Bhool Bhulaiyaa and (mis)representation of mental health: Will sequel resort to sensitisation, instead of stereotyping?
Painting issues of mental heal and their patients as khatra has never helped the cause of sensitisation around the matter.
2007 was a very long time ago; a time when Bollywood was starting to break out of the masala formula, to produce films like Guru and Chak De! It was also a time when Akshay Kumar still starred in films like Heyy Baby and Welcome (a genre that would become a rarity in his oeuvre of now mostly patriotic/message-driven films). Although the stories that were being told were becoming more sensitive and interesting — with films like Taare Zameen Par, Life....in a Metro and Manorama Six Feet Under — in no way was the film industry ‘woke’ and nor was it trying to be. The year's most popular film was Jab We Met.
Bhool Bhulaiyaa also released in 2007. Touted as a horror comedy, the film would, to my mind, now squarely fall into the bracket of films about mental health. Granted, no one was actively talking about mental health in the same way that we are today, but in hindsight, the film and its depiction of mental health was pretty problematic, to say the least. Let’s break it down.
The film is predicated on an incidence of ‘ghost’ sightings in a haveli in Rajasthan. And spoiler alert (for those who haven't watched the film in the thirteen years that it’s been out for): the ghost actually turns out to be the lady of the house who is believed to have been ‘possessed’, when in reality it is revealed that she had a personality disorder all along. On the face of it, Bhool Bhulaiyaa might feel like a progressive film, where superstitions are dispelled in favour of science and reason. However, looking at the film from a 2019 perspective, the treatment is highly suspect.
Throughout the film, it is hinted at that something is wrong with the character of Radha, played by Amisha Patel, who is believed to be possessed by the spirit of the ghost, Manjulika, popularised in Hindi cinema with her signature Bengali-Hindi song ‘Ami Je Tomar’. The elements of bhoot-mantra, and psychiatrists touting themselves to be godmen definitely don’t help. While the conclusion squarely dispels the story of the ghost to be one that Vidya Balan’s character, Avni imbibes, and coupled with her history of mental illness, takes on as part of her multiple personality disorder, her treatment is hardly sensitive. Akshay Kumar’s characteristic laughter and insensitive jokes make matters worse.
The film tries to bring out a typical science vs superstition story, where Akshay Kumar’s Aditya is constantly shown to be at odds with the superstitious patriarch of the family, who is bent on cleansing the house through religious methods. Yet, even when the acharya that the patriarch chooses for this purpose turns out to be a psychiatrist, their means of treating Avni remain rooted in superstition. The acharya never gives up the ruse of a godman, complete with a set of followers, who keep emphasising that the ‘spirit’ possesses a khatra to the house, refusing to even drink water in their household that has been tainted by said spirit. In fact, the acharya is so adept at his work, that he instantly diagnoses the problem by reading the family’s horoscope, a method of mental illness treatment that I was sincerely unaware of. Even Akashy Kumar’s character, who is positioned as the foil to the superstitions of the patriarch constantly keeps repeating that the inhabitants of the house are in grave danger.
Let’s get one thing clear, painting issues of mental heal and their patients as khatra has never helped the cause of sensitisation around the matter.
In a country (heck, world) where mental illnesses are highly stigmatised, films that posit those with mental health issues as dangers to themselves and those around them are doing noone any favours. Even the character of Chota Pandit, played by Rajpal Yadav, who is essentially used in the movie as comic relief, is hinted at having a psychological issue, that is ultimately solved with the help of a slap from the very scientific Akshay Kumar.
But well, that was 2007, and I genuinely fell that we had left this film in the dust. Now we have more sensitive films like Dear Zindagi that take a more logical and humane approach to mental health. This year, we saw a whole film that explored the perspective of those suffering from mental health issues, in Judgementall Hai Kya, giving a voice to a set of people who are usually portrayed in a heavily stereotyped manner. Things are looking up.
However, as of last week, it was declared that there would be a sequel to Bhool Bhulaiyaa, helmed by Karthik Aryan, who appears on the poster in a similar god-man costume as Akshay Kumar from the original film. Will the new film pick up where the first movie left off? Or will it use the same science-myth-confused stance on a whole new story? I guess we have to wait till July of 2020 to find out.
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