What ‘Dear Zindagi’ Got Right (And Wrong) About Therapy In India

Posted by Sadaf V in Culture-Vulture
December 13, 2016

Some called it “India’s first film on mental health”, while others called it just a feel-good movie. Personally, I do not feel the creators of the movie wanted to per se introduce some staggering concepts. They just perhaps realised that there is a wave of mental health awareness happening, and they wanted to share a good story around it. As a psychologist and a therapist then, I feel they got the following things right:

1. Yes, most people do seek therapy for relationship troubles.

Even when people may have dysfunctional coping patterns like avoidance, drinking or displacing their anger on others, most people tend to come for therapy when these issues come up in their relationships. Some reviews of the movie said that her seeking therapy for a breakup is a “first world problem” – but I disagree. A study by Harvard of over 75 years indicated that relationships are the single most important factor to a happy life. So, yes, relationship issues are a very valid reason to bring people to therapy.

2. Even most urban people have misconceptions of who should go to therapy and why.

In many scenes in the film, we see people’s reactions to Alia’s going to therapy. These are some really urban, modern people and yet they react as if she is doing something regressive. Sadly, this is a pervasive attitude in India.

3. Therapy takes time.

The movie shows Alia going for multiple sessions over months. And this is for “seemingly” simple issues like breakups and family problems. I think this is an important lesson because many clients come to therapy seeking immediate, magical solutions.

4. Self-esteem plays a role in most of our problems.

The movie shows well how a childhood incident has made Alia very guarded. This affects how she conducts herself in relationships. Therefore, most relationship issues do have roots in our own insecurities and defences.

What The Movie Got Wrong:

1. Therapists in India don’t own villas!

I was thinking of whether I should include this one, but I decided I should. Most people in India do not feel therapy and counselling should be a paid process since it’s just “talking”. It is very difficult for most therapists and counsellors to make ends meet. Most of us do other jobs like teaching or research on the side, to support our practice. The starting pay for counsellors is anywhere from ₹9000 to ₹15000 per month. Further, therapists and a range of professionals have been disenfranchised according to the new mental health bill. This bill only gives importance to the psychiatrists and clinical psychologists.

2. The client is not so passive.

Shahrukh Khan keeps touting advice and Alia keeps getting enlightened. This is a dangerous myth to propagate because the whole point of therapy is to get the client to question themselves and change their perspective to a healthier one. Yes, this is done gently, through questions and reflections and the therapist walks as slow as the client may need. When we show that the therapist is going to “enlighten you” – clients go into the passive role. The whole purpose of therapy is defeated then – if you won’t initiate the change, how long will it last?

3. There’s a reason we do not meet clients in very informal settings.

We see SRK going cycling and ferry riding with Alia. The reason why most ethical codes call it bad practice is because therapy is supposed to be treated as a different kind of relationship. By making it so commonplace, there is a danger of crossing lines. The client needs to feel that this is a structured relationship with an end goal of learning and change. Thus, the boundaries and rules.

4. The older man advising the younger girl… really?

I can’t help but think – why did they have to recreate this creepy patriarchal dynamic? They could have had a same-aged man. Or a female therapist. Or a male protagonist (client). Maybe this was incidental. But then again, movies on social themes do carry some responsibility, don’t they?

Overall, I think it was a pleasant attempt and will hopefully bring the conversation of therapy into the mainstream. But, we have a long way to go when it comes to more accurate descriptions of the process and it’s usefulness.