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.

The Malaysian Man

Malaysia is a beautiful country. One could write pages and pages about its various places of interest but then, all this can be read up from any encyclopaedia or downloaded from the net. What I’d really like to focus upon, is this man that I met in Kuala Lumpur.

I did not notice him at first. I was busy ogling the street scenes that swept past the bus window and exchanging remarks with my friend. As the bus consumed the miles, I tried to strike up a conversation with my Malay neighbour, “Can you please tell us when we reach Masjid India?” The pretty lady shook her head and said apologetically, “No English, Bahasa only”. Just when I was turning away with disappointment, I caught the eyes of this said man. He was watching us with a smile. Just the looks of him and I knew he was a Tamil. The chocolate complexion, the ‘I-know-your-lingo’ looks, the friendly countenance…Ah! To meet your own kind, especially in a foreign land! Our team of peregrinators gave him a unanimous delighted smile. Luckily for us, he was getting down at Masjid India too. At his signal we merrily hopped out of the bus and followed him like the dutiful mice scampering after the Piper.

He led us deftly through the confusing trail, pointed out at the Parliament, the Indian market, the stadium, etc., stopping only to click snaps at vantage points. He gave us quick descriptions about the various landmarks, shared with us the must-know for tourists, garnished with the right dose of humour and biographical details. Soon we reached Jalan Masjid India. He guided us to the ultimate shopper’s paradise: Hanifa stores. Eager to commence shopping, we turned to thank him for his kindness. We assumed that he would part and proceed with whatever work he had for the day. But he seemed to be in no hurry, “Finish your shopping, I’ll wait”. We were taken aback; God knows how much time we’d take to shop!

We tried to explain and politely persuaded him to get on his way, but he stayed put. Anyway we were too eager to shop and could not spare time to think any further. As we jostled up and down the jam-packed aisles, our T-shirt clad Santa Claus kept sensing our needs and guided us to the right spots. In a way, we were grateful to have this grown up Boy Scout around. He was our Malay spokesperson, our security guard, the authority on what to buy and how much to pay, our carrier of heavy bags….he was so helpful!

But then- didn’t he have other things to do? How could he just let total strangers like us, swallow up his time and energy? Every one of us will surely be courteous and helpful to hapless tourists, but wasn’t this a bit too hyper helpful? We were in a foreign land and trust was a costly commodity that had to be judiciously spent. There were women in our team, we had money on us and expensive items had been purchased. Although we did not voice it, we all kept exchanging paranoid looks. We started looking for signs of deceit. We could not find any, he looked like a perfect gentleman, his demeanour was entirely dignified and his only gratification seemed to be our common language. He was too good to be true.

When hunger won over our acquisitiveness, the feverish shopping spree came to an end and we chemotaxied towards an Indian restaurant. A pseudo-friendly Sardar offered us greasy chappathis and unappetizingly priced sabjis. We sat down to have our Thanks Giving Meal with our friendly neighbourhood Malay man.

Towards the end of the meal, we exchanged addresses with our Mr. KL, hinting subtly at the end of our time together. But the hint went wide off its mark. Sans any postprandial lethargy, he zestfully marched us to yet another shopping complex. This time the shopping was not frantic but the need to get away from this overzealous Good Samaritan was. Sight seeing and shopping were relegated to the end of our list, all we could think of was rest and some limb-stretch. We pleaded tiredness, heaviness of the purchases and even bankruptcy. But our honorary guide would not hear of it. He wheedled us to one spot after the other, “You must see the Chinese area la. The nightlife there is beautiful. In the evenings, the streets are lit up……..”

“Please, we’ll see all that some other time, we’re too tired now. Let’s call it a day”, the least tolerant among us asserted and before he could reply, hurriedly hailed a cab. We hastily piled into the Toyota and turned to thank our Man Friday for his time and help. But much to our chagrin, he also climbed into the cab, “ I’ll get down on the way.”

He did not, he accompanied us all the way back to the hotel, helped us carry our huge cases into our room and enquired about our plans for the next day. We were alarmed. His helpfulness was all fine, but why would someone go out of his way to help a bunch of strangers, what was the motive? While we bartered looks pregnant with sinister meanings, the alpha male of our team, quietly led the man out, ostensibly for a drink. With the subject of our predicate safely out of earshot, we verbalised our doubts freely.

“He does not look like a bad sort, perhaps he is just lonely.”
“Lonely for women’s company?”
“Aw! Come on- he is as cordial to the ladies as he is to the men.”
“May be it is our Tamil.”
“He said he’s travelled all over the world, may be that’s why he understands our plight”
“It must have been his day out and he just joined our fun for the heck of it.”
“May be we remind him of his children.”

While we were still debating, our alpha male returned, without our Malay Man. Before we could ask, he pronounced his verdict, “Seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He was only trying to help us. But he had me worried- I mean how can anybody be so good?!.”

On hearing that, I de javu’ised what my paediatrician friend Preetha had once told me, “It is easy to understand why a person is bad – the reasons are obvious. But it is very difficult to understand why a person is good. There seems to be no reason at all for being good. Good simply is.”

I had not quite understood what she had said then. But now, I think I do.