Insanity in Films: A Rendezvous with Madness

Insanity has been typically depicted in a very stereotyped manner in both Bollywood as well as Hollywood. Moreover, the depiction is often insensitive and hackneyed, with the consequent stigmatization of all mental health issues.

While some recent Bollywood films like “Black” have drawn attention to some oft ignored neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s; it is the depiction of schizophrenia and mental wards/asylums that has remained problematic.

While an occasional flick like “A beautiful mind” or”15 park Avenue” may end up portraying the schizophrenic condition sensitively and realistically, for each such film there are countless other films that associate the disorder with violence, bad intrusive thoughts and character defects of the protagonist. Thus, in my view, the need for films that provide a positive spin to the disease and counter the negative stereotype.

“Lago Raho Munnabhai” is one such film and it does so in a very subtle manner. While the film has been getting rave reviews for reviving Gandhian values and for making them trendy and cool for the Generation X by reincarnating those values as Gandhigiri, it has also been successful in making people sympathize with the Schizophrenic condition and do away with their prejudices that the auditory/visual hallucination accompanying Schizophrenia have to be negative/disturbing in nature. In this movie, Gandhi appears as a hallucination and guides Munna as per Gasndhian values , to resolve everyday problems.

The trigger of the illness in Munna, following some sleepless,no-nutrition, stressful days and nights, reading Gandhian Literature to the exclusion of everything else, is quite realistic and highlights some of the things that those vulnerable to schizophrenia need to avoid, to prevent relapse or triggering of the illness. The implied assertion that the ‘split personality’ may be due to a split between the Gandhian values that Munna has recently learned, and his old Bhai style violence-driven personality, though not technically correct as per current views, provides an antidote to the psychodynamic theories that posited that the disorder is a result of suppressing negative personality and thoughts: it is refreshing to consider the possibility that the negativity has so much shadowed our normal selves and become so common place, that if anything needs to be suppressed it would be positive and tender emotions and values.

The high point of the film is when Lucky Singh , the nemesis of Munna, launches an Ad Hominem attack on Munna and discredits all the good work he had done in spreading Gandhian values, by ‘exposing’ his insanity and by making him a laughing stock. Quite predictably, the general public in the movie leaves the side of Munna to let him fight his own devils (this time the devil is Gandhi:-), but surprisingly, the general public, that is the audience of the movie, stays with him and empathizes with him and laments not on his disease or his condition, but more so on the disease that is plaguing the Lucky Singhs of this world- that of corruption/ evil and on their own prejudices, insensitive and immature reaction to the ‘insane’. If not for anything else, this alone should have ensured that this movie represented India in the Oscars rather than “Rang De Basanti”.

Also heartening to note is, that though the film ends on a positive note, it doesn’t offer any magical cure for Schizophrenia and makes it clear that Gandhi is there to stay with Munna. What it does manage to do is, that it rechristens the ‘Furies’ that tormented Orestes as ‘Eumenides’ or ‘The Kindly ones’ and by doing this ‘cures’ the real underlying disease- our prejudiced view of hallucinations as evil/tormenting/disturbing.

On a related note, the one conclusion that stands out in the Stephen Fry documentary “The Secret Life of the Manic-Depressive” is the strong reluctance of many suffering from the disease to pull the genetic switch (if there was one) that would have prevented them from their illness and all the resultant experiences. In the words of one of the people interviewed there, ‘it is enough to have walked with angles, and everything else is a small price to play” (paraphrasing). While glamorization of mental illness is not exactly the right antidote to the pervasive stigmatization, yet an occasional association of positive affect, experiences and values with mental illness would go a long way in making us more sensitive and open about mental health issues.

There is a film festival being organized in Toronto, Rendezvous with Madness, showcasing some of the international films dealing with the mental health and stigmatization issues and hopefully its selection of movies is good. I find the section “Where there is Love there is Life” particularly interesting as the blurb contains reference to Gandhi.

Where There Is Love There Is Life: A Family Program
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Where There Is Love There Is Life celebrates the resilience of children who struggle with loss and mental illness. This program of three Canadian shorts and a foreign feature presentation offers a hopeful portrait of such serious subjects as children caring for a mentally ill parent and also experiencing extreme anxiety. Themes like the power of forgiveness, the imagination, and of self-knowledge are introduced as tools for personal growth and survival in this mix of narrative drama and animation, which children and parents alike will find educational and entertaining. Rated PG.

It’s sad that “Lage Raho Munnabhai” is not part of this festival, but I’m sure as an independent entry in the Oscars, it would be able to reach more audiences and destigmatize the issues surrounding mental health

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3 thoughts on “Insanity in Films: A Rendezvous with Madness

  1. PH

    Refreshing take on Lage Raho. I enjoyed the movie and liked the fact that they kept it real & rational by positing a neuropsyche explanation for his ‘visions’…but I missed the part about how insanity can be an advantage-something of a Beautiful Mind in ethics rather than Math:)

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