Bollywood: Reel or Real?
Bollywood has begun to go beyond the surface of plastic love made in synthetic designer bedrooms, exotic locales and simulated action scenes. With their eyes firmly fixed on the ticket counters at the multiplexes and single-screen theatres, the filmmakers have decided to poke into minds that matter. Is this a healthy sign? TWF correspondent Shoma A. Chatterji takes a look.
The media is awash with stories and pre-release promos of Shahrukh Khan’s new film My Name is Khan. Other than its backdrop of terrorism set in the US and the love story of a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, another point of emphasis the film zeroes in on is that the hero, Rizwan Khan, portrayed by Shahrukh, suffers from Asperger syndrome.
Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder, and people with it therefore show significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from otherautism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Such people are often physically clumsy and they use atypical language. There is no single treatment, and the effectiveness of particular interventions is supported by only limited data. Intervention is aimed at improving symptoms and function. The mainstay of management is behavioral therapy, focusing on specific deficits to address poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness. One hopes that with the thumping box office success of Paa, this film will also pull the audience by the light it hopes to shed on this little-known mental disorder.
Granted that Taare Zamin Par was a commercial film designed to tug the hearts of the audience and rake in the big bucks. But it did one good thing – it introduced the Indian masses to a new term and added this to their limited vocabulary of learning disabilities – dyslexia. Dyslexia covers a range of symptoms and learning difficulties related to the written word. As such, no single cause for dyslexia has been pinpointed. The nation woke up to Ishaan Asthana’s pain that began with the basic ignorance of his parents and teachers about this little-known but grave learning disorder called dyslexia.
Dr. Purnima Mirchandani, Clinical Psychologist and Remedial teacher of dyslexic children, says, “The dyslexic child has average or above average intelligence – in no way is he dumb, stupid or lazy – labels attached to him over the years. He genuinely has a difficulty in basic skills, and is not playing up. Along with dyslexia, he may also have an Attention Deficit Disorder, as Ishaan had, which may make him seem like he is always on the go almost as if he is driven by a motor. This makes it difficult for him to attend to what is being taught in school. Thus there are gaps in his knowledge.” She adds a note of encouragement. Artists like Michaelangelo and Rodin, scientists like Einstein and Edison, great orators like President Roosevelt and General Patton, and even entertainers like Tom Cruise and Cher are supposed to have been dyslexic. They are generally found to excel in areas that do not involve the “written word” to a great extent.
Taare Zamin Par set a new trend in mainstream Hindi cinema – the trend of taking a deep look into the minds of people mentally troubled for no fault of their own. They are normal people with average and above-average levels of intelligence. But since they do not fall within our accept notions of ‘normality’ we tend to alienate them from the mainstream. Most of the time, thanks to our ignorance, we cannot even recognise their mental problem let alone acknowledge them. The film turned out to be a miracle. It had all ingredients of a masala film and yet it got across the message it intended to get across.
Indian films are not generally known for having their feet grounded in reality. True. Yet, one must also concede that films like TZP, Paa and the forthcoming Shahrukh Khan starrerMy Name is Khan deals with reality as much as it possibly can within the framework of the commercial world. They do not deal with madness in any form but some kind of mental deficiency per se or some physical trigger, like an accident that could lead to a mental deficiency.
Trade analysts believe that English films like A Beautiful Mind, Iris, Philadelphia and I am Sam have inspired filmmakers to translate some of the sensibilities on Indian celluloid.
One must point out, however, that not all filmmakers in Bollywood are as sincere in their research of the deficiency they wish to show in their film. The Alzheimer-afflicted Debraj Sahai in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black touched the audiences but evoked the wrath of medical specialists for its misrepresentation of Alzheimers which, they insist is incurable.
This incurable, degenerative, and terminal disease was first described by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in 1906 and was named after him. The same would apply to Amir Khan’s representation of Anterograde Amnesia in Ghajini. Ghajini is not a patch on what one expected it to be – a psychological thriller inspired by the radically different Memento directed by Christopher Nolan based on his brother Jonathan’s short story. In simpler terms, Anterograde Amnesia stands for loss of memory of what happens after the event that caused the amnesia. It is different from ‘Retrograde amnesia’ where memories prior to the event are forgotten. What is scary is that till date, Anterograde Amnesia remains a mysterious ailment, a cure for which is yet to be found.
In Ghajini, Sanjay Singhania does not remember anything that happened more than 15 minutes back. Sanjay Singhania’s managers leave him alone in the hospital knowing that he is always in danger from himself. He does not refer the reverse tattoos to jog his memory. Nor does he take the help of his detailed diaries while others find easy access to them. The 15-minute memory span fluctuates at the convenience of the script.
The much-hyped Paa is more authentic in its research of the genetically acquired disorder of the mind and body. In Paa, the 13-year-old boy is born with Progeria. Progeria, also known as “Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome” or “Hutchinson–Gilford syndrome”, is an extremely rare, severe, genetic condition wherein symptoms of ageing are manifested at an early age. The disorder has a very low incidence and occurs in one per eight million live births.Those born with progeria live for about thirteen years. Few have lived into their late teens and early twenties. It is a genetic condition that occurs as a new mutation and is not usually inherited, although there is a uniquely inheritable form.
Medical experts however, are far from happy from projection of diseases in films. Dr. Harish Shetty and an organization called Maitri took the initiative of exposing through the Human Rights Commission (application no. 964/13, 2005-2006) the fraudulent depiction of both illness and treatment in cinema. Bangalore-based consulting psychiatrist Ajit Bhide was so angered by the misrepresentation of mental illness in the Ajay Devgun film Main Aisa Hi Hoon plagiarized from the Sean Penn film I am Sam, he wrote a scathing piece in the Karnataka edition of The Indian Psychiatric Society. “The director remains totally unclear about the condition of the hero, the exact handicap(s) he has, and does a great disservice by confusing autism with mental retardation,” he wrote.
Prof. Dinesh Bhugra’s Mad Tales of Bollywood is an exhaustive study of the representation of mental disorder in Hindi cinema. Among other works are Psychoanalysis and Film and Psychiatry and the Cinema by Prof. Glen Gabbard.
There is little distinction made by filmmakers, insist medical and psychiatric experts, between intellectual disability and psychotic disorder, and the character ends up with a bizarre depiction. The saddest part of this whole story is that when we watch films that are designed as powerful psychiatric melodramas, we respond with neither laughter nor fear, but pity for the bewildered victim. Is that what he would want?