The Idea Behind ‘Dear Zindagi’ Makes It Special, Not The Film

Posted by Purnangshu Paul in Culture-Vulture
November 30, 2016

I usually refrain myself from writing about films that don’t quite move me. But there is something that needs to be written down about “Dear Zindagi”.

“Dear Zindagi” is a film about a struggling cinematographer Kaira (Alia Bhatt), dealing with her failed relationships, her urban and peppy friends, her US-return parents and her psychiatrist Jug (Shah Rukh Khan). Kaira represents the young, urban, free women, who live by themselves to make it big. She faces the usual ‘boyfriend ditched me’ to ‘landlord is threatening to evict me’ problems in the dream city Mumbai. At this point, just like me, you might say, ‘so what’?

Well, the reason behind talking about the film is not because the film itself, but the idea behind it. “Dear Zindagi” is a stepping stone for Bollywood mainstream cinema, towards openly talking about mental health and depression.

Films are often regarded as reflection of society. But, what about a subject that the society shuts itself from talking about? Mental health has always been a taboo in this country. When was the last time you heard someone coming upfront, telling you that their child has a mental health issues? The feeling of being ostracized by the society and earning a bad name for the family are the common excuses you will hear in such cases. I have been raised in a family where I have encountered it firsthand. The word ‘psychiatrist’ itself is a badly received in our society. I won’t complain about others because my own mother often jokingly says the same, whenever I ask her to consult a psychiatrist. She lives alone, as both her sons are out working. My father died more than a decade ago. Like Kaira, who had her friends to help her out in time of depression, my mother has us to talk to. But, is it enough?

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2012-13, spent only 1.3% of the total expenditure on health to National Mental Health Programme. According to data provided by NIMHANS, there are more than 7 crore people in India who suffer from mental illness of one form or the other. The number of doctors available to attend them is a paltry 4000. Most of these doctors are concentrated at metro cities or tier two cities, leaving behind the prospect of finding a psychiatric facility in a tier III city like Jamtara, Jharkhand where I was born and brought up. Kaira, on the other hand, quite easily bumped into the famous and uber cool psychiatrist Dr. Jahengir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), aka Jug, in Goa.

Despite having a phone full of social media apps, the youth of the present generation is quickly getting disconnected from the society, resulting in loneliness. Cases of depression are on a rise every year and very little is being done to tackle the same. “Dear Zindagi”, although a badly executed film by Gauri Shinde, gives a ray of hope for a popular discourse about mental health and depression. The urban set-up of the film itself is a pointer to the fact that awareness about the problem of mental health and depression is still at its nascent stage.

In snippets, “Dear Zindagi” provides a way of looking into your life and asking questions to yourself about your dreams and how you can fulfill them. Shah Rukh Khan’s role, as Kaira’s psychiatrist, is the point of elevation in the film. If you are an ardent follower of American Television series, you might have seen how the therapeutic conversations in “Mr. Robot” (between Eliot and his psychiatrist) and “Hannibal” (between Hannibal Lector and Will Graham) moved the plot of the series further. In case of “Dear Zindagi”, Khan’s role is the same. He keeps the sinking ship afloat.

The sequence in the film when Kaira first sees Jug in a mental health awareness conference and immediately decides to seek help from him for her lack of sleep is quite fascinating. Kaira was attracted to what Jug was speaking because she found it interesting while the other doctors present in the conference were talking in medical jargon. I remember, once I attended a mental health awareness programme in Bolpur, West Bengal. I had thought that I might get bored, but I landed up spending three hours listening to every minor detail about the current scenario of mental health in the country.

Both Alia and Khan did justice to their roles in the film, making it an interesting watch, in an otherwise boring screenplay and forcefully sandwiched love-break up scenes in the film. It is definitely a weak film for a director who has previously made a strikingly beautiful “English Vinglish”. Apart from the therapy sessions, the dialogues in the film are preachy and boring. But, “Dear Zindagi” scores because of the subject it deals with. Bollywood previously has generated films like “Bhool Bhulaiyaa”, “My Name Is Khan”, “Barfi” and “Sadma”, but it never portrayed the therapist-patient relationship directly. I hope, in the time, there will be more open discussions, so that the next time I speak to my mother about consulting a psychiatrist, she doesn’t feel like something is wrong with her.