Movies and Mental Illness-Part#1

For quite some time, I wanted to write about how people with mental illness(PMI) are depicted in movies and what influence does it have on the society in general. Recently, I read an article in Diwali edition of a magazine on this topic. This blog is loosely based on that article. For ease of reading, I have divided into two parts. I had written about a movie Don Juan DeMarco recently, in which I had watched recently, which has this topic treated very differently.

Anyone who behaves in a socially unacceptable way, is generally termed as mad person. Likewise, for people whom we see street side, lost in their own world, lying on the footpath, untidy, also are referred as mad or retarded people. One does not even realize many times this might be situation of person with mental illness and it needs to be handled differently. The incorrect, irresponsible portrayal, over the years, of such PMIs in fiction, movies, is usually behind such usage of terminology in the society. At the same time, off late, one can also see this trend changing. Mental health related issues, characters portrayal has started getting more real, more scientific, and also more responsible. This is certainly heartening.

The audio visual medium such as movies has huge potential to generate deep psychosomatic, mental reactions among its viewers. They also hold the ability to educate and make society aware of mental health related issues. It is interesting to note that the birth of film media by Lumiere brothers, and hysteria related research by Sigmund Freud, happened in the same year which is 1895. One can say, since then, that films and psychiatry have been going hand-in-hand and influencing each other.

In western countries, during 1950-60, taking psychiatric treatment became socially acceptable. Film media also had starting making use such subjects and topics, mostly in a way as mentioned above, to generate humor, comedy. But since 1980, realistic movies with scientific portrayal and also usage of such issues began. In India also, since 2000, similar trend can be seen. Since this portrayal, which is mainly entertainment oriented, even realistic portrayal can spread inaccurate information, views and stereotypical images about these topics get to the society. The main reason for this is that process of converting personal, family and society forms to film media  is not all that easy. Experiences on the level of thoughts and emotions cannot be very easily captured in visual form.

One can trace the reasons and purpose why PMIs are visualized and depicted. Sometimes it is used to bring thrill, suspense, mystery(Hindi movies Gupt, Bajigar; Enlgish movies Silence of Lambs, Psycho), or humor(English silent movie The Escaped Lunatic, Marathi movie Pedgaoche Shahane). Sometimes, we see such characters are imagined/used, while telling stories of human relationship(Ex. Marathi movie Astu has character of person with dementia, Hindi movie 15 Park Avenue, has character which is impacted due to post traumatic disorder). The movies such as American Beauty has many characters with disorder such as passive aggression, narcissism), Bergman’s movie Through a Glass Darkly dealt with schizophrenia. Many movies, which are biopics of personalities known to be having living with mental illness, still someone who achieved something in their fields. Examples include Beautiful Mind based on John Nash’s life, Lust for Life based on life of Van Gogh, Rain Man based on Kim Peek. Another interesting category of films we have come to notice is that psychiatric treatment being main theme of the films. We have seen this theme in movies such as Devrai(Marathi film starring Atul Kulkarni), Karthik Calling Karthik, Black Swan, etc.

In the next blog, let’s make journey to some other categories of films and how they handled mental illness. Till then, stay tuned, and feel free to share your experiences.


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