Susan Walker Moffat, Sushant Singh Rajput’s (SSR) therapist and a clinical psychologist recently came out in public, compelled to breach the client’s confidentiality in the larger interest of the society and most probably due to the ongoing media trial, she revealed,
“Sushant was suffering from bipolar disorder, a severe mental illness that can be crippling for an individual during an episode. The symptoms of which can include severe anxiety, major depression and sometimes disordered thinking and paranoia. The continuing, appalling stigma around mental illness makes it very difficult for patients and their families to reach out. This has to stop. Mental illness is no different than cancer or diabetes. It can affect anyone, regardless of class,financial status and so on. In a way that cancer can.”
A Bollywood Star, a youth icon, sky gazer and philosophy-lover SSR’s sudden and sad demise has sent the entire nation into a tizzy, opening up Pandora’s box of drug nexus, rave parties, nepotism and Bollywood mafia. As many as three top investigating agencies of the country work day and night to get SSR justice, the prominent electronic media working full time in parallel investigation and conspiracy theories, which not only sacrificed sanity for sensationalism but willingly forgot about the invading Coronavirus in the heart of the country.
While the print media belatedly bemoaned this unregulated and absolutely uncontrollable media frenzy over SSR’s tragic death, it’s not hard to notice that this theatre of absurdity has its origin in the long standing Bollywood tradition of which SSR was an integral part after being dubbed as a rising superstar.
Mental Health And Disorder In Bollywood
According to WHO reports, India is one of the most depressed countries in the world; yet the cosmetic and superficial portrayal of mental illness and disorder in Bollywood is largely responsible for its lack of acceptance and stigmatisation. Exploiting mental illness for ‘comic relief’, Bollywood initiated the oversimplification of complex mental disorders in order to serve the expediency of the plot with unreasonable twists and turns in movies like Funtoosh (1953) and Half Ticket (1962).
Khilona, the 1970, Sanjeev Kumar and Mumtaz starrer, FilmFare award winning blockbuster film depicted Sanjeev Kumar as mentally unstable Vijaykamal, without elaborating on his mental condition. He was dumped as ‘pagal’. Instead of an asylum, marriage is sought for his cure and a fight leading to a fatal fall miraculously brings him back to sanity. Sanjeev Kumar’s brilliant performance as mentally unfit fails to move beyond the set emotions of pity and ridicule. Bringing the hero back to sanity is then central to the plot, to remain mentally unstable is unacceptable for a hero, as a happy ending remains unimaginable.
The female protagonist Chand, ex- prostitute, wife and caregiver becomes a ‘khilona’ (toy) between his bouts of sanity and insanity. Released around the same time is another classic and award winning film Raat Aur Din (1967) in which Nargis, who had given up acting after marriage to look after her family, played the role of a woman suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. She is a docile housewife as Varuna in the day and turns into licentious and alcoholic Peggy at night. Unlike Vijaykamal from Khilona, Varuna is shunned by her in-laws, presumed to be ‘cursed’ and finally admitted into the mental institute for treatment.
The mental disorder of Varuna is used as a moral policing for women where there is no place for the adventurous Peggy, who is compared with raat (darkness) and the virtuous Varuna is the din (day) as a domesticated chaste wife, exemplified by Nargis’s real life. There are of course no deus ex machina to save the female protagonist from mental regression because of the tacit acceptance of mental disorder with femininity.
In the classic hit Khamoshi (1970) hailed to be ahead of its time, starring Waheeda Rehman where she plays the role of a nurse Radha, is another example. Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, Radha loses her own mental balance while treating mentally unsound patients. For a woman to succumb to the abyss of insanity is projected as a natural phenomenon and unable to express her emotions, Radha remains in self imposed suppression moralised by the obligation of being a ‘caregiver’. Trapped like a rat for an experiment, Radha’s Khamoshi is in reality contrived and her madness is manufactured. The film is an archetype of how the notion of madness is engineered and ingrained through the silent/mute prototypes of femininity floated in Bollywood.
In valorising masculinity, Bollywood followed the Freudian model of femininity as ‘dark continent’, unfamothable, irresolvable mystery and it seems twenty decades on, the patriarchal tropes only resurfaced with more aggression.
The 1990’s saw glorification of psychosis as new age heroism with classic hits like Darr (1993) and Baazigar (1993). Shahrukh Khan starrer blockbuster redefined love with very apparent psychotic behaviour. The obsessive, compulsive and often revengeful love is celebrated and the unmistakably obvious unstable mental condition of the male lover is validated and glorified in the narrative of ‘unrequited’ love. The ensuing terror and violence becomes a new language of imposing masculinity that normalises the image of terror stricken unresponsive ‘beloved’ being chased and traumatised.
A decade later, Tere Naam, another superhit starring Salman Khan as violent and aggressive Radhe abducts his beloved Nirjara, when she refuses to reciprocate. Ironically, Radhe suffers from brain injury and loses sanity, it is Nirjara who commits suicide. The wholesale acceptance and endorsement of the psychotic behaviour of the lover can be seen in the increasing number of crimes against women like stalking, kidnapping, violent attacks, innumerable acid attacks, murder and rape of many women by their supposed lovers.
Contrastingly, the female obsessive love in the movies like, Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya (2001) and Gupt (1997) clearly defined and vilified the violent female lover as ‘mad’ who ends up in the safety of asylum, despite all the pity and sympathy. Clearly Bollywood stitched a narrative of madness, psychosis as part of masculinity and erotomania (Beauvoir), a narcissistic attribute of femininity.
The disturbing success of the recent film Arjun Singh (2019) is based on the same formula where mental illness characterised with anger, violence, alcoholism and destruction is masked under hegemonic masculinities of trivialising and objectifying women. Such perverse masculinities in effect perpetuates misogyny as they are idealised with romantic pathos which are unquestionably consumed, gradually internalised and replicated by the society at large.
Unconfined with psychosis, 2000 marked the era of superheroes with more palpable muscular narratives defined by well sculpted bodies made in gyms, showcasing power, strength and sensuality. Superhit, Koi Mil Gaya (2003) starring Hritik Roshan as Rohit is about neurodevelopmental disorder also called intellectual disability, but the film moves into superhero franchise (Krrish). Rohit’s mental disability is not only miraculously cured by an alien (deus ex machina) rightly called ‘jadoo’ but is also now gifted with supernatural power to become a superhero who would be the saviour of the world.
Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007) clearly about the Dissociative Identity Disorder was depicted in a horror-comedy genre, not to mention invoking the mythological figure to reinforce the mystery surrounding the illness. The movie inscribed the female body of Manjulika/alter personality as a ‘ghost’ popularised by Vidya Balan‘s ghastly image (of dishevelled hair, smudged makeup and torn clothes).
Another ludicrous movie by the nonsensical name of Krazzy 4 (2008) which thankfully flopped and forgotten exploited the grave mental illness like OCD, Schizophrenia and Intermittent Explosive Disorder and Selective Mutism played by four leading male actors depicted as cartoons failed to be comic. The farcical and insensitive portrayal of mental illness is once again Bollywood’s negation of recognising the mental disorders with the gravity and urgency it requires.
The incompatibility of mental disorder with masculinity has led to lack of awareness and acceptability about the mental illnesses, often pushing the patients into preventable yet extreme actions. With movies like Karthik calling Karthik (2010), 15th Park Avenue (2005), Dear Zindagi (2016), Anjana Anjani (2010), Bollywood has opened a new chapter of at least recognising mental illnesses with some care and sensitivity but most often, the disease or the peculiar condition is used as tool kit to direct or drive the narrative towards improbable, bordering on magic realism, like My Name is Khan (2010).
The bizarre events surrounding the death of SSR, and the public statement of his psychologist points out the flawed masculinities produced by Bollywood and reproduced by the society en mass. Unfortunately, Bollywood sanitised the vulnerabilities of mental illness either to the supernatural abilities of epic proportions or by glorifying the malignant metamorphosis of the angry young man of the 1970s to the psychotic young man of 1990s. Unable to deal with the intricacies of mental condition, Bollywood stands complicit in infantilising the grave concerns of mental health which has been counterproductive because men too are victims of masculinity. This metastasis of hegemonic masculinity is evident in NCRB (National Crime Reports Bureau) report where more men have committed suicide than women.
Under acute mental illness, SSR was convinced to cut short his Bollywood career and move out of the maya nagri (glamorous city) as revealed from the recently surfaced audios, to a quieter place. SSR last release Dil Bechara (2020), although about the pain and limitations of physical disability brings out the mental agony of a desperate and depressed life in reel and real. SSR, RIP.