Saturday, December 3, 2016

DEAR ZINDAGI AND MENTAL HEALTHCARE / FILM FATALE: COLUMN PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU BUSINESSLINE

DE-STIGMATISING THERAPY

Dear Zindagi’s patient-doc sessions – debatable and unconventional though they are – mark a rare effort by a usually indifferent Bollywood to normalise mental healthcare

By Anna MM Vetticad


This is not a review of Dear Zindagi. I wrapped up that job on the day of its release. This column is devoted to one aspect of the film: the portrayal of mental health.

Those who have seen Dear Zindagi would know that Alia Bhatt plays Kaira, a talented cinematographer who harbours a deep-seated resentment towards her parents. She is also so afraid of being hurt in romantic relationships that she withdraws from each one before the man she is dating has a chance to first back out. When sleep goes AWOL from her life one day, Kaira turns to a clinical psychologist — Dr Jehangir Khan, played by Shah Rukh Khan — for relief.

As an American TV serial junkie and Hollywood buff, I am used to watching therapy sessions on screen. They have ranged from the realism of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, where Sergeant Olivia Benson gets help after being abducted and held hostage by a violent sexual predator, to the comical money-mindedness of Dr Linda Freeman in the Charlie Sheen-starrer Two And A Half Men, and the OTT unprofessionalism in Anger Management starring Sheen with Selma Blair.

Hindi cinema, for the most part, has alternated between ignoring/avoiding mental fitness and swinging wildly to the other end of the spectrum with harmful caricatures, ignorance and the insensitive labelling of mental illness as “paagalpan (lunacy)”. In that context, Dear Zindagi is gigantically significant.

In a nation where a “dimaag ka doctor” is widely seen as a doc for extreme situations, here is a woman in therapy despite displaying no visible signs of what Indian society might consider a health problem. She is not apparently severely depressed, she is highly functional and a successful professional to boot, she is lively, she appears to be enjoying life, and her issues with her parents are likely to be seen as non-issues in a culture that requires us to canonise and deify our madres and padres.

Of course she also does not bear any of the physical symptoms Hindi cinema has traditionally dished out to audiences: wild hair, unkempt look, flailing arms, screaming or complete silence. The seeming normality of Kaira is, to my mind, what makes Dear Zindagi almost revolutionary in the Indian social context.

This brings us to the patient-doctor sessions in Dear Zindagi. If your vision is not clouded by SRK’s sexiness as Doc Jehangir (forgive me for the frivolous aside), it should be clear that what is depicted here is not conventional therapy. For one, Jehangir’s informality with an emotionally vulnerable youngster may make for fun cinema but could cause misunderstandings in the real world.

Now, since I have not been to a therapist myself, I have spent the week speaking to friends who have, and to psychologists and psychiatrists. One friend tells me that if anyone made a film literally recounting her conversations with her therapist, “it would be the most boring film in the world”. Others agree. Instead of the banter between Kaira and Doc Jehangir, imagine a narrative that foregrounds long monologues from a patient with occasional interventions from a professional listener who actively stays in the background. Such a film would almost certainly occupy a less commercial, less mass-targeting space in Bollywood despite SRK and Bhatt’s mammoth star appeal.

The question we must confront then is about the pluses and minuses of a trade-off between authenticity and cinematic licence to make a popular film on a hitherto untouched subject. No doubt Dear Zindagi de-stigmatises therapy and the quest for emotional well-being sans sermons. The film’s resulting entertainment value gives it the potential to reach a large number of people. Is this positive a sufficient excuse for any inaccuracy in the portrayal of those sessions?

Writing for the website Scoopwhoop, Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta objects, among other things, to what she sees as Jehangir in Dear Zindagi suggesting solutions to Kaira. She says: “We don’t want clients pursuing therapy in the hope that therapy is a quick fix, where therapists give advice and enlighten you with wisdom. As I always say, there is no right or wrong, it is the client who chooses his path and leads the therapy process, while the therapist plays the role of facilitator.”

Gupta has initiated a crucial debate. Without for a moment presuming to know more about therapy than a therapist would, consider this though: My takeaway from this film as a viewer was the opposite; for me a lasting memory from Dear Zindagi is of the doc pointing out to Kaira that it was she, not he, who arrived at her answers.

It is possible other viewers may see it differently and start visiting clinics with incorrect expectations, thus adding to the patient misconceptions that therapists have to clear. Yet the film would prove worthwhile if it aids even one individual in overcoming their mind blocks against therapy, while simultaneously generating public discussions, which in turn may prod Dear Zindagi’s writer-director Gauri Shinde, or perhaps another filmmaker, to work harder at making that next script even closer to reality yet equally entertaining.

Until then, Shinde will hopefully acknowledge this criticism while accepting the well-deserved kudos coming her way for dragging therapy away from the realm of old-style Bollywood “paagalkhanas (lunatic asylums)” to a non-intimidating space that you and I and Everyperson might enter without fear.

(This article was first published in The Hindu Businessline’s BLink on December 3, 2016.)

Link to column published in The Hindu Businessline:


Related Link: Anna M.M. Vetticad’s review of Dear Zindagi


Note: I’m happy to inform you that Film Fatale has won the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award 2015 for ‘Commentary and Interpretative Writing’. You can click here to read all the Film Fatales published in 2015 (and from the launch of the column in February 2014): 
http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/author/anna-mm-vetticad/article6316861.ece Thank you dear readers and Team Hindu Businessline for your constant support. J Anna

Photograph courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/DearZindagi/


Friday, December 2, 2016

REVIEW 449: KAHAANI 2 – DURGA RANI SINGH


Release date:
December 2, 2016
Director:
Sujoy Ghosh
Cast:



Language:
Vidya Balan, Arjun Rampal, Jugal Hansraj, Kharaj Mukherjee, Tota Roy Choudhury, Naisha Khanna, Tunisha Sharma, Manini Chadha
Hindi


If you believe the end maketh the movie, then writer-director Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh falls strictly in the category of the not-extraordinary. The second instalment in this series starring Vidya Balan features nothing like the surprise that punched us in the collective gut in Kahaani’s climax back in 2012.

Before the end comes the beginning though, and there is much to recommend in the journey between those two points here – the atmospherics, the pall of disquiet blanketing the narrative, the unusual subject, locations rarely explored by Bollywood (Kalimpong and Chandan Nagar in West Bengal in addition to Kolkata), the cast, and most of all, Balan.

Kahaani 2 begins with a young single mother in Chandan Nagar hanging out with her bedridden daughter. We soon learn that when Vidya Sinha is at work, she has a nurse coming home to take care of Mini who is paralysed from the waist down.

Vidya wants to take her daughter to the US for treatment that she hopes will give the child back the use of her legs. She persists with this belief although her kindly doctor in Kolkata cautions her against being too optimistic about a cure. Then one day an abduction followed by another tragic turn of events ruptures their happy, middle-class existence.

Who is that voice on the phone threatening to separate Mini from her mother forever? Will this Vidya – like the redoubtable Vidya Bagchi of the first film – thrash aside all obstacles to attain her goal? Keep guessing.

What made Kahaani an absolute killer was that its entertaining, layered storytelling was followed by a disclosure through which we realised that nothing had been what it seemed through the film. Kahaani 2 features many disturbing and mystifying individual elements. It also delivers some shock treatment for viewers midway through the first half. Ultimately though you realise that most things in the film were more or less what you thought they were when they first rolled by and the big reveal is just so-so.

The ending may not deliver the goods, but Balan certainly does. The media has for years now discussed her willingness to take on the physical attributes of the various characters she plays. While that is no doubt a remarkable quality, to focus on that alone would be an injustice to this fine artist since physical quirks can be used as crutches by average actors too. Balan’s strength is her ability to drown out her own personality for a role.

And so, here in Kahaani 2, there is not a trace of the hard-as-nails heroine of Kahaani, the overtly sexual, bubbly Silk from The Dirty Picture (2011) or the brazenly manipulative Krishna from Ishqiya (2010) who had no qualms about purring out the words “chutiyam sulphate”, at a time when the industry’s heroines were usually identified by their coyness.

When Vidya/Durga in Kahaani 2 recoils at the first touch of a man she loves, the actress convinces us of her character’s diffidence and fears. As a distraught mother and a victim of social indifference, she does what we have come to expect of this formidable star: she erases Vidya Balan to become the person she is playing, Vidya Sinha.

The rest of the cast offers no equivalent of the lovely Parambrata Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui from Kahaani, but it is still good to see an evolving (dishy as always) Arjun Rampal playing the policeman with a past, Inderjeet Singh, and Jugal Hansraj – the little boy from Masoom who grew up to a lacklustre acting career – surprisingly effective as a creep. The incredibly cute Naisha Khanna and the interesting youngster Tunisha Sharma – both playing Mini at different stages of her life – get limited space to showcase their talent, but are clearly worth watching out for.

Though Kahaani 2 has none of the memorable detailing of satellite characters that made Kahaani outstanding (where are you, Bob Biswas?) it is unobtrusively insightful in its own way. The long-term effects of sexual abuse, victim blaming, the politics in the police establishment and small-town life are all dealt with effectively. I enjoyed the sweetness of the brief romance between Vidya/Durga and her beau Arun (Tota Roy Choudhury, nice!), his kindness to her and his non-aggressive wooing. And there is a refreshing, believable normalcy in the relationship between Inderjeet and his wife played by the sprightly debutant Manini Chadha.

The big let-down in Kahaani is the writing of the climax, whether viewed in isolation or in comparison with its remarkable predecessor. For the record, these are the credits: Screenplay – Sujoy Ghosh, Dialogues – Ritesh Shah & Sujoy Ghosh, Story – Sujoy Ghosh & Suresh Nair.  Ghosh, who is so confident in his conceptualisation till that point, is clearly aiming at a similar sock-the-viewer-in-the-neck impact as before, but comes up instead with an unimaginative, more or less predictable whimper.

To be fair, his deft direction and Namrata Rao’s skillful editing ensure that there is not a moment of boredom right until then. The two have found a good match in DoP Tapan Basu, production designers Kaushik Das and Subrata Barik who together manage to make the film’s small and large spaces feel cloistered and intimidating, while lending unexpected warmth to Vidya and Mini’s tiny home in Chandan Nagar.

Clinton Cerejo’s music gently wafts around the film and then ends with a bang: the neatly orchestrated, energetic rendition of Rabindranath Tagore’s Anandaloke mangalaloke accompanying the end credits is so haunting that I stuck around for the very last word to disappear from the screen.

Vidya Balan is fantastic in Kahaani 2, but storywise, the film is like a pleasant meal spoilt by a mediocre dessert. If only…

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
129 minutes 55 seconds

This review has also been published on Firstpost: