In 2005, Konkona Sen Sharma played the role of Meethi in Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue — a woman suffering from schizophrenia, who has created a parallel reality for herself after a traumatic incident. She’s withdrawn into her imagination, where she is married to her ex-fiance Joydeep (Rahul Bose), a man who was unable to accept her emotional upheavals. When she meets him, she cannot recognise him as the man in her alternate reality. He promises to help her find the imaginary location of ’15 Park Avenue’, where she supposedly lives with her family and children. At the end of the film, she ‘finds’ them, disappears and is never to be seen again. Chilling, terrifying — the film encompasses the horrors of the crippling illness and the toll it takes on the patient as well as the ones around them. Owing to its grim realism, it’s not something one can watch easily and yet remains hauntingly beautiful.
In 2016, we saw Alia Bhatt battling with chronic depression in Dear Zindagi. Lighter, yet definitely just as impactful, the film showed us scars that suppressed memories leave on us, and how the exhaustion with keeping up with daily disappointments begin to eat us from inside. Just two examples of how films handled mental issues and brought them into mainstream.
But sigh, it’s 2021, and Bollywood has given us Atrangi Re, featuring Sara Ali Khan, a scarred woman who witnessed her parents being brutally killed in her childhood. Atrangi itself means ‘funnily weird’, which is an indicator what the makers are striving for in this film.
Unable to process the debilitating trauma, as an adult, she believes that she is in love with a man named Sajjad (Akshay Kumar). She has eloped with him multiple times, only to be brought back by her family. She’s forced into marriage with Dhanush, who falls in love with her, only to realise that she suffers from severe mental health issues. A doctor himself, he medicates her along with his friend Dr Madhusudan — who keeps on saying that he is a psychiatrist and ‘knows women’. They play along with Rinku’s belief that Sajjad is present there in flesh and blood. They even pay bystanders to behave as if Sajjad is real, till she finally has a fully-blown meltdown and realises the truth. The resolution is instant and miraculous, just so that there could be a happy ending for the two lovers.
Every word is problematic here — but that’s Atrangi Re’s manner of handling mental health and traumatic experiences. Her illness is mined for laughs, especially in a scene where Madhusudan organises a magic performance and explains how the audience has people suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, and other mental illnesses. “Kisi ko Sajjad dikhe na dikhe, inko zaroor dikhega,” he says, bundling all mental disorders under one umbrella.
Let’s make it clear that there is no actual therapist or certified psychiatrist in this film, these are all still medical students who are drugging a person without any form of consent, which is entirely illegal and immoral in every way. There are throwaway jokes about Agra, they constantly give Sara’s Rinku pills—on the pretext it’s a virus from China ‘David, COVID ka Bhai’—just for entertainment. Rather than unpeeling the deep-seated trauma and pain in a person’s life, Bollywood believes that such a condition can be treated with ‘love’ and pills, without any consultation or therapy. This is terrifyingly dangerous, as people consume such mainstream cinema. The term itself is never mentioned in the film, though director Aanand L Rai insists there is a reason behind it. He told Firstpost that he intended it that way, as ‘the characters in the film’ has never ‘heard of the term’. Asked about trivialising issues like mental health, he remained unruffled and said that he was used to such accusations. This clearly won’t be the last time Bollywood will tread heavily on the topic of mental health.
Atrangi Re could have been infinitely different—it could have provided a look at the lifelong trauma children face when born to inter-faith households, witnessing honour killing. Instead, a woman suffering from schizophrenia is based on a ‘plot twist’—an unintelligible plot line, that is intended to be largely used for laughs. The icing on the travesty of this cake is when Dhanush’s friend in the film refers to it as ‘paagalpan’ and madness, saying that ‘she should have been in a museum in France’. Considering the enormous power Bollywood wields in a country like India, this was a missed opportunity to educate more about the ills of schizophrenia. Instead we got a bizarre comedy. In a country that is already struggling with the concept of mental health, this film is unlikely to help in the dialogue.