'Ulladakam' to 'Nerkonda Parvai': A look at mental illness in mainstream cinema

On World Mental Health Day, here's a look at some popular films remembered for their portrayal of mental illnesses - both good and bad.

Published: 12th October 2019 06:29 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th October 2019 07:07 PM   |  A+A-

Online Desk

Ever since cinema opened itself to accommodate characters with mental illnesses, their portrayal has come under question. Even as decades have passed, the stigma around mental illnesses has stayed intact with only a handful of movies attempting to quash it.

Dr Dinesh, a clinical psychologist, says, “Most of the movies are openly promoting the misconception that people suffering from mental disorders are unpredictable and dangerous to society. This creates a negative feeling in the mind of the audience that people with mental illness will definitely become unpredictable one day.”

With us still being in an age where movies dealing with mental disorders are commercialised to suit the needs of the story, here's a look at some popular films remembered for their portrayal of mental illnesses - both good and bad.

Ulladakkam (1991)

Mohanlal is Dr Sunny in this movie. Reshma (Amala Akkineni) has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and is the sister of Dr Sunny's close friend. PTSD is more common in women, especially if there is a history of childhood trauma (mother's death for Reshma). She is exposed to severe stress once again in life after witnessing the brutal murder of her boyfriend and is unable to come to terms with the event.

Reshma is aware of her boyfriend Arun’s death but her unconscious self denies this fact, creating a conflict between her conscious and unconscious selves. This is the best part of the movie. The rest, including the murder of Sunny's wife by Reshma and the depiction of a psychiatric hospital in the nineties, only play second fiddle to it.

Manichitrathazhu (1993)

Mohanlal is Dr Sunny once again, shown playing with the mind of a character (played by Pappu) suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There are moments when he makes flippant remarks that a doctor ideally must not. 

In the film, Shobana's National Film Award-winning depiction of a young woman suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), grabbed the spotlight. A lot of Indians equate DID with the possession of the human body by spirits. 

Ganga (Shobana) was brought up by her grandmother in a world of magic, fantasy and folklore. The absence of her parents creates emotional turmoil in young Ganga's mind and her love for fantasy develops into an obsession. Her empathy for an oppressed dancer soon makes her husband (Suresh Gopi) her antagonist who she then wishes to kill. 

In reality, people with DID switch identities when they are confronted with a stressful situation. The treatment of this disorder is often directed at removing the precipitant stress. In Ganga's case, the trigger was her troubled childhood and adolescence, while her marital life was depicted as a smooth and happy one. 

The logic of fruitful vengeance actually helping the patient and the dance sequences are included only for cinematic purposes.

Devrai (2004)

Devrai is a Marathi film that was produced by the Schizophrenia Awareness Association with Atul Kulkarni playing the lead. The movie is about a man who suffers from schizophrenia and the struggle he undergoes in dealing with it. 

Shesh Desai (Atul Kulkarni) grew up with his mother, sister, and cousin. As a child, Shesh Desai is forced to stop doing things that he loves. After the death of his mother and his sister's marriage, he becomes lonely and eccentric. 

A breakdown in front of his relatives leads to him being admitted to a psychiatric facility where he receives treatment. He eventually makes it back home. After this episode, the movie subtly shows the different shades of the recovery process as Shesh battles to get his life back.

Anniyan (2005)

The Vikram-starrer is about a man who again has Dissociative Identity Disorder. Vikram plays three roles in the film directed by Shankar, namely, Ramanujam a.k.a Ambi (soft, law-abiding citizen), Remo (urbane fashion model) and Anniyan (vigilante). 

Vikram’s change of roles sees him don entirely different attires, sport different hairstyles and flaunt different skill sets. 

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The very introduction of Remo happens only after Ambi attempts suicide when the heroine rejects his proposal. Ambi is a working-class lawyer who drives a TVS 50, but in the next scene, when he arrives as Remo, he drives a sports bike. Like these, there are many fictitious elements included in the portrayal of the disorder.

When Ambi becomes Anniyan, the hero's mental disorder is used to show manic aggression and violence as he takes on 30-40 trained fighters.

Anniyan's huge success at the box office gave birth to many more movies where the lead character’s mental disorder is depicted in a commercialised manner. 

“Most of the time, a patient explains his or her feelings by pointing out to a film and asking questions. I have had patients coming to see me and ask whether they will kill themselves because they had the same anger symptoms which a character in a movie showed,” Dr Dinesh explains.

15 Park Avenue (2005)

Aparna Sen's 15 Park Avenue discussed the symptoms and treatment for schizophrenia, which are up-to-date and accurate. 

Konkona Sen Sharma's character Mithi, who suffers from schizophrenia, is taken care of by her ageing mother (Waheeda Rehman) and older sister Anjali (Shabana Azmi). While the mother gets restless and impatient by Mithi’s behaviour, Anjali has to sacrifice her personal life to take care of the other two.

The movie is not about winning the sympathy of viewers for the schizophrenic patient but offers a realistic picture into the relationship between the schizophrenic, her caregivers and her guilt-ridden ex-boyfriend.

Hasee Toh Phasee (2014)

Parineeti Chopra plays the role of Meeta, a highly intelligent girl suffering from an addiction problem. Her family members feel she is crazy and treat her differently. 

However, for no reason at all, in the movie, Parineeti’s character depicts weird habits (for example: eating toothpaste) which are used to make the audience believe she is ‘odd’. In fact, she was even introduced as ‘Mental’ during the film’s promotions.

Siddharth Malhotra plays the role of Nikhil, who is in love with Parineeti's elder sister and is going to marry her. However, after meeting Parineeti, he falls in love with her. He finds her fascinating despite her condition. During the climax, she turns suicidal after Siddharth’s wedding with her sister takes place.

Such erratic portrayals of mental disorder are yet another example of how movies use it for their convenience.

Kumbalangi Nights (2019)

One of the most critically acclaimed movies in Malayalam this year, this Madhu C Narayanan directorial is an all-out assault on toxic masculinity. If you think the movie is on the list because of Fahadh Faasil's Shammi, you are wrong.

This movie also deserves a spot for its attempt to break myths and stereotypes surrounding counselling.

A counselling session has many misconceptions attached to it, holding many back from reaching out to a professional. A person visiting a psychiatrist is seen as a ‘patient’ by many since they have no idea about what happens inside a counselling chamber. 

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When Saji (Soubin Shahir) faces a mental breakdown after unintentionally causing his friend's death, he opts to commit suicide. However, he is forced to drop the plan as he takes on the responsibility of helping his dead friend's pregnant widow. Saji then asks his sibling Franky to take him to somebody, and we see him breaking down while talking to a counsellor, sobbing as he lets everything out. As he walks out with a light heart with his brother, another truth is demystified for the Malayali audience - that of what therapy actually involves.

Dear Zindagi (2016)

Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi actually shows how therapy helps a young woman overcome childhood trauma while breaking several stigmas around counselling. When the protagonist Alia Bhatt’s life takes unexpected turns and hits an uncertain patch, she goes back to Goa, to her parents, with whom she has long-standing issues.  

Then she accidentally meets a therapist, Shah Rukh Khan, and decides to consult him. Alia Bhatt’s interactions with SRK do not stop with just one pivotal life-changing moment but are spread across many therapy sessions that capture the progress Alia makes. The movie beautifully shows how therapy can help a person come to terms with their past and lead a peaceful life. 

Nerkonda Paarvai (2019)

The Tamil remake of the critically acclaimed Hindi film Pink was modified to suit the image of the star Ajith Kumar. Although, the modifications were welcomed by the audience and critics, some experts differed.

In the movie, the lead, Bharath Subramaniam, suffers from bi-polar disorder. A 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. The scenes behind this petition include a 10-minute interval block fight sequence where Ajith turns violent as he is unable to take his psychiatric medicines. However, the director of the movie, H Vinoth, defended his decision but his answers were not convincing enough.

Not just Nerkonda Paarvai, but many other movies too have characters with mental illnesses turning extremely violent. But, this is not the reality. “Almost 85 per cent of the movies shows mental disorders in the wrong manner because they make people think only mentally ill people do violent acts. Today, there are so many cases of murder happening, are they all done by mentally ill people?” Dr Dinesh questions. 

He further clarifies that movies draw from exceptional and rare cases where mentally challenged people end up being violent and glorify it. 

Taking cinematic liberties is one thing but consciously portraying mental disorders in the wrong manner has misled audiences. Hopefully, we will see more movies with a sensitive approach to mental illnesses. After all, one good movie cannot undo the misconception created by a hundred others. 

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