Lights, camera, madness – Bollywood style

Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry, seems to be showing a new, more positive interest in mental illness.

As The Mouse Trap reports, one of the most popular films of the year, Lage Raho Munna Bhai (‘Carry on Munna Bhai’) depicts a local gangster, Munna, who becomes obsessed with the ideas of Mahatma Ghandi.

Munna subsequently hallucinates the presence of Ghandi and experiences the delusion that he is being guided by the long-dead leader.

The film has won praise from Indian psychiatrists for its positive portrayal of the sorts of unusual experiences that are typical of psychotic conditions.

According to Reuters, the sensitive portrayal of mental illness is set to continue with a forthcoming Bollywood film, provisionally entitled “Bits and Pieces”, which will actually be set inside an asylum.

“Bits and Pieces,” starring Bollywood actor Rahul Bose, known for portraying unconventional roles, promises to be one such film that balances the sensibilities of the art-house genre with popular appeal.

“It is a movie about a writer in India who decides to visit a lunatic asylum for his next novel,” Bose told Reuters. “It shows how he gets emotionally attached to the people living in the asylum, his emotional tumult thereafter and his wish to do something for them.”

Watching inmates of the asylum and their myriad interactions from close quarters make Bose question popular notions of sanity and madness to a point where he seems to find a reason in defense of insanity.

“After seeing the so-called insanes, the writer fails to distinguish whether those who have been put inside the asylum are mad or those who have put them inside are,” Bose, 39, said about the protagonist’s dilemma.

Indian cinema has an long and fascinating history of reflecting cultural attitudes to mental illness.

Psychiatrist Prof Dinesh Bhugra published a landmark paper and book on the representation of madness in Bollywood, and has noted that it often mirrors social and political changes in India itself.

Bhugra argues that in the 1950s and the mid-1960s, the years of ‘hope and achievement’ for India, mental illness was portrayed in a gentle and even romantic way.

As social and political turmoil followed through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, madness became to be portrayed as dangerous and obsessive.

Hopefully, the new optimism in modern India is being reflected in films with positive messages about mental health.

Link to The Mouse Trap on madness in film.
Link to abstract of paper on madness in Bollywood.
Link to details of book ‘Mad Tales from Bollywood’.

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