Hindi cinema's depiction of mental health vilifies single women. It's a trope we can no longer overlook
The representation of single women with depression in popular culture has been largely unidimensional: failure is depicted as the main cause of the mental illness, and characters are shown being self-destructive and suffering heartbreaks
Deaths by suicide render us reflective. And yet, as a society, we are still to see pivotal shifts in conversations about mental health. From Robin Williams to Marilyn Monroe, to Sushant Singh Rajput, depression and despondency have claimed lives more frequently than we care to admit. One in every six people in India is said to suffer from mental health issues, but the subject is still stigmatised. Subsequently, seeking help has not been normalised.
When it comes to single women and depression, the stigma is two-fold: rooted in insensitivity towards mental health conditions, and the patriarchy – only fueled by popular culture. Depictions of women with mental illnesses are stereotypical and riddled with tropes like alcoholism, substance abuse, weakness, and promiscuity, which vilify and victimise the female character rather than presenting her in an empathetic, sensitive light.
There is a unidimensional representation of depression by making failure its main cause and the inability to deal with said failure the exacerbating factor.
These failures could pertain to personal goals, or relationships. This only reinforces stigma and negative perception, making societal acceptance of the illness and seeking assistance to cope with it more difficult.
In this regard, Madhur Bhandarkar’s films stand out for their troubling depiction. Heroine and Fashion, among his other films, make depression synonymous with failure or the inability to deal with success. Notably, the protagonists of these films are single and ambitious – a set up for the inevitably harsh fate they must suffer, almost because their personalities are like this. Fierce ambition is the cause of their downfall, and culminates in depression.
A story arc of this sort demonises women’s career-related dreams and outspokenness, inviting audiences to pity them, and to be wary of what ambition can do to women. This gaze robs the female character of her own agency and presents her pain in a patriarchal manner.
The downfall of these women includes the 'loss' of romantic relationships, often because of insecurities on the part of their partners, which makes them further lonely and depressed. Why does the end of a relationship signal personal failure, and why is heartbreak a step towards depression? Additionally, why is prioritising personal goals a justification for a breakup or divorce?
In Fashion, for example, it is with the breakdown of Meghna's (Priyanka Chopra) last relationship and setbacks in her career, that the depression becomes acute. In reality, it can be the other way around: depression can lead to the tendency to self-isolate, which then results in loneliness.
It is often misrepresentation that is more detrimental to marginalised groups than missing representation. Popular Hindi films employ the same problematic lifestyle tropes – smoking and drinking – to indicate that a woman is ‘strong’, ‘bold’ or ‘fast’ and ‘loose’, as well as struggling with depression. Unable to cope with life’s adversities, the female character is shown engaging in substance abuse and having sex beyond patriarchally accepted relationships. This sex isn’t acceptable or ‘legitimate’ because it doesn’t involve a stable, committed partner – a notion that once again robs the female character of the ability to make choices about her body.
Take for instance Madhur Bhadarkar's characters across Fashion and Heroine. In the former, both Meghna and Shonali (Kangana Ranaut) follow nearly the same pattern of 'self-destruction'. Or for that matter Simran (Kangana Ranaut) in Gangster, and even the 'vamps' in older films like Kamini (Simi Garewal) in Karz.
The panning of the camera from a woman who is drunk, asleep after sex, to an ashtray full of cigarettes reinforces the association of such images with mental illness. Meghna in Fashion is a prime example of such a depiction. Quick cuts of her drinking, smoking and consuming drugs play out on screen when her life begins to 'crumble' and she loses control over it. Kareena Kapoor's Mahi is picturised only drinking and smoking in those scenes of Heroine where she loses her sense of 'right' and 'wrong'. Fashion used racism to show the extent of Meghna's 'bad' decisions, by depicting a scene where she has sex with stranger – a Black man – encouraging the viewer to judge her actions by focusing on the colour of his skin.
Startlingly, most female characters who are portrayed in their battles against depression are single.
Writers and directors have ignored the stories of those who are in committed relationships and experience mental illnesses – mothers who have postpartum depression, survivors of abuse, those who have fought oppression on religious and caste lines. What of the sexism rampant at workplaces, in homes and public places, which causes distress? What of the loss of bodily autonomy in marriages, and of women who have been gaslit for years by family and partners, until they are forced to accept an altered version of their own realities?
Barring Chhoti Bahu from Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (which was also a case of depression in the context of the absence of a man), rarely have we seen other female identities coping with this illness. It delegitimises the struggles of scores of women and creates a limited narrative which presumes that the marital status of a character dictates her mental state.
Added to this is ageism. It is often single, older women who are shown as being afflicted by mental illness, in an industry where women are only imagined as wives, mothers, sisters and vamps – only in relation to the men in their lives. Single female characters were imagined as being despairing or depressed. They were widowed mothers waiting to be redeemed, or vamps who drank themselves through pining. And then there were vengeful characters like Tabu’s Begum from Fitoor (an extremely diluted, singular representation of the iconic Ms Havisham, only redeemed by the actress’ layered performance), who was depicted as becoming vengeful and unstable only because of a heartbreak.
The representation of mental illness has also been limited in the sense of the factors that cause stress and anxiety in a woman’s life: financial woes of single women running their own households, job security, family pressures, social realities etc are missing from films.
Depression and anxiety must be depicted in ways that are real, authentic and intersectional, taking into consideration class, caste, gender, sexuality and religion. Picturisation must also rely on real experience – the inexplicable feeling of physically weighed down, the dysfunctionality it brings with it, the simplest routines feeling like chores, the slow and steady abandonment of everything one loves, receding into one's own shell, sharp feelings of abandonment and resentment, and above all, helplessness that must be fought every minute – rather than utilising tropes.
Delving into asking for help or willingly accepting it is inseparable from the depiction of depression and mental illness. Dear Zindagi, a film for and favoured by the privileged, did attempt to normalise the idea of not being ‘okay’ and seeing help, but it is an outlier in this regard, since asking for help has itself not yet become a part of cinematic narratives.
At a moment when India is home to the largest number of single women in its history than ever before, its popular culture has the responsibility to ensure equal, sensitive representation of stories in the context of mental health. This is critical for stories to remain more relevant and relatable.
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