The use and abuse of mental illness in bollywood films


    The borders between who is normal and who is not are rather blurred today because even with modernization, globalization and the women’s movement has made long strides across the world, the social stigma against whatever we consider abnormal, remains and this stigma spills over into the cinema of every genre. This article tries to point out how even established directors have either turned the other way in dealing with mental disorders in some characters in their films or have deliberately and with designed intention, abused the said illness and therefore,  spread misinformation about mental illness among their audience.

    Bollywood films dealing with mental illness are generously sprinkled with ignorance about mental illness, abuse of mental illness and even, failure to recognize mental illness when it happens in any character in a given film and suggest am absurd, almost comic solution to the problem to bring the story to its anticipated happy ending. Very few films suggest medical strategies to resolve the mental issue. They use mental illness as (a) a dramatic device, (b) highly emotional melodrama,  (c) an additional commercial strategy to add to the entertainment value of the film.

    Often, mental illness is used as a comic subject or a mentally ill person is used as an object of ridicule in films. The mental asylum in Khamoshi (1969) directed by Asit Sen, presents the lunatic inmates of the asylum like comic relief in an otherwise psychological story. In the same film, the psychiatric nurse trained in England falls in love with her own patient, one and then the next, which is a not only unreal and unprofessional but also dangerous for both the patient and the nurse. The most dangerous message the film harps on is that the medical head of the mental hospital, retired from the armed services, uses a strange and unethical experiment. He asks the nurse to pretend to fall in love with a violent patient who has lost his mind because his girlfriend ditched him! How can a medical head and that too, a Colonel act so irresponsibly? And no one turns a hair!

    Sometimes, such as in  Krazzy 4 (2008) is that it is neither a comedy nor can it be viewed as a serious diatribe against a crazy, crooked and corrupt world. Somewhere in between, it makes you neither laugh nor cry with its antics about four guys who leave the mental asylum with their doctor (Juhi Chawla), only to end up lost and threatened in big bad Mumbai. The actors, all established ones, are not only used comically but their problems are also trivialised through a story with masala and thrills that just do not work. Horror films are the worst genre that exploits mental illness by showing characters who are destructive, violent and incurable and can be cured only through death.

    Dr Van Velsen, who produced the results of her research for World Mental Health Day on October 9, 1998, says: “In a lot of the films there is the underlying message that all the patient really needs is love and affection. There is a tendency in films to try and normalise mental illness by saying that patients don’t need treatment, they need love. The audience gets the two extremes and what we are not getting are portrayals of people with chronic illness.”

    Screening Madness, a report written by psychiatrist and film expert Dr Peter Byrne reveals that film depictions of people with experience of mental health problems have become more damaging. “Mental health stereotypes have not changed over a century of cinema. If anything, the comedy is crueller and the deranged psycho killer even more demonic,” Dr Byrne reveals in the report. A sterling example of this is visible in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan (1973).

    The film explored the rather delicate subject of the husband being threatened by his wife’s talents that, he realises, subconsciously or consciously, are far beyond his own. He persuades her to take up music professionally and soon, she becomes more famous than the husband which he cannot cope with. He throws her out of the home not knowing that she is pregnant. She loses the baby and goes into complete depression, refusing to speak to anyone, laugh, smile or even cry.

    The husband becomes an alcoholic. The union is manipulated through a duet the two sang together when they were newly married and her sweet memories are rekindled and abracadabra, she is absolutely normal! The couple embrace on stage and the film end happily ever after. Not once did it occur to the filmmaker, the scriptwriter or anyone else that the talented wife was actually suffering from her complete failure to cope with grief – the grief of a broken marriage and the grief of having lost her baby.

    This is a psychological condition that demands counselling and treatment. No old or new song can cure the patient. Theorists have often viewed this lack of coping with grief as either rare or pathological. The question that arises here is – how could an educated filmmaker like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and equally qualified actors like Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan fail to point out or express this anomaly.

    Devdas, by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, has gone through around 18 celluloid depictions from the time it was first made as a silent movie in the late 1920s. There were liberal improvisations and innovations by different directors. But not one of them tried to explore the significant question of alcoholism the protagonist suffered from which was an acute case of substance abuse calling for psychiatric counselling and treatment. Alcoholism is classified as a substance abuse disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Devdas was a chronic case of “dual disorder” that leads an individual to suffer from a mental disorder symptoms of alcohol or drug addiction resulting from a mental problem. When he could not marry his childhood love Parvati, he slowly and surely drowned himself in alcohol. The author himself analysed this as the result of frustration in love. In actuality, it is a classic case of substance abuse that needs medical attention and treatment. But then, Devdas would never have become the legendary tragic hero he is famous as! Majhli Bahu of Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam was also a patient of substance abuse as was Radha of B.R. Ishara’s Chetna.

    The Obsessive Lover within and without marriage made its entry in Bollywood  (to be quickly picked up by regional cinema) in the mid-’90s. Three Bollywood “copies” of the Hollywood film Sleeping with the Enemy are examples. The films are – Yaarana(1996), Agni Sakshi(1996), and Daraar(1997). These films portrayed the husband as the obsessive lover who will not let go of his wife even if this means killing her if she tries to escape. But within marriage, the same husband terrorises her with his manic suspicions, fetishes, emotional and physical abuse, and even rape. In Agnisakshi, Nana Patekar plays an insanely possessive, violent lover who kept his wife in a state of constant terror with his rages and his total indifference to reason. In one sequence, when she returns from the supermarket a little later than she should have, he reacts with cold fury, picking up all the things she had bought, dragging her back to the supermarket and returning home, just to time the entire trip and prove that it should have taken her lesser time than it did.

    Director  Parto Ghosh sympathises with the fanatic husband by offering him the choice to kill himself rather than be nabbed by the police. It is this very psychopathic husband who runs away with audience sympathy. After hounding, torturing and maltreating his wife, Patekar is glorified as a man who may have loved Monisha more than the second husband, Jackie Shroff. The empathy the spectator feels for the wife is temporary, as long as the brutalisation lasts on screen. But the sympathy for the violent husband is pervasive, permanent, and remains rooted in his/her mind, making him/her come back to watch the film all over again.

    Micheal Shepherd in Morbid Jealousy – Some Clinical and Social Aspects of a Psychiatric Symptom (, February 8, 2018,)writes: “Jealousy is more than a psychiatric symptom. Its language is universal: the conduct and feelings of the jealous man and woman have repeatedly drawn the attention of the great observers of human nature, the moralists and the philosophers as well as the poets and the novelists. They have, on the whole, described the reaction more successfully than they have defined it. Even the most celebrated definitions—Descartes’ “kind of fear related to a desire to preserve a possession” or Spinoza’s “mixture of hate and love”, for example— merely illustrate the complexity of a term whose many nuances of meaning can be detected in its roots.”  The morbid jealousy is not even suggested anywhere in the film. This is a mental illness rooted in morbid jealousy that grows into an obsessive, compulsive disorder of possessing and controlling the object of jealousy.

    Pune-based psychiatrist Soumitra Pathare, director of The Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy and one of the authors of the recent Mental Healthcare Act says that the Hindi film industry is “probably three to four decades behind Hollywood” when it comes to scripts dealing with mental health.” (Sachin Kalbag, The Hindu, January 13, 2018.)

    Shahrukh Khan’s performance as Rizwan Khan in My Name is Khan (2010) is one of the best in his career. Other than its backdrop of terrorism set in the US and the love story of a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, the point the film zeroes in on is that Rizwan Khan suffers from Asperger syndrome. Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a neurobiological disorder on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. People born with this show significant difficulty in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Such people are often physically clumsy, 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 behavioural therapy, focusing on specific deficits to address poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness. But they are not insane at all and are often more intelligent than the normal man or woman. Does the film refer to behavioural therapy at all? No, because that would have destroyed the melodrama structured into the film aimed at an international audience.

    The Alzheimer-afflicted Debraj Sahai in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black evoked the wrath of medical specialists for its misrepresentation of Alzheimer’s 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 film drew inspiration from Helen Keller‘s life and struggle. Black was a commercial success, becoming the second highest grossing Indian film worldwide in 2005 and the highest-grossing Indian film overseas. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia. There is no cure for the disease which worsens as it progresses and eventually leads to death. But in the film, the climax hinted that Debraj Sahai who drifted steadily and surely to a severe case of Alzheimer’s was on the verge of regaining his power of speech that he had lost. This is medically impossible.

    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/ motivated 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 to 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. And no one, including himself, ever thinks of going in for psychiatric counselling if not for a cure, at least for the safety and security for himself. Why? One does not expect this amateurish treatment of a serious mental ailment from a perfectionist like Amir Khan who dealt so well with Dyslexia in Taare Zameen Par that is not a mental illness but a genetic learning disorder.

    Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005) presents Gandhi whose memory haunts a retired professor suffering from a childhood trauma he cannot recall. The professor, enacted by Anupam Kher, is suffering from dementia, is taken very good care of by his daughter. One did not expect an excellent filmmaker like Barua to create and construct a dramatized scene of a fake court case to cure the professor from the guilt of “having killed Gandhi as a child” which is an illusion. How this sense of deep guilt is linked to his dementia is not explained in the film. The film attempts to raise questions about the responsibility of an individual as a citizen both for Gandhi’s murder and for the people’s subsequent failure to disseminate his ideas and his legacy to contemporary Indians. But the link to the protagonist’s dementia confused the story and the message.

    About his role in the film, Anupam Kher says, “The film opens with his memory fading slowly, considered a ‘natural’ phenomenon for ageing people. But his dementia leads to another crisis – it brings back memories of a lost past, a trauma where he recalls being accused of having assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. The guilt comes back and as his present memories begin to fade, the past images become sharper. The more his life is whitewashed, the stronger this one memory remains.” But this does not come across in the film.

    Whether suicide can be termed as mental illness is still a matter of serious debate.  It encompasses philosophical, ethical, legal and practical dilemmas in addition to the psychiatric one. Lack of precise measures to detect mental illness is not a sufficient reason to assume all suicides are due to abnormal mental states. It must be a drive towards developing measures that enable us to detect and exclude mental illnesses with more confidence and certainty. But in Bollywood films, suicide is a cliché woven into the script, for melodramatic reasons. Often, for the female character, to cater to the conventional norms of an essentially traditional and hypocritically prudish audience. So, we find a raped sister or wife killing herself because she has been rendered ‘impure’ and her chastity has been violated for good. This apparently simple cinematic device springing from a doctored script has evolved into a triggering point for the hero’s metamorphosis from a good man to an avenging one. Amitabh Bachchan undergoes a dramatic change in Adalat(1976) after his sister commits suicide following a rape. Amjad Khan in Lawaaris(1981), turns repentant when he loses his beloved sister who commits suicide when her lover ditches her, leaving her pregnant. Raj Babbar goes on a killing spree in imitation of Death Wish in Aaj Ki Awaaz(1984).

    The other common form of suicide on celluloid is committed by the woman who is an avenging angel and kills herself when her mission is over. Two examples are Supriya Pathak’s suicide in Aurat ka Intaquam(1984) and Rama Vij’s suicide in Zakhmee Aurat(1983). In films where the female avenger commits suicide, her act is to retaliate and reject the established order of society even while they live within it. Their suicide is at once an act of rejection of Life and a celebration of their success. Despite their commonness, these two films are by and large, very different in both tone and rhythm. In real life, a survey done by the World Health Organisation shows India has the highest suicide rate because of depression and anxiety than any other country in the world.

    Medical experts are far from happy. Dr Harish Shetty, along with Maitri, an NGO, 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.

    But all is not lost. Dear Zindagi (2016), directed by Gauri Shinde, turns the tables on the entire essay of mental illness depicted in Bollywood films by not only accepting and acknowledging it up front but also showing the way how it is to be done. According to Dr Soumitra Pathare, “Dear Zindagi, featuring Alia Bhatt, shows her as a young woman coming to terms with depression and anxiety and is one of the few Bollywood films to show people with mental illness as”normal.” “There is this strange sense that bad is equal of mad,” says Dr Pathare such as the character of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs,” says Pathare. But that is not exactly true. Lecter falls within the criminally insane who not only kills but also is a cannibal who eats whoever he kills which shows that even psychiatrists are not always able to analyse the incorrectness of celluloid depictions of madness.

    Dr Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist at the Dr H.L. Hiranandani Hospital, Mumbai, admitted that since the release of Dear Zindagi, he received over 90 phone calls and messages. Dear Zindagi has made a great impact in creating awareness of the need to visit a counselor or a psychiatrist if one feels one needs to do so and understand that it is as important to discuss one’s mental problems with a psychiatrist as it is to consult the right doctor in case of a cough or cold or recurring fever.

    Previous articleAbout CreditKaro
    Next article10 Achievements of the Narendra Modi Government
    Shoma Chatterji
    Shoma A. Chatterji is a senior journalist, film scholar and author based in India. She specialises in Indian Cinema, has won the National Award for Best Writing in Cinema twice. She has done her P.Hd and post-doctoral research on Indian cinema. She has authored 24 books of which more than half are on cinema.


    1. Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue is conspicuous by its absence in an otherwise interesting article. Also, the yesteryears film Khilona comes to mind where the depiction of mental disease was a travesty of actual psychiatric illness.


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here