Picture Imperfect: Malayalam cinema must do homework on mental health issues

Filmmakers are experimenting and breaking barriers. However, it is disappointing to note glaring discrepancies, biased narratives, regressive dialogues & plain lack of research even in this age.

Published: 24th August 2022 08:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th August 2022 08:49 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

Express News Service

Malayalam cinema is going through a golden age, with rich subjects and well-thought-out stories. Daring scriptwriters and directors are experimenting and breaking barriers. However, it is disappointing to note glaring discrepancies, biased narratives, regressive dialogues and plain lack of research even in this age of microscopic scrutiny. One such grey area is the portrayal of mental health issues.

Film buffs would remember actor Soubin’s character in Kumbalangi Nights. Yes, the guy who acknowledges he is depressed and reaches out for help, as one should ideally do. He is later shown hugging a psychiatrist, weeping.

“It was probably the first time in recent times a commercial film is showing a prominent character as a mental health patient,” says artist Anjana. “Earlier, mental health was used for comedy, or to describe villainous characters. I can’t recall many films that show mental health issues as something that can affect a common, everyday man. Or, the fact that one can get easy access to help.”  

Anjana adds that Malayalam cinema continues to be callous while dealing with mental health. “Take the recent Kaduva and CBI 5, for instance, which came long after Kumbalangi Nights,” she points out.  

“The villain in CBI 5 is a man who doubts his wife constantly. A doctor emphasises that he has schizophrenia in the film. Such references add to stigma,” she says. The hero, in the end, slaps the man and castigates him for his ‘evil’ side.

“Similarly, bipolar depression is added to boost the notoriety of a goon in Kaduva.” Incidentally, an insensitive dialogue in a scene involving a child with Down Syndrome. Following public outrage, the team apologised and the dialogue was muted.  

‘Ignorant, irresponsible’
“That particular character in CBI 5 doesn’t display any symptoms of schizophrenia,” says renowned psychiatrist Dr C J John. “It seems like the word was just thrown in there for ‘effect’. It doesn’t add anything to the film.”

Dr John, too, highlights the “bipolar” reference in Kaduva. “Some filmmakers appear ignorant and irresponsible when it comes to writing characters with mental health issues,” he adds. “Kaduva was in the news recently for an insensitive dialogue. It was rightly called out. However, everyone missed the bipolar disorder reference. A villain is said to be affected by bipolar disorder. He is released from a mental health institution with the help of a doctor to kill the hero.”

Dr John says this could be “very scary”. “Most people are already hesitant to approach mental health professionals. Some don’t want to accept they are dealing with a medical condition. Some are scared of how other people might view them,” he explains.  

“The term bipolar disorder wasn’t even needed in that film. Now, a large section of people will associate it with violence.”

For some reason, adds Dr John, “only villains or comedic characters are affected by such disorders or other mental health issues in our films”. “What this age-old trend does is reinforce stigma,” he says.

The veteran psychiatrist also lashes out at Fahadh Faasil-starrer Trance. “The first half of the film creates a character and builds his history with mental illness and suicides in the family,” he says.

“But the second half was very harmful. Many patients were scared to take medicines after watching the film. It spread a wave of fear. Even some of my patients stopped taking medicines and went through serious remission. They had to restart the treatment from the beginning.”

Nothing stops filmmakers from speaking to a psychologist or a psychiatrist while dealing with such subjects, adds Dr John. “The least they can do is get the names and symptoms right,” he says.

‘Violent delights’
Anjana believes films generally tend to ridicule people suffering from mental health issues. “For example, Manichitrathazhu is a film that won a lot of praise. But, look at how Kuthiravattom Pappu’s character was portrayed,” she adds.

Dr John agrees. Though Mohanlal plays a genius psychiatrist in the superhit film, the “treatment” shown in the film doesn’t have any scientific basis, he adds. “It is fiction. That’s fine. But such films could push families of patients towards unscrupulous ‘magical’ therapies,” he notes.

What is most concerning, according to him, is linking violence to mental illnesses. “A schizophrenic murders his wife, a bipolar patient going on a violent rampage.... But what is the reality? Are all mental patients violent? No,” he says. “Violence is rare among patients. With treatment, most of them, even people with schizophrenia, can lead a successful life.”

However, take the Hollywood film Joker, adds Dr John. “The lead character is affected by a mental disorder. His illness gets aggravated due to lack of treatment, his environment, etc, and later turns into a criminal,” he explains.  

“It properly shows the ramifications of mental illness going untreated. A person with schizophrenia, if not treated, may turn suicidal due to auditory hallucination, and may turn violent. Someone else may even take advantage of that person’s situation. But you have to show how that develops instead of blindly throwing in words to sound fancy.”

It all started with The One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which became an inspiration for Mohanlal-starrer Thalavattam. “ETC or electroconvulsive therapy is not harmful but is necessary in some cases. Imagine a patient with depression and suicidal tendencies. To save their lives, ECT might be required,” says Dr John. “But patients and caregivers think it is harmful and cruel. That’s definitely not the case.”

‘Criticising the voiceless’
Dr Sheena G Soman, consultant psychiatrist, Mental Health Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, says people with mental illnesses are “voiceless and marginalised”.

“Due to stigma, many won’t even come out and question such films or depictions,” she adds. “Ultimately, such depictions set us back as a society.”
Dr Sheena says “not even one per cent of the patients would turn violent, in cases of ailments such as schizophrenia”.

In the Hollywood film A Beautiful Mind, she notes, one can see the life of mathematician John Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia, she adds.

“He was a genius. Normal and successful life is possible for people even with serious mental disorders,” explains Dr Sheena. “People with bipolar disorders, for instance, can control their mood fluctuations with treatment and excel in their fields. I am glad that people these days are taking the effort to learn more about mental health.”

‘Call out such practices’
Divya (name changed), a former movie critic who works on a popular OTT platform says, insensitive portrayals and dialogues used to work at one time in mass movies as “no one questioned it”.
“So filmmakers stuck to the age-old formula: throw in some English dialogues, some jargon, name a disease, this maketh the villain,” she says.

She names movies such as Ayal Kadha Ezhuthukayanu, Thalavattam, etc. “When these movies came out, we celebrated, laughed and cried. But now looking back, we can see how problematic they were,” she says.

ur in-house movie critic, Sajin Srijith believes that the Malayalam industry just uses blanket terms such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in a fancy way to appear intelligent. “Obviously, such references reinforce the stigma that we have been collectively trying to demolish,” he says.

“Shoddy research and laziness add to the problem. After Kumbalangi Nights, there should have been more daring attempts in movies that portray mental illness in the right manner. The least they should do is avoid worsening the existing scenario.”

Sajin praises the character arc of the villain in Minnal Murali. “It was commendable writing, character development,” he says. “ The way he transforms into a villain is dealt with sensitively, and progresses logically.”  

Divya, however, has another take. “Though the writing was good, I felt the audience ended up glorifying his character,” she notes. “’Poor guy, he was in love’ was something many people in the audience expressed. You can sympathise with the character, that’s how it was written. However, I don’t think even the director wanted people to empathise with him. At the end of the day, a murder is a murder.”

 Divya flags mannerisms and body language shown in films to make the character appear strange. “Their eyes, the way they speak, the way they behave in public are all exaggerated,” she says. “Most patients, however, appear normal. We have to understand that mental illnesses are common.”
 Keep calling out insensitive portrayals, she says. “That’s how change happens,” signs off Divya.

'Reflection of society'
Kaduva’s scriptwriter Jinu V Abraham defends such portrayals, saying films are a reflection of society. “As society gets educated, improves in thinking and becomes progressive, films will reflect that,” he says. “If you look at older movies such as Thaniyavarthanam, it shows suicide as a way to deal with mental illness. But now, we know better.” As for Kaduva, he says the ‘’bipolar’ addition was a calculated one. “We did research on bipolar disorder before writing that character. His arc will be much more fleshed out in the sequel that we are working on,” he says.

‘It’s fiction’
S N Swamy, who wrote the script of CBI 5, says films show a fictional world. “Not everything will be accurate here,” he says. “To build suspense, some aspects of some characters were hidden. That could be the reason why the villain didn’t appear as affected by schizophrenia,” he says. “I am not going to argue with psychiatrists. It is a vast field, and they are better informed. But films are ultimately fiction.”


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