“This June witness two Mentals collide”, says the poster of the upcoming Movie ‘Mental Hai Kya’. But before that collision happens, the makers of the film and the mental health activists are colliding over the controversial title and imagery of the film.
The word Mental as a noun to describe persons with mental illnesses is considered derogatory, dehumanizing and stigmatizing by the community representing persons with mental illnesses and their caregivers.
We all know that Mental illnesses are highly stigmatized, especially in our country. This stigma and the associated discrimination in all spheres of life often leads to people having mental illnesses and their families either not seeking treatment at all or delaying it for long. Such stigma forces people to go into closets and to not talk about it openly.
Such stigma ensures that even the doctors who treat persons with mental illness-psychiatrists, are labeled ‘Psycho’. It ensures that we do not talk about mental illnesses, rights of persons with mental illnesses, including their right to dignified healthcare. The poster and teaser of the movie depict the actors, Kangana Ranaut and Raj Kumar Rao, engaging in self-harm behaviors. Such a portrayal can strengthen the belief that all people with mental illnesses lose their connect with reality, understanding of harmful behaviors and are dangerous to themselves and society.
The numerous words like ‘crazy, bizarre, crack, freaky, whacky, gutsy, weird, psycho’, used in the teaser will do no benefit to the cause of destigmatizing mental illness in India. The poster and promotions further say ‘Sanity is overrated’ and ‘craziness that will cut through’, referring to the blade on the tongue. No, sanity is not overrated; will we ever say that physical health is overrated?
This is the reason why the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) has written to the central government and Censor Board to get the title of the movie changed and to also ensure that the content is appropriate. The IPS has said that in case their demand is not met, then they will take the route of Public Interest Litigation. The Indian Medical Association seconded a change of title. There is an online petition demanding a change of title too. It is not just the medical community which is making these demands; The Live Love and Laugh Foundation, founded by Deepika Padukone, to raise awareness about mental health, has asked the makers of the film ‘to be responsible and sensitive towards the needs of those suffering’. It further asked to ‘put an end to (the) use of words, imagery and/or the portrayal of persons with mental illness in a way that reinforces stereotypes.’
It is noteworthy that under certain sections of the Mental Healthcare Act and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, using such derogatory terms is a punishable offense. Section 92 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act says, ‘Whoever intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a person with disability in any place within public view, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine.’ Mental illness is listed as a Disability in this Act.
However, the makers of the film are not willing to budge or even listen to the logical concerns of the community. They say that their movie will actually bring the issue in limelight and they are doing a service to the persons with mental illnesses by making a movie on this issue. However, how genuine is there concern, when they do not want to listen to or take into consideration the views of the people for whose emancipation they claim to work? It only highlights their arrogance and preaching from ivory towers.
Language is powerful and using the right terminology for mental illnesses and the persons who have these illnesses is of utmost importance. An article published in The Lancet Psychiatry vehemently opposed the use of glorifying or undermining terms and asked healthcare providers to embrace the term mental illness. Imagine making a film for the empowerment of persons with visual impairment and naming it ‘Andha hai kya(are you blind)?’ or one on Transgender persons and naming it ‘Chhakka hai kya(are you a trans)?’ or for that matter, ‘Randi hai kya?(are you a whore?)’ for female sex workers. Sounds horrible, right? That’s exactly the point that the community is trying to make when they say that the title ‘Mental hai kya’ is horrible. One cannot use slurs and claim that they are trying to destigmatize.
Recently our Prime Minister coined the term ‘Divyang’ (Divine Body) for persons with disabilities, trying to indicate that persons with disabilities are extraordinary and possess divine abilities. The term is not acceptable to the community, who shun anything which makes them feel different, sub-human or superhuman. The same was the case with the term ‘Harijan’ (People of God), which was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi to refer to the Dalits and to remove the stigma. But the same was not acceptable to the community, who found it patronizing and alienating, and it was repealed legally. These examples should make us all wise that if we really want to benefit a community, it should be with the involvement of the community. ‘Nothing about us without us’, goes the maxim.
While there is a counter-argument that the movie is actually trying to normalize the various terms associated with mental illnesses, the question to answer is, who has the right or first-say in normalizing or reclaiming such terms? It is the community and not the outsiders. We have instances of normalizing terms in the LGBTQ community. The term queer was not okay when it was used initially but was then slowly reclaimed by the community in the 1980s.
The Indian Cinema, especially Bollywood, is no stranger to the depiction of mental illnesses. While most of the times it has been scary, comical or caricaturish, the new breed of filmmakers has raised our hopes. Films like Dear Zindagi, Barfi, and 15 Park Avenue have raised the bar high. Kangana Ranaut reportedly has Asperger’s Syndrome and we expected greater sensitivity from her while making a film on such a topic. Though we have been disappointed with the poster and teaser so far, let us hope that the better sense will prevail and makers will make necessary changes and use this as a platform to sensitize and not sensationalize and stigmatize.