In our country, talking about depression is more of a taboo than talking about sex: We simply don’t discuss mental health, particularly its emotional aspect. Not just because of the stigma attached to it, but also because people don’t understand the subject properly. Why don’t we understand it? Because emotional development isn’t taught in schools or homes. No one has ever tried to tell us about emotions in a manner that doesn’t seem like an academic exercise or in a way that could make us relate to the issue and evoke genuine interest.
Depression — and suicides resulting from it — is the second leading cause of morbidity amongst 15 to 29-year-olds globally. Every year, more than 8,00,000 people die having committed suicide; many more attempt it, as the World Health Organization, 2014, writes in Preventing suicide: a global imperative. It was this glaring chasm, between reality and the realisation of the seriousness of the issue, that prompted me to think it’s high time we addressed the subject in a manner that struck home — there is perhaps no better way to do this than through cinema. Interest and motivation are in the domain of emotion, not cognition. Formal education helps the development of cognitive intelligence, not sensory, because it focuses on learning through reading and writing, language, words, not images and sound. Films combine the two — that is the advantage of films; that makes cinema a richer medium of instruction.
For far too long, we’ve perpetuated the theory that anything that has to be taught should be through books; cinema is only for entertainment. How often we hear people say, I went to the movie, leaving my brains at home. But cinema’s purpose goes far beyond. You may watch cinema for entertainment but a lot of information from screen goes into your subconscious mind; if this information isn’t authentic, it results in misunderstandings. But when authentic cinema tackles a subject, it is a much better tool of education than any other.
Sumitra Bhave is a filmmaker with a difference. She is not the product of a film school but a graduate from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. After doing research on problems women in slum areas face, she wanted to communicate her findings to these women through print — only to realise that none of the women she worked with could read or write. But all of them saw films. So, she thought, “Why don’t I communicate through the medium they understand — cinema?” She made Bai — it received a thumping response from her target audience. The women who never talked about their problems became so animated to speak about issues relating to their lives in the film that the experience was overwhelming.
The audience expands; one knew the words “dyslexia” and “learning disability” but never gave them much thought till Taare Zameen Par lent viewers a new understanding. I made Astu about Alzheimer’s — so many people who saw the movie started talking about their father or aunt who had a similar problem. Many said they wished they’d seen the film five years earlier; they would have known better how to tackle the issue,
With depression becoming the second largest reason for morbidity amongst the young, I knew this was a subject waiting to be brought into the public domain, through the medium that reaches out best to people. Hence, Kaasav (“Turtle”) that explores the subject of depression through two characters, one consumed by it, the other coming out of it after treatment. The thrust is, you need to protect a person going through a depressive phase till they are out of it — just like you need to protect Olive Ridley turtles, used symbolically in the film.
It is unspoken, unrecognised depression that leads to suicide or substance abuse. Depression is part of a psychiatric disorder. To talk about it, one doesn’t require intelligence but acceptance. Society is now accepting the concept of the intellectually challenged, but not the emotionally challenged. We don’t talk about emotions because we are taught about everything but this; in fact, in India, a sign of maturity, especially amongst women, is apparently how successfully they can conceal their emotions, rather than expressing them. No guru, barring J. Krishnamurthi, has talked about emotion.
Meanwhile, social pressures are only rising. The phenomenal growth in means of communication today could result in your getting lost within a jungle of information. We think only of the immediate now: The belief is that this is the only life you have, so you must get what you want here. The result is, high levels of aggressiveness, fierce motivation, a growingly self-centred society.
Yet, in my work, I feel I was at my best productivity level when I was paid the least. As I grew older, the remuneration became better. As I neared retirement, I was paid the highest. Earlier, returns took into account how much you needed, at what stage of life. Today, if you’re good at something, A pays you X, B says she will pay you X plus, but with no guarantee of tomorrow. This leads to insecurity.
We need to change our lifestyle, our relationship with material things, our expectations from life, our perceptions of dignity in ourselves and others. But, before all that, we need to understand these complexities, their causes and where they lead us. Once we understand that, we will have acceptance and it will be easier to talk about this. Till then, let the movies help us navigate the choppy waters of emotion, particularly depression. It’s the least they can do for a society that has given the medium the stature it enjoys.