I am more than my label. I treat it like a chronic illness,” he says.
As Saravana’s experiences suggest the diagnosis of illnesses is not necessarily set in stone, neither is how the illness manifests itself. Every person has a different experience. Nor does one treatment work for everyone. Lakshmi Ramakrishnan, television personality and filmmaker, says her illness is a combination -- depression with highs, obsessive compulsive disorder and personality disorder -- it is not as simple as saying it is “bipolar”. She has lived with the illness for 25 years. “People respond in different ways. I had to find my own ways of coping but no matter how much people support you, it is still difficult if you don’t have insight,” she says. By insight she means the ability to recognise your triggers and symptoms and to be aware that you are unwell. “The highs make me extra confident and impulsive and not always socially appropriate. It is when I have made my movies. But it is also a very risky period,” she laughs. For her, symptoms of depression include low self-esteem, heightening OCD, reluctance to bathe. Physical activity is what has helped her and she has learnt to manage her illness without medication in recent years.
“Of course when I was depressed and had to take care of my three children I didn’t have a choice. So I just managed,” she says. The pleasure of creativity is what helps her out of depression. However, while her highs gave her the confidence to make movies, they also made work difficult at times for her colleagues as well. “It is difficult for those close to you but I ask for help when I feel l might be unwell,” she says.
Vandana Gopikumar, co-founder of The Banyan, was diagnosed with Type 2 bipolar disorder 15 years ago. For her the lows are marked by obsessive thinking of emptiness, absolute absence of vitality. “Like being flubber,” she says. The highs are marked by lots of energy, impulsiveness and a rush of ideas. “Others find it difficult to keep up and get tired by my energy,” she says. It has taken her years to understand how to best manage her illness.
For survivors, the question arises if these complex experiences are ever reflected on screen, especially since films have the ability to create mass awareness.
Nandhu Sundaram, a freelance journalist, who reviews movies and also lives with SchizoAffective Disorder, says that no one gets it right -- even in Hollywood. “Disabilities are always misrepresented in films,” he says, listing movies such as Three, Chandramukhi and A Beautiful Mind. “Anniyan (in which the protagonist has multiple personality disorder) in particular was a bad experience for me,” he says, explaining that in Three the way auditory hallucinations were invoked were very misleading. “Filmmakers believe we are in the minority and therefore this is not a priority. But they say one in six people is likely to experience depression at some point in life,” he says, adding that there is a refusal to understand the Other. Sundaram has experience of being treated as the Other. He says he quit full-time work in 2012 because he never found bosses sensitive to his illness.
Dr Mangala agrees that there are many dangerous depictions of mental illness in the media. She recalls an instance when a patient’s wife complained that her husband wanted to stop his medication after watching a scene in a Tamil serial where a doctor told the heroine that her mentally ill relative needed only love and care and not medication. “See a person with mental illness can be violent but because there is a confusion in thought process and they lash out from fear. Violence is not a major problem in psychiatry,” she says. She also points out that episodes of mania and psychosis can take weeks to set in and take time to resolve. They do not set in immediately after one stops medicines. She also takes issue with any bad behaviour - rape, murder, harassment or violence - being linked with mental health by calling perpetrators “psycho”. “It is very stigmatising,” she points out.
But given the complexity of mental illness and how varied lived experiences are would it ever be possible for Tamil cinema to get it right? Ramakrishnan’s 2012 film Aarohanam is an example offered by both Jayakumar and Saravana as a rare film that captures bipolar disorder well, depicting both the manic and depressive episodes in a manner which rings true to many survivors. Ramakrishnan, who made the film based on her own experiences and those of people close to her, says she did a lot of research before undertaking the film, including speaking to survivors, caregivers and medical practitioners.
Appeal to Ajith
The Mind Matters Circle released a video this week to provide more understanding of bipolar disorder in the context of NKP. “It is such a rare thing for a person to attain a reputation of such integrity, as Ajith has. He has such a huge following from youngsters. If he addresses the issue it will have a huge impact,” says Saravana.
Previously known as manic depression, it is of broadly four types that involve clear changes in mood ranging from highs or manic episodes or lows or depressive episodes. Less severe episodes of mania are called hypomania. Some forms of bipolar also include spells of psychosis during which a person may lose touch with reality.