Dear Zindagi from a therapist's perspective: Gauri Shinde's film does much for mental health
Needless to say, Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi does much for mental health. A mainstream Hindi movie describing the key stages in psychotherapy, in a relatively non-clichéd manner, is novel and necessary in today’s mental health dialogue.
Needless to say, Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi does much for mental health. The movie documents a tumultuous period in the life of Kaira (Alia Bhatt), a cinematographer who seeks professional help from Dr Jahangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) to overcome her problems.
A mainstream Hindi movie describing the key stages in psychotherapy, in a relatively non-clichéd manner, is novel and necessary in today’s mental health dialogue.
This is not a movie review, but a commentary on how well psychotherapy and the therapist-client relationship was portrayed in the movie, without resorting to scary clinical diagnostic terms. Using the assistance of several metaphors, the movie does justice to this intimate and unique relationship. The unsaid “rules” of therapy are adhered to, and though Dr Jahangir Khan’s methods were unconventional (such as taking sessions with an adult client on a beach), there were several aspects of therapy that were communicated in subtle, yet powerful ways.
For instance, in the initial session, building a safe environment for the client is paramount, else clients are less likely to continue treatment. Building rapport in a fun, yet relevant way through stories and examples helped the client “open up.” One of the most important depictions of a therapist-client relationship is when Dr Khan decides to hold an outdoor session: He and Kaira hop on their bicycles and take a ride along a scenic route in Goa. Toward the end of the scene, Kaira falls off her bicycle, and Dr Khan doesn’t help Kaira up. With the session’s time being up, he playfully peddles away, and Kaira helps herself up, albeit a little distraught.
Therapy is exactly that. Psychotherapists help clients help themselves get up. Get back into their lives. Deal with their problems. The notion of therapists giving “advice” and clients being unable to function without consulting their therapists for every decision is a myth. Dear Zindagi has helped communicate that the therapist is a catalyst for the client, not an all-knowing solution-finder and -giver. Clients are helped to help themselves.
The movie is well-researched — there is a very interesting reference to Dunbar’s number (150), which is the number of persons you are likely to interact with consistently and maintain relationships. Therapist skills have been researched and depicted well too, and Shah Rukh Khan does justice to most attributes expected of a good therapist. He is non-judgmental, doesn’t get drawn into arguments with his client, is patient, listens, gives homework (!), and allows the client to express herself freely. The therapist uses his own stories to further sessions, not to refocus the attention onto himself. He uses his own examples constructively for Kaira’s benefit; for instance, when at the beach he reveals that he has a son and is divorced, it enables Kaira to narrate familial experiences that were difficult for her. Dr Khan doesn’t cross the therapist-client line, and is very clear that he isn’t Kaira’s teacher, tutor, parental figure, or romantic figure, but is her therapist. And that relationship is unique in itself.
On account of Dear Zindagi being a feature film, therapy had to end (unlike how weekly sessions continue in HBO’s In Treatment).
Termination of therapy is difficult — not just for clients, but for therapists as well. Over the period of treatment, we empathise with clients; invest ourselves emotionally and cognitively; and want some assurance that we’ve done a decent enough job for the client to be able to venture into the big, bad world and mend themselves when the need arises. The termination of sessions was handled well in the movie, with Kaira making attempts to retain some interaction with Dr Khan. Even at the end of the movie, at Kaira’s short film screening, we do not see the presence of the therapist. Unfortunately, the profession does not permit us to maintain social interactions with clients outside of therapy, and often for a very valid reason. If we become a part of the client’s life outside of therapy, we automatically become subject matter for the next session, and are likely to be less objective in our approach. At the end of the day, the client’s well-being would be affected, thus defeating the purpose of therapy itself. Although therapy is a difficult process (it isn’t as easy as Kaira may have made it look), it is likely to be successful with a committed client and an even more committed therapist.
Hansika Kapoor is a practicing psychologist (clinical) and research author, Department of Psychology, at Monk Prayogshala. Monk Prayogshala is a not-for-profit academic research organisation based in Mumbai that works in the social sciences.
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