reprints of articles published in magazines

Sunday, 22 April 2007

The Beautiful Mind

October 10th is the World Mental Health Day. What better excuse can I have to vent my grouse against the media portrayal of the Mentally Ill?!

For the mentally ill have suddenly become the oft-portrayed characters on both the small as well as the big screen. Almost all the television soaps sport a character who is mentally ill. Many films have explored the life of the insane. While one is happy that the media is giving so much attention to mental health, the actual presentation of mental illnesses in the media is downright nonsensical and leaves much room for improvement.

To this day, mental hospital scenes are depicted as places of chaos, where the green clad patients leap around like monkeys, indulge in all kinds of buffoonery, talk like grown up babies and behave like utter idiots. In real life though there is no mental hospital today where patients behave in any way similar to what is shown in the television or the movies. Insane though they are, the patients still are and behave like humans….not at all like the half-cracked up caricatures that are depicted by the entertainment industry.

Films and teleserials also depict the mentally ill as dangerous people. Most films tell tales of the Mentally ill hero going around killing every Tom, Dick and Harry at the drop of a hat. In reality though, most murders are committed by only the so-called sane people; the insane never indulge in such planned violence.

Another major rubbish that is presented in the movies is the abject bleakness of the life of the mentally ill person. According to the Tamil films a mentally ill person will either kill others or kill oneself or do both. There is no other productive activity in his/her life. From Alavandaan to Anniyan, all films make the same mistake of showing the mentally ill person as being permanently malicious. This is completely untrue. In reality most mentally ill persons are absolutely harmless. Many are married, gainfully employed and lead such near-perfect lives that no one apart from their closest family members can make out that they are psychologically ill.

And the worst rubbish shown in such movies is the alleged incurability of mental illnesses. Admittedly certain long-term, genetically deep-seated mental illnesses are difficult to cure, but the vast majority of mental illnesses are all quite easy to conquer. The kind of sophisticated medications that we fortunately have today have made mental illnesses quite treatable. Depression, Mania, Anxiety, repeated bad thoughts, sleeplessness, impotence, fears, panic, chronic aches and pains, bad marriage, child rearing difficulties….you name it and it is all curable. Yet the media goes on with the once-mentally-ill-always-mentally-ill kind of myth.

But that is the not the worst! There is yet another gibberish in Indian movies…..the mentally ill hero of the movies always falls in love with his psychiatrist. If the psychiatrist is an old man, then the daughter of the psychiatrist. No daughter, then at least the niece of the psychiatrist! Romantic as these love-pairings may be to the audience, such cinematised doctor-patient dalliances are down right idiotic. No doctor in his/her right senses would encourage such non-professional liaisons, for to the true doctor the patients are like one’s own children and any erotic involvement with one’s patients is considered incestuous and unethical. And kudos to the mentally ill persons….even in the heights of insanity, they know that the doctor is sacrosanct.

But films are only made for entertainment, we don’t have to take it so seriously, a media enthusiast may well argue….but you know what, research as consistently shown that watching something be it on film, or real can change the human mind. Because the human mind is designed on a see it-do it-learn it model, it learns things even from a medium that is supposed to be offer only entertainment. More violence is reported in children who watch televised violence scenes than those who watch Mickey Mouse.

The unknown artist who made his burnt-clay dolls in the long buried city of Mohenjadaro or Harappa would only have considered his doll-making as an expression of his creativity. But today, we rate that culture’s merit based on his doll-making! Likewise the movie-maker of today may make his movie only to express his creativity, or just to make some money…..but in the course of history, this culture will also be rated based on what he has created. And it is only a civilised culture that avoids hurting the sensibilities of its citizens.

Nearly thirty to forty percent of the general population has some psychological illness or the other. With proper treatment, they would all become better. But even if the treatment is offered free, many people hesitate to consult a psychiatrist, because they fear such consultation will confirm that they are one of those ‘dangerous, permanently damaged buffoons’, shown on TV or the movie. That is how much bad media representation can hurt the sensibilities of the people.

Also consider the effect that such media representation would have on a person who is now on treatment for his/her mental ailment…. let me give you an example.

Name Undisclosed is a young college student who had battled with a schizophrenic illness but became better with medications. He happened to watch a very popular Tamil film and the very next day he reported with complaints of sleeplessness and fear of becoming ‘mad’ again. When enquired he revealed that the movie he had seen the previous day had scared him with its contents. In the movie, the hero loses his control along with his sanity and goes around killing people, yelling in high decibels and generally behaving in a very undignified manner. “Will I also become like that doctor? Will this illness make me lose my dignity?” He asked so pathetically. He was reassured that “the makers of such insensible movies were all Class One Dumb Idiots who do not know the A B C D of mental illnesses. They have finished all their stories about the Extraordinary feats of the Normal Tamil Man. But the problem with being normal is Normal is so boring after a time. And so the moviemakers are all out to create their own genre of the Abnormal Man. Most moviemakers have no knowledge first hand of mental illnesses. They build their grandiose stories based on hearsay, hero-hoisting and imagination, with a profound absence of realism, naturally their depictions would be awful and flawful”…. thus reassured the young man was prescribed a dose of the Beautiful Mind.

Now The Beautiful Mind is also a movie. It is also about a man, John Nash, afflicted with a mental illness…. schizophrenia to be precise. But the movie is all about the hero overcoming the illness and winning against all odds, no less than the Noble Prize.

Name Undisclosed called up the next day, so full of his joy and hope…he was filled with optimism on seeing the movie that he wanted to share his pleasant thoughts with his doctor. That is what a good movie will do …it makes people hope, trust and grow….I wish I could name one Tamil movie that would have the same effect on the mentally ill person!

With some friends in the film industry, we reviewed all the mental-illness-based Tamil films so far made. Of the hundreds of movies thus reviewed, only a paltry two films passed the test. One was Ethir Neechal by veteran director K. Balachander in which despite her brief stint in a mental hospital, the heroine is depicted as shining right through life. The other was Pathinaaru Vayathinile, by ace director Bharathiraja, in which the mentally retarded Chappani overcomes the oddities in his life with determination.

Only two movies! In such a big film industry that makes so many mental-illness-based movies per year….you wonder? Ah, that’s the whole point!

Mental illnesses are depicted very unfavourably in the movies. But with the audience becoming more discerning, let’s hope the moviemakers learn their lesson and grow up to make some civilised movies, at least on the mentally ill.


Kavitha said...

very incisive analysis! keep blogging.

geetha said...

Highly unlikely for the moviemaker to depict the mentally afflicted in a civilised manner.
On a different note, the famous Maniratnam movie, Kannathil Muthamittal was a lesson on how not to tell your child that she was adopted - first bringing her up as a spoil brat, then choosing the advance age of 12 years to reveal and finally to yell in an emotinal turmoil that she was not born to them. I only hope people got the 'how not to' message from that movie.

Shalini said...

How true!

Anonymous said...

You may have watched the following movies - One flew over the cuckoo's nest and As good as it gets. Jack Nicholson played the lead role in both the movies and he won the academy award for the best actor for his performance in both the movies. The former is entirely based on set of people in a mental institution and in the latter, Jack Nicholson will be suffering from OCD.

Ishwarya said...

Hello, ma'am!! :) I'm a great fan of yours.. I'm aspiring to be a psychiatrist and i draw great inspiration from you. This blog about the stand of a mentally ill person in the movies is so good. I really enjoyed reading.. citing Mohanjadaro point as a comparison was good..

Unknown said...

Movie makers should be more responsible as the crowd has greater impact of those movies because they feed on fantasies and believe straight away.Recent movie about bipolar disorder had a good message in the end but the way they portrayed the illness was unacceptable.I wish they could have used it as a platform to convey the symptoms and pathology in a genuine way by researching the truth from psychiatrists.