|Volume 6 | Issue 09 | September 2012 ||
The Madness that is Cinema
There is no method to the madness in Bollywood films, argues KAJALIE SHEHREEN ISLAM.
'The banality of real mental illness comes into conflict with our need to have the mad be identifiable, different from ourselves. Our shock is always that they are really just like us. The moment, when we say, “they are just like us,” is most upsetting. Then we no longer know where lies the line that divides our normal, reliable world, a world that minimizes our fears, from that world in which lurks the fearful, the terrifying, the aggressive. We want - no, we need - the “mad” to be different, so we create out of the stuff of their reality myths that make them different.' (Gilman 1988)
One is said to have reached the height of madness when one starts controlling traffic on the streets, naked. But not only are such scenes found few and far between, but are these really the only people with 'psychological issues'? It is human nature to categorise everything into binaries - good/evil, black/white, day/night, in order to differentiate and create meaning. This is also true in terms of health and disease. We know we are healthy when we see those who are not, as completely different from us. Similarly, it is easier for us to believe ourselves to be 'normal' when we can categorise those who are 'different' as 'abnormal'. Difference then, is what creates meaning.
Meaning and truth, however, are created through a process and French social theorist Michel Foucault sees the media as one of the 'few great political and economic apparatuses' which produce and transmit truths and form a 'regime of truth' or the 'general politics' of truth of a society (Gordon 1980). Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci sees these as the tools of ideological hegemony, creating consensus and 'common sense' (Walia 2001). Thus, regimes of truth produced through hegemonic discourse form the concept of the 'Other', with the media being one of the sources or channels of dissemination of truth.
Among many other stereotyped images in the media are those of the mentally ill and these are perhaps the most exaggerated in film. From tragic love stories to psychological thrillers, central, not to mention negative, characters in numerous films have been depicted as 'mad'. In Hindi cinema, too, madness has been an age-old theme, from Funtoosh back in 1956 to Krazzy 4 released in 2008. The portrayal of madness in Hindi films, however, has little relation to the illness in reality, and is more 'cultural meaning' (Fiske and Hartley 1978) or a myth, in the form of cinematic representation, 'not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters its message' (Barthes 1972).
This article, through a content analysis conducted on four Bollywood films, is an attempt to understand the meaning of madness in Indian society through the representation of madness in Indian cinema. The four films spanning three decades -- Arth (1982), Darr (1993), Tere Naam (2003) and Kyon Ki… (2005) -- were popular among the audience and featured big stars; some of the films won awards for the performances and, most importantly, the 'mad' person was in the central or a very significant role.
Representations of madness in Hindi cinema have changed over the years, from animal-like madmen, to helpless men being nursed by women they ultimately fall in love with (but forget if and when they are cured), to obsessive lovers who will stop at nothing to possess the objects of their infatuation. Because these cinematic, mythic depictions of madness have little semblance with reality, they are changeable, for 'there is no fixity in mythical concepts: they can come into being, alter, disintegrate, disappear completely' (Barthes 1972). Neither is anything concealed, the mad are not isolated and hidden but very much put up for show, for 'myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear' (Barthes 1972). Myth naturalises its subject, and the articulation of madness in Hindi films, forms a discourse on madness. This discourse through representation tells the audience, albeit distortedly, what madness is, what causes it, how it can be cured and how the mad look and behave, so much so that they can be identified from a distance if one were ever to come across such a person in reality. While myths relate to reality, however, they also 'bring that reality into line with appropriate cultural values' (Fiske and Hartley 1978) and thus the depiction of madness in a manner suited to the appropriate norms and values of bourgeois Indian society.
Every media message consists of preconceptions as well as ideologies, both of which make 'cultural meaning' appropriate to and serving the purpose of the given society. In Hindi films based on madness, this is done subtly, often, melodramatically, but there are some common threads which contribute to a clear, though inaccurate, picture of madness.
Arth (1982), directed by Mahesh Bhatt, is the story of two women, played by veteran actors Shabani Azmi and Smita Patil, the first, a typical Indian housewife, the other, a model who wears Western clothes, the typical Indian mistress.
Azmi's husband in the film, played by Kulbushan Kharbanda, an ad film director, is having an affair with his model, Patil. The latter is depicted as obsessive and insecure from the start, wide-eyed and restless. She feels secure with her lover but is insecure about him. Following a confrontation over the telephone with his wife, she attempts to kill herself by taking sleeping pills. When her lover tells her she is crazy, she hits him and bangs her head against the wall, saying she is crazy because he is not completely hers. Her doctor finally recommends electric shock treatment, but her mother, a pious woman, says it is not madness but guilt from which her daughter is suffering. She goes to see Azmi, the wife, and tells her to meet her daughter to free her of her guilt and save her from the electric shock treatment. The latter obliges.
In a powerful scene between the two women, Patil confronts Azmi, accusing her of trying to scare her. 'I can always hear you crying,' she says, 'My sheets smell of you, you are like a wall between Inder [Kharbanda] and me in bed.' Patil says she sweeps the floor day and night scouring for the beads of the 'mangalsutra' (an auspicious thread, usually a gold and beaded necklace given to Hindu women by their husbands upon marriage) she has torn. 'Kill me,' says Patil, 'but stop scaring me. Forgive me, I didn't want to hurt you…'
Azmi says she forgives her and leaves, but a few days later, Patil comes to her senses and tears up the invitation cards of her forthcoming wedding with Kharbanda. She tells him that if he can leave his wife for her, he can leave her for someone else. 'What peace, security will this marriage give me?' she asks, and ends her relationship with him.
Patil in this film portrays the classical Other as well as 'other woman' of Indian society reflected through cinema -- working in a profession little accepted or respected for women at the time; modern, Westernised, and, most importantly, daring to damage the sacred institution of marriage. Thus she is depicted as mad, for no 'normal' Indian woman would do this. Only when she realises her mistake is she cured of her illness, without any form of medical treatment. Her guilt for her acts is what drives her to madness; her madness is her punishment and her repentance is her cure.
Not everyone is as lucky as to get away with their sins alive, however.
In Yash Chopra's Darr (1993), the 'King of Bollywood' Shah Rukh Khan plays the obsessive lover of a college girl, played by Juhi Chawla, who is engaged to a brave naval officer (Sunny Deol). Throughout their years in college together, Khan never dares to tell Chawla about his feelings. He sings to her in the background without revealing himself, saying he can do anything for her, that he does not know what he will do if she becomes someone else's, that all lovers give their hearts, but that he would give his life for her. He walks precariously along the edge of the roof of a high building, shedding rose petals and counting 'she loves me, she loves me not'. His room is plastered with her photographs, where he sits all day staring at them and calls his mother (who we later find out has been dead for 18 years) and tells her all about 'Kiran' (Chawla). He follows her everywhere, sometimes turning up in disguise to say, 'I love you, K-K-K-K-Kiran', the stammer 'evocative of the nervous, uncontrolled “self”' (Mazumdar 2003). He sends Chawla a bloodstained handkerchief as a warning of the ill fate which may befall her fiancé and even attempts to kill him. He etches her name with a knife on his chest. After she marries her fiancé, Khan paints the words 'I love you, Kiran' all over the bedroom walls of their new house. He follows them to Switzerland on their honeymoon. When he is finally discovered by the husband, he kills him, apologising to the dead body, and at last confesses his love to Chawla. 'You are the object of my madness,' he tells her, 'you are my passion'. When she cries for her husband and out of fear of the madman, he hits her. He tells her, 'I have changed fate, I have made the impossible possible!' He gives her his mother's wedding outfit and tells her to put it on for their wedding, sets up a cassette player to play the wedding mantras, and calls his dead mother to give her the good news. At this point, however, Chawla's husband reappears and shoots Khan dead.
Putting aside an obvious psychoanalytic interpretation of Khan's character who is unable to deal with the loss of the mother and fetishises the woman object later in life, the depiction of the romantic anti-hero was something new in India at the time. The Hindi film hero has gone from the romantic of the 1950s and 1960s to the action hero of the 1970s and 1980s to the obsessive, simultaneously romantic and violent hero of the 1990s and 21st century. According to Mazumdar (2003), 'the image of the psychotic allows us entry into forbidden realms of desire, pain and subjectivity not accessible through given narrative structures' (Mazumdar 2003). Shah Rukh Khan, a young and upcoming hero in the early 1990s, already popular with his first few releases, despite being a negative character, becomes the anti-hero of the film. His madness is pitied, his obsession and violence romanticised, all for the sake of love. In the end however, there can only be one outcome for the mad Other who does nothing but play the harmonica and stare at pictures of his love all day -- death.
Satish Kaushik's Tere Naam (2003) is somewhat similar. Popular Indian actor Salman Khan is a local thug who falls in love with the daughter of a pundit, a Hindu religious cleric, who has arranged his daughter's marriage with another younger pundit. The first half of the film shows Khan's thuggery, even towards the woman, played by Bhoomika Chawla. Gradually, however, he is taken with her simplicity and gentle nature and falls in love with her. A relationship between them, however, is obviously not possible. He is a good-for-nothing hoodlum, she a pundit's educated daughter whose marriage has already been arranged. Khan becomes increasingly disturbed, unhappy and violent. One day, he kidnaps Chawla and pours his heart out to her, at times violent, at others, in tears. She feels sorry for him and even begins to like him. Soon after, he gets into a fight with rival goons in which his head is badly injured. Khan is sent to a mental institution in a coma, where he sits all day in a wheelchair with his eyes closed. He is in pain, unable to eat or move; he does not understand anything or recognise anyone. Finally, his doctor gives up, saying faith can cure what medicine cannot, and recommends that his family send him to an ashram renowned for curing the mad. Here, Khan is surrounded by madmen who talk and laugh to themselves, prance around like monkeys, ride bicycles in the air, and basically act like animals. Khan, chained to the walls, does not do anything. Gradually, however, his condition begins to improve as a result of water and flowers sprinkled on his head, garlands and peacock feathers brushed against his forehead, etc., all to a background song about unrequited love and a life spent in waiting, during which Khan gets flashes of the object of his affection. She, meanwhile, is praying day and night at the temple for his recovery. By the time this finally takes place, however, and Khan escapes from the ashram, his chains still dragging behind him, Chawla's wedding ceremony is under way. But when the hero reaches her house, he finds her dead body in full bridal attire, having refused to be with another man and sacrificing her life for his love. It is not made clear whether or not Khan actually goes mad again at the sight of his loved one dead, but when the people from the ashram come to get him, he goes with them voluntarily, chains and all.
This again suggests that madness and death can be the only outcomes of a socially unacceptable romantic relationship. Though declared mad after the injury to the head, Khan was portrayed as crazy and volatile throughout the film, as if it was pure madness for him to have fallen in love with a woman unsuitable for him.
In Kyon Ki… (2005) directed by Priyadarshan, the mad protagonist is again played by Salman Khan. At the beginning of the film, Khan is brought to the mental hospital to be admitted. He answers the questions posed by the panel of doctors and seems 'normal'. It is only when he violently chases after a fly, destroying hospital property while hunting down the insect and calming down only once he has caught and killed it, are the doctors convinced that he is insane. A female doctor, played by popular actress Kareena Kapoor, is asked to help cure Khan, not with medicine but with her 'heart'. Kapoor reads through Khan's diary to find that he had loved a woman whom he was about to marry and whose death he caused by accident. Khan was devastated, and, declared insane by the courts where he was being tried for murder, was sent to the asylum. After reading the story and trying to cure him with loving reminders of his past life, song and dance, Kapoor falls in love with Khan. When he is finally cured, unlike in many other Indian films, he does not forget her, and reciprocates her love and wants to marry her. Kapoor's father, who owns the hospital, however, has different plans for his daughter and refuses to let her marry a 'madman'. Earlier in the film, every time Khan created trouble, the doctors and security guards would beat him, and the father would often send him in for electric shock treatment, suggesting that this was a method of punishment rather than cure. Towards the end of the film, in order to get Khan out of his daughter's life, he performs surgery on him, leaving him in a permanent coma. Another doctor on the team unable to see Khan suffering, stifles him with a pillow. The last scene of the film shows Kareena Kapoor, driven mad by the loss of her love, herself a patient at the asylum.
Khan could have remained at the hospital as a lifeless patient as others did before him, but he chose to start his life anew and this was not allowed by his society. The message here again seems to be that a normal life is not possible for a murderer, albeit by accident, who is a madman, even after being cured.
Throughout the film, the insane at the asylum in Kyon Ki… are shown as strange creatures, hardly human. One drives imaginary cars, another thinks he owns the Taj Mahal, another dresses up and acts like a sadhu. In the words of Barthes, 'the Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown' (Barthes 1972). The mad Other is shown to be as far removed from reality as possible. This practice of making a spectacle of the mad goes back to the Middle Ages, according to Foucault (2006), when the mad were put 'on show'.
Exoticising and isolating those we consider diseased seems to be the way to conquer our own fears and inadequacies. As Gilman (1988) says, 'the fearful is made harmless through being made comic; in some cases it looms as a threat, controlled only by being made visible. How we see the diseased, the mad, the polluting is a reflex of our own sense of control and the limits inherent in that sense of control'. Gilman describes the 'popular image of the mad' as 'maniacal, running amok . . . unable to control their own actions, limbs wildly waving, slavering, and, most importantly, violently aggressive'. Every society chooses some categories on which to project its anxieties and this 'incarnation of the aggressive mad' is one of the most common, notes Gilman. The mad talk and walk differently, they are either evil or comic, they are almost always violent, there is no doubt in those who see them that they are completely insane.
Hindi films centring around the mentally ill also create confusions about remedies of madness. Attempts at cure include love, faith, song and dance, with bouts of the horrific electric shock treatment which only serves to further harm the patient. Bhugra (2006) argues that the audience are unaware that this latter form of treatment is relatively safe and beneficial to some and see it 'both as a source of terror and perhaps as a punishment' as depicted in the abovementioned films. Such depictions not only project an unreal picture but also have implications for the perception of treatment of the mentally ill in reality.
The above films propound some rather obvious and inaccurate messages about madness, its forms, causes and cures, made apparent by the practice of depicting the insane in Hindi cinema.
Madness is clearly identifiable. There are clear demarcations between the sane and insane. 'One of us' cannot be mad, for madness has obvious distinguishing features.
Madness is caused by love, either unrequited or unacceptable. Thus the only cure, too, is love, and if this is not possible because of social norms, the mad are left uncured, or even to die. All other cures are not only ineffective but also dangerous.
The articulation of the mad as Other, as obsessive or unsuitable lover, limits the perception of madness to only these few categories. Also, the romanticisation of violent obsession can set dangerous examples in society, indirectly endorsing acts such as acid violence which are common in South Asia, and may seem to justify using whatever means necessary to win over the woman.
Madness in Hindi cinema is a myth, romanticising the mentally ill, suggesting that all insane beings are in the state they are in because of love and that they can only be cured by love. The implications and possible effects of such messages in terms of social understanding and perceptions of the mentally ill as well as their medical and social treatment is crucial in a society where cinema plays a vital role as it does in India. Filmmakers have a responsibility not only to entertain but also to inform members of society -- or at least to not misinform them and distort reality. A more accurate, realistic and broader picture of mental illness and articulation of insanity are crucial in conveying the right message about the condition and not mythologising it to the point where there remains little relation to reality.
Barthes, R., 1972. Myth today. In Mythologies. trans. A. Lavers, London: Paladin.
Kajalie Shehreen Islam is Lecturer, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka and In Charge, Forum.
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