Before mental illnesses came with labels, Bollywood’s actors could bring more of themselves to the ‘mad’ characters they portrayed

The filmi pagal had for long been an amorphous character. Almost always male, he would usually be disheveled and unshaved, spewing gibberish, which would occasionally turn into words of prophecy or wisdom. He would be mercurial, lovable and childlike, but he could suddenly turn violent or dangerous. Societal attitudes towards this generic pagal ranged from sympathy and care to fear and aggression. The pagal khana was a gruesome and dreaded place, and being locked into one usually meant that the mad character had been treated very cruelly. Well into the 1980s, “madness” remained unnamed, unclassified, and extremely amorphous. The ways to treat it were similarly undefined — there seemed to be an overall consensus that love and care from fellow human beings was the best cure for a “mad” mind, preferred over the horrors of the inhuman mental asylum. The one question we need to ask is this – What are the upshots of moving from amorphousness to labels and classifications?

Sanjeev Kumar famously played a volatile mad thakur in the 1970 film Khilona
Sanjeev Kumar famously played a volatile mad thakur in the 1970 film Khilona

Sanjeev Kumar famously played a volatile mad thakur in the 1970 film Khilona. He suddenly “loses his mind” when he sees his girlfriend marrying someone else and committing suicide. He was a shaayar of some repute and he is shown spending his days locked up in a room, play-acting elaborate mushairas, presenting his poetry to Mir and Ghalib, who have both descended from the heavens to hear him. Mumtaz, playing a courtesan, has been brought in by his family to pretend to be his wife on the doctors’ recommendation that a young and beautiful woman’s care might be able to cure his madness. His elder brother often brutally beats him and shines a blinding torch in his eyes to scare him. The family often tethers on the verge of packing him off to an asylum. Despite raping and impregnating her in a fit of violence, Mumtaz remains devoted to him, and ultimately succeeds in bringing him back to “normalcy”. Yet, this madness is different from say, Amjad Khan’s in Yaarana.

After being shocked and tortured by his evil uncle, Amjad Khan has fits of violence when exposed to people or bright lights. He is kept tied in chains in a dark room. His childhood best friend, Amitabh Bachchan pretends to be mad too and gains admission to the mental asylum to help his friend recover and reconcile with his family. In Amitabh Bachchan’s pretend madness, we see him organising a cricket match among the inmates with imaginary equipment and also talking in rhymes that morph into long philosophical speeches about the home and family. While the “madness” of each of these characters is purportedly different, we cannot say whether they are schizophrenic, bipolar, have a personality disorder or something else. Their madness and its many symptoms remain vague and most importantly, unnamed. This gives the actors enough breathing space to infuse the madness with distinctive personalities. In other words, they were not tied down to specific or strict behavioral cues that later came to define classified mental illnesses — for instance, should all manic-depressives ‘act’ identically?

What modern medicine recognises as depression, or acute and chronic sadness, of the kind made famous by Guru Dutt in Pyaasa, and Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, were however quite different from the more performative aspects of a personality and behavior that deviates from the norm. The term ‘depression’ could hardly contain long and seemingly endless eras of sadness, traumas and unfulfilled desires in a country coming to terms with the brutalities of Partition and flocking to the melodrama as the most popular genre of cinema. In fact, it can even be argued that our cinema has for long been a cinema of melancholia — the basic tenet of melodrama as a genre. This synthesis of sadness and cinema ensured that “depression” could never be called out as such as some sort of temporary state to be evaded or escaped. It was part of our everyday. The jovial life-affirming Rajesh Khanna in Anand was found in the evenings humming a song like Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye. In the 1973 film, Mili, Amitabh Bachchan plays a traumatised man, hiding from the shadows of a family scandal, a morbid and depressed alcoholic.

In Mili, Amitabh Bachchan plays a traumatised man, hiding from the shadows of a family scandal
In Mili, Amitabh Bachchan plays a traumatised man, hiding from the shadows of a family scandal

This fluid nature of madness spilled on the ways in which it was seen off-screen. Kishore Kumar was one of Hindi cinema’s most famous mad hatters. Stories of his peculiar and strange behavior abounded among the film fraternity. In Derek Bose’s book Kishore Kumar: Method in Madness, Asha Bhosle recalls, “Kishoreda would often come for a recording in the company of an invisible boy. This non-existent child and Kishoreda used to talk to each other continuously, at times cracking jokes and breaking into laughter. While alternating between himself and this invisible child, Kishoreda would often invite me to join the conversation. Frankly, I could never make head or tail of what was going on and always excused myself. But more than finding it weird, I used to be very amused.”

Kishore Kumar would often come for a recording in the company of an invisible boy
Kishore Kumar would often come for a recording in the company of an invisible boy

There were several other stories: Kishore Kumar would tie himself up with a dog collar and bark at people who annoyed him. He wanted to build a moat around his house in the middle of Bombay and briefed an interior decorator to hang crows and monkeys from his ceilings. Yet, despite these stories being abundant and well known, Kishore Kumar’s madness still continues to elude classification or naming. Contrast this to Parveen Babi’s case in the 1980s. She was diagnosed with “paranoid schizophrenia”, a label that continues to mark and define the legacy of her entire career.

Labeling and classifications of deviations from the behavioral norms began in the 1980s—famously with Arth, Mahesh’s Bhatt’s autobiographical account of his relationship with Parveen Babi. In this film, Smita Patil’s (who plays Babi) psychiatrist uses the words “paranoid schizophrenia” though it is still interchangeably used with just “pagal”. With this, women began to enter the circle of madness more prominently.Though the relationship between madness and Hindi film began to change, it still remained more or less shapeless. In the 1990s, Shah Rukh Khan played the “psychotic” lover in two films: Darr and Anjaam; his dangerous obsessions with women remaining undiagnosed. In 1993, Pooja Bhatt played a generic psychiatric patient (albeit glamorous) in Phir Teri Kahaani Yaad Ayi, given to fits of violence and we get to see a relationship within the confines of the asylum between her and a recovering alcoholic Rahul Roy. We also have Rakhee as the famously “mad” mother in Karan Arjun, whose steadfast belief in the reincarnation of her sons makes the villagers think she’s gone cuckoo. Though she does get to have the last laugh.

In the present, however, we see several labeled mental illnesses in our films: Karthik Calling Karthik (schizophrenia); Woh Lamhe (paranoid schizophrenia); Bhool Bhulaiya (dissociative personality disorder); Hasee Toh Phasee (drug dependency); Heroine (bipolar). Naming gives us a sense of control or power, a belief that we can now perhaps “diagnose’’ the mysteries of the human mind through “symptoms.” Contemporary portrayals however have done a botched up job of even sticking to standard medical classifications — for instance, Parineeti Chopra in Hasee Toh Phasee is on a self-prescribed dosage of anti-depressants. Soon after popping these pills, she develops an alternative personality, more “mad” than her pre-medicated self. As far as we know, this is not a side effect of standard SSRI medication.

Industry folks too, are not shying away from discussing matters of the mind. Recent instances include Deepika Padukone’s admission of depression and Karan Johar’s letter to the censor board where he has written about his anxiety and medication (suggesting that the censor board get on some anti-anxiety medicines to curb their histrionics). Naming and diagnosis does help us acknowledge more explicitly that madness is not one-dimensional and different behavioral deviations need different treatments.

 Kangana Ranaut has recently had to bear the brunt of her constant depictions of the “psychotic bitch”
Kangana Ranaut has recently had to bear the brunt of her constant depictions of the “psychotic bitch”

But what are the possible downsides of naming? For instance, it is almost impossible to imagine a star with Kishore Kumar’s behavioral quirks in our midst today without him or her being heavily classified, labeled and medicated. The definitions of normative behavior seem to be getting greatly crystallised with even the slightest deviations sprouting a new name. Kangana Ranaut has recently had to bear the brunt of her constant depictions of the “psychotic bitch” with a drinking or drug problem (Gangster, Fashion, Woh Lamhe, Tanu Weds Manu Returns). In each of these films, one or another male partner has referred to her as “fucking crazy” (with Madhavan referring to her as “bipolar” in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, in his ‘professional medical opinion’) and not-so-surprisingly ex-boyfriend Adhyayan Suman gave a bizarre interview painting a portrait of the actress not very different from the “schizophrenic” roles she has played, besides of course, attaching another label: “witch”.

So, how does one act like a “schizophrenic” or “bipolar” person? Will a sample size of 10,000 bipolar people all behave identically? People classified under the same mental “disorder’’ or “illness” all have distinct personalities and life histories. They cannot possibly behave identically despite being filed under the same term. The question then remains: was amorphous madness better than labeled madness? The former allowed actors to interpret a nebulous madness according to their own experiences and make each “deviant” character a little different from the other while being able to escape categorisation, while the latter often confines them within the most dominant interpretations of labeled mental illnesses. When an actor is asked to play a ‘schizophrenic’ where does he/she draw their cues? Possibly not from a Kishore Kumar with his invisible kid friend and dog collar, but from the volatile paranoid women on screen and off screen, the Parveens, Kanganas and Smitas. When asked to portray just a “mad” person, though, we have no choice but to look within.

Recent Posts


Tupur Chatterjee Written by:

One Comment

  1. October 9, 2016

    Thanks for furnishing like very good subject material.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *