Anand L. Rai's Atrangi Re, starring Dhanush, Sara Ali Khan and Akshay Kumar is less eccentric (as its name suggests) and more ignorant because it conveniently forgets that mental disorders are real and their lack of awareness, a growing issue. The filmmaker fails to represent mental health and childhood trauma as the serious afflictions they are and instead ends up making a mockery out of them.
In an extremely disturbing dialogue, a psychiatrist friend tells Vishu (Dhanush) that his wife, Rinku (Sara Ali Khan), should be in a museum in France because of the behaviour she shows — clear signs of trauma from her childhood. In another scene altogether, Vishu breaks into a celebratory dance after learning that the 'other man' in Rinku's life, is no one but an imaginary person, Sajjad (Akshay Kumar), whom she has conjured up, forgetting that this need to create an imaginary character stems from grave mental scars and fear. Instead of understanding her trauma response and getting her help, Vishu and his friends become helpers themselves. From ridiculous pills to paying everyone at the Taj Mahal to clap, to self-diagnosing Rinku's trauma, the circus continues endlessly and hopelessly to create a charade in the name of a love story. In fact, it's sickening to see how Vishu, who 'loves' Rinku, isn't worried one bit about the fact that his wife is sick. It compels one to ask whether or not Vishu realises that the person he loves is scarred deeply, that she is escaping into an imaginary world because her reality isn't worth living in. Rai misfires once again, as he did with Raanjhana by glorifying self-harm and stalking, only this time he romanticises mental disorders and implores one to say: 'if this is love, then I want no part of it'.
Atrangi Re might have had its heart in the right place by trying to bring mental health to the forefront of Hindi cinema because truth be told, we're in a dire need of it. However, the problem lies in the responsibility: if the representation of such an important issue is done wrongly, with an evident lack of research and education, we're doing more harm than good. The messy, mocking portrayal of what looks like a mental health disorder only worsens the convoluted ideas that people, especially in the Indian diaspora, harbour regarding the topic.
In any narrative, humour is a powerful tool. When addressing such serious topics, it can be harnessed as an advantage, which is perhaps what Atrangi Re was trying to do. However, thanks to its insensitive and unsettling treatment, the only thing funny about the film is the makers' lack of knowledge. In a scene, Madhusudhan (the psychiatrist) groups OCD, schizophrenic and bipolar patients into one and claims that they can all see an imaginary person, just as Rinku can see Sajjad, prompting one to believe that there's really no difference between those who are suffering from a mental disorder. One is left staring at the absurdity of it all because no music, acting or cinematography can compensate for the film's lack of compassion. Rahman's background score, Dhanush's craft and some bewitching frames don't make up for the missing sensitivity quotient in Atrangi Re, and therefore should be a learning for filmmakers like Rai who weave alluring screenplays but forget to be mindful of the little nuances that make or break a film. Dear Zindagi is perhaps a prime example of how a mainstream movie on mental health should be, and though Rai seemed to be going for that, he lacks the maturity to deal with such a complex and layered issue.
Atrangi Re, simply put, wishes to engage in an important discourse but instead romanticises it to an extent where it loses touch with reality, coming across as daft.