In 2005, Konkona Sen Sharma starred as Meethi in Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue – a woman with schizophrenia who created a parallel reality for herself after a traumatic incident. She retreated into her imagination, where she is married to her ex-fiancé Joydeep (Rahul Bose), a man unable to come to terms with her emotional upheavals. When she meets him, she cannot recognize him as the man in his alternate reality. He promises to help her find the imaginary location of “15 Park Avenue”, where she is supposed to live with her family and children. At the end of the film, she “finds” them, disappears and will never be seen again. Chilling, terrifying – the film encompasses the horrors of the crippling disease and the toll it inflicts on the patient and those around him. Due to its ominous realism, it is not something that one can easily look at and yet remains hauntingly beautiful.
In 2016, we saw Alia Bhatt struggle with chronic depression in Dear Zindagi. Lighter, but certainly just as punchy, the film showed us the scars left over from faded memories and how the exhaustion of coping with everyday disappointments begins to eat away at us from within. Just two examples of how movies have dealt with mental issues and brought them into the mainstream.
But sigh, it’s 2021, and Bollywood has given us Atrangi Re, starring Sara Ali Khan, a scarred woman who saw her parents brutally killed as a child. Atrangi itself means ‘awfully weird,’ which is an indicator of what the directors are looking for in this movie.
Unable to deal with the debilitating trauma, as an adult she believes she is in love with a man named Sajjad (Akshay Kumar). She ran away with him several times, only to be brought back by her family. She is forced to marry Dhanush, who falls in love with her, only to realize that she suffers from serious mental health issues. A doctor himself, he treats her with his friend Dr Madhusudan – who keeps saying that he is a psychiatrist and that he “knows women”. They play with Rinku’s belief that Sajjad is present there in the flesh. They even pay passers-by to behave like Sajjad is real, until she finally collapses and realizes the truth. The resolution is instant and miraculous, just so that there can be a happy ending for the two lovers.
Every word is problematic here – but that’s Atrangi Re’s way of dealing with mental health and traumatic experiences. His illness is a laughing matter, especially in a scene where Madhusudan puts on a magical performance and explains how the audience has people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD and other mental illnesses. “Kisiko Sajjad dikhe na dikhe, inko zaroor dikhega “, he said, bringing all mental disorders under one umbrella.
Note that there is no therapist or certified psychiatrist in this film, it is always medical students who drug a person without any form of consent, which is totally illegal and immoral in all respects. There are throwaway jokes on Agra, they constantly give Sara’s Rinku pills – pretending it’s a virus from China “David, COVID ka Bhai” – just for entertainment. Rather than erasing the trauma and pain deeply rooted in a person’s life, Bollywood believes that such a condition can be treated with “love” and pills, without any counseling or therapy. It is terribly dangerous, because people consume such mainstream cinema. The term itself is never mentioned in the film, although director Aanand L Rai insists there is a reason behind it. He told Firstpost he wanted it that way, because “the characters in the movie” never “heard of the term.” Asked about the trivialization of issues like mental health, he remained unfazed and said he was used to such accusations. It will clearly not be the last time Bollywood will tackle the subject of mental health.
Atrangi Re could have been infinitely different – he could have provided insight into the lifelong trauma children face when they are born into interfaith homes, witnesses to honor killings. Instead, A Woman Suffering From Schizophrenia is based on a “plot” – an unintelligible plot, intended to be widely used for laughs. The icing on the cake’s parody is when Dhanush’s friend in the movie calls her “paagalpan” and madness, saying “she should have been in a museum in France”. Considering the enormous power that Bollywood wields in a country like India, this was a missed opportunity to learn more about the ailments of schizophrenia. Instead, we got a weird comedy. In a country that is already grappling with the concept of mental health, this film is unlikely to help the dialogue.