With very few exceptions—Karthik Calling Karthik (2010), Dear Zindagi (2016)—Bollywood has never quite seen the difference between the psychotic and psychopathic. More problematically, it has seemed amused by issues of mental health. Rather than focus on the suffering of the mentally ill, Hindi films have delighted in the absurdities of their circumstances. The levity, sadly, hasn’t been all-inclusive either. Patients, soft targets for cinema’s ridicule, have rightly felt laughed at.
In the opening scene of Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015), for instance, Manu Sharma (R Madhavan) and his wife, Tanu Trivedi (Kangana Ranaut), find themselves facing a panel of mental health practitioners. Manu suspects Tanu is bipolar. According to him, his wife’s anxiety, thyroid problems and erratic hormones are all symptoms of a deeper mental disorder. The doctors joke that if mood swings were considered evidence, “all the world’s women would be bipolar”. Tanu soon turns the table on Manu. As she questions his virility, he becomes irate and is taken away by men in white coats.
Filmmakers and Kangana Ranaut might today find it hard to get away with a scene so naïf. Strident advocates are calling out the industry’s apathy and the cruelty of its humour. In April this year, when posters of Mental Hai Kya were first released, mental health advocates were outraged. The image of Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao balancing a blade on their tongues was considered a “trigger”, and the film’s title itself was called “stigmatising, degrading and inhuman” by the Indian Psychiatric Society. There were justifiably some concerns about the blade-on-tongue imagery, but our new correctness, it seemed, also left little room for ’Mental Hai Kya’s’ tongue-in-cheek irony.
By changing their film’s name to Judgementall Hai Kya, the movie’s producers did something clever. Not only did they retain the word ‘mental’ in their title, they inverted the question. Rather than the derogatory undertone of ‘mental hai kya?’—a question clearly directed at the film’s characters—the Ranaut-and-Rao-starrer was now asking audiences if they were judgemental. Dropping their first ill-thought tagline, “Sanity is Overrated”, the film chose for itself a more fitting slogan—“Trust no one.”
Judgementall is an unquestionably brave film. The part-comedy, part-thriller primarily relies on the mental health of its protagonist, Bobby, for its laughs and its suspense, but the film never mocks her disorder(s). Mental illnesses are arguably hard to depict on screen. While you’re damned if you’re insensitive to the ill, your film is also damned if you mollycoddle them to the point of unrecognition. Judgementall treads this line carefully. Bobby’s condition makes her vulnerable, but also very fallible.
At its heart, Judgementall is a whodunnit. As Bobby tries to piece together elements of a puzzle, the viewer is invited to be her own detective. Has Bobby’s fervid imagination mistaken an accident to be a murder? Are her accusations and suspicions a sum of her delusions, or is she more committed to truth than those whose sanity makes concessions for ambivalence? When compared to the film’s larger concerns—gender equality, identity, social inclusion—these conundrums seem banal, but it is through the grid of its mystery that the film tries to answer a larger question: What really is madness?
‘What’s wrong with her’
For the mentally ill, childhood is often a crime scene. If there isn’t abuse, there is blood. Judgementall, a film that at one point slashes the wrist of its protagonist and burns alive women and children, starts by depicting a rather everyday violence. A husband regularly beats up his wife, accusing her of infidelity. His daughter, Bobby, cowers under a bed, stricken and helpless. She intervenes one Holi, but as she breaks the violence up, her parents fall off a balcony, smash their heads and die. It’s hard to see their blood—they lie in a pool of gulaal—but Bobby’s guilt is tangible. You can see it drip off her face.
Even though memory is notoriously unreliable, we tend to believe filmi flashbacks. Judgementall uses the past to explain personality. To understand the film, one must understand Bobby (Ranaut), and, for the most part, she seems almost impossible to comprehend. Her trauma hasn’t just left her mentally ill; it has made her opaque.
When we see an adult Bobby for the first time, she is doing a headstand. She sees the world upside down. She lives alone. Her cat, Panauti, seems well-fed, and though quirky, her clothes are fashionable. Despite her checking these boxes of functionality, however, we know all is not well. Varun (Hussain Dalal), her on-again, off-again boyfriend, tells her, “Bahut complexes hain tujhe. Normal nahin ho tum.” Bobby can be seen tossing pills she has been prescribed for a mental ailment, and as a result of this perhaps, she gets little sleep. Her behaviour is usually manic. She starts to seem bipolar.
Psychiatrists might possibly find watching Judgementall frustrating. For much of the film, its makers refuse to spell out Bobby’s diagnosis. Her symptoms don’t belong to any one end of the mental health spectrum, they slide all over it. Bobby can easily get anxious. When Keshav (Rao) and his wife Reema (Amyra Dastur) move into her house, she considers their tenancy an intrusion. The doggedness with which she stalks them suggests she is obsessive and compulsive. You think she is schizophrenic when she sees cockroaches that are never there, and when Keshav finally scans her records to see she suffers from dissociative identity disorder, you wonder about the accuracy of the diagnosis. Bobby had a troubled childhood, but she doesn’t really have an explicit, second personality.
“Judgementall wants to make us believe that Bobby desires Keshav’s affection.”
While it is, of course, possible for mentally ill patients to suffer more than one disorder, writer Kanika Dhillon seems to have had a more audacious agenda. By creating a character who defies any easy diagnosis, she has challenged our expectation of predictability. If we knew what ailed Bobby, we would have been able to write more comfortably our prescriptive think-pieces. Dhillon, however, seems to suggest that diagnoses can sometimes stonewall our empathy. Knowing what’s wrong with someone can help us excuse their behaviour, but it can also prevent us from understanding it. A prescription cannot be shorthand for biography and medical files cannot be a substitute for history.
Bobby, who is said to have “17-18 people in her head”, also, oddly, wants to be 17-18 people. Her job as a dubbing artist requires her to immerse herself in disparate roles, but Bobby takes this doubling very seriously. She rents costumes and gets herself photographed, first as a police officer and then a ghost. These pictures all go up on her wall. Seen together, they form an album of selves that gives the drab reality of Bobby’s life possibilities far more exciting. They are all heroes with happier childhoods.
Judgementall wants to make us believe that Bobby desires Keshav’s affection. When she sees Keshav and Reema drenching themselves with a hosepipe, she tries to imitate their sexual game. Later, when you see she has photoshopped herself into all of Keshav’s pictures with Reema, you again think of Bobby as unhinged. That, though, misses the point.
Bobby doesn’t want to eliminate Reema in order to stand in her place. Reema is never the conduit that leads her to Keshav. He is instead the peril she needs to protect Reema from. Men are beasts, Bobby believes this. Expectedly, she only ever desires comeuppance for Keshav. She does not desire him. It is perhaps only in the end that you realise Bobby never wished a man would save or complete her. She only ever wanted to justice for Reema, another more joyful woman she wanted to become.
Sita becomes her
For decades at a stretch, mentally ill women were dismissed as “hysterical”, their symptoms disregarded as their gender’s excesses. Diagnoses then had an opposite effect. Their afflictions were written off as a result of their biology, not a consequence of social factors such as patriarchy and discrimination. The 2015-2016 National Mental Health Survey of India, for instance, does acknowledge that more women suffer depression, neuroses, anxiety, obsessive and compulsive disorders, but it never once suggests that their suffering is compounded by structural inequality. Judgementall again makes mental health a feminist issue.
Varun constantly pesters Bobby for sex. She asks him to be like an <aloo>, “adjusting”. Psychiatric medicines are known to thwart sexual desire, yes, but Bobby’s steadfast refusal is unmistakably feministic too. When a producer in her dubbing studio gets handsy, she assaults him with a paper cutter.. Even though she is the victim of harassment, it is telling that she is the one dragged to a police station. Given the choice of a fine or three months in an “asylum”, she chooses the latter. “I am comfortable,”she says.
Her stay in the state-sponsored institution is surprisingly a breeze. She avoids the daily routine of breathing exercises and ward boys even smuggle bars of chocolate for her. Months later, however, when she is re-admitted, the institution seems more asylum-like. Having accused Keshav of burning his wife Reema to death, Bobby, now faced with a therapist, mutters that it’s her mother who wants justice. One suspects Bobby has universalised her trauma. Every woman, for her, is a potential victim.
In countries like the US and the UK, more women are singled out for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and when we see Bobby strapped to a hospital bed with rubber stuffed in her mouth, one fears that the ordeal may only be too gendered in India as well. According to a 2016 report released by India’s National Commission for Women, women are often abandoned at institutions where they are admitted. A closer analysis of the report also suggests that while her mental illness leaves Bobby untrustworthy, it’s her gender that makes her easy to repeatedly institutionalise. Her wish to protect Reema is distorted by others around her. For psychiatrists, only shocks can cure her Keshav obsession.
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë writes, “[...] and it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them, which, if unreturned and unknown, must devour the life that feeds it.” Judgementall offers its viewers a choice. We can either look at the ‘mad’ Bobby being devoured by her secret love for Keshav, or we can see her as someone who empathises with his lovers to the point of a dangerous immersion. We can see Bobby as ‘the other woman’ or we can see her wanting to pretend to be ‘another woman’.
When we see Bobby pretending to be pregnant with a pillow stuffed inside her shirt, we are trained to think she wants to know what it’s like to carry Keshav’s child. We never see a connotation more implicit—she is making literal her desire to be more than one person. Bobby’s mimicry does come with its own frustrations, though. The women whose photos she morphs are invariably weak and dependent. Bobby, on the other hand, would never pander to men or their assumed superiority. So, rather than usurp the identity of women such as Reema, she only assumes the roles of their personality, and her adventures in the dubbing studio make clear that she knows how to better these roles with an unrestrained and wholly unsentimental chutzpah. Moreover, identity theft, Judgementall suggests, is Keshav’s preoccupation, not Bobby’s.
While her cocktail of symptoms makes her a stand-in for most mentally ill people, her ability to place herself in the shoes of other women makes her a fitting gender advocate. Men, in her experience, are violent. They beat their wives. They are desperate for sex. They are hard to trust. When Bobby encounters Keshav, she greets him with a wariness, but it’s his quiet menace and habitual lying that leave her scared and curious. By the time she meets him in London, he has transformed into Shravan. Bobby may adopt personas in her photos, but men, she fears, never change.
In London, Bobby signs up to be the understudy of an actor who is playing Sita in the production of a futuristic Ramayana. As she learns her lines, she finds herself internalising the radicalness of a new, empowered Sita, someone who doesn’t need Ram, someone who saves herself. For Bobby, this Sita is not just a character, she is a lodestar who must be imitated. It’s comic to see her stretch her arms and tell Keshav, “Main Sita hoon”, but when you finally see her dressed in an ochre saree with an axe in her hand, you suddenly get the point.
“anika Dhillon’s farfetched plot sometimes feels clumsy because there is a dissonance between our world and the one she wishes to herald.”
For much of the film, we doubt Bobby’s sanity. She becomes other women too easily. Yet, it is only when she chooses to become Sita that the film finally starts to work as metaphor. Valmiki had given Ravan ten heads, yes, but his text might perhaps have been more relevant if he had given Sita as many selves to choose from. Sanity, Judgementall suggests, lies not in the coherence of self. The ‘sane’, one infers, only handpick their best self in order to positively impact the world around them.
In the order of our epics, excess is as natural as coincidence. The same is true for Judgementall. To view it as a realistic depiction of mental health or gender relations will amount to mistaking the forest for a lone tree. Kanika Dhillon’s farfetched plot sometimes feels clumsy because there is a dissonance between our world and the one she wishes to herald. In that world, a woman lets a man fall during a ‘trust’ exercise, a psychotic patient has the smarts to detect a careful conspiracy, and in it, it is Sita who burns Lanka down, not Hanuman.
Psycho vs psychopath
‘Psychotic’ is an umbrella of an adjective that does little to protect the people for whom it is used. The psychotic subject is considered irrational and often dangerous. Bobby, who is repeatedly referred to as “psychotic”, doesn’t altogether reject violence. She does, for instance, once break a chair on Keshav’s head. But while Keshav sees her as psychotic, she thinks he is murderously psychopathic. Much of the film’s drama is based on this opposition. For Bobby, sanity is impossible. For Keshav, however, sanity is potentially only an act. As the two protagonists continue to cross paths and swords, the film asks an essential question: If sanity can be performed, how can one know who is really insane?
Bobby seems neurotic when you see her compulsively take to origami. For paper, she only uses newspaper cuttings of macabre crime stories. She practices tongue twisters obsessively. You’d be right to think of her as deranged, but repetition is known to ward off psychosis. A little madness can, at times, prevent greater, more brutal manifestations. Bobby has other self-preservation mechanisms as well. She interrupts genial conversations to talk about the violence of her childhood. Her tone is deadpan, her delivery funny. The darkness of her humour may stop you from inviting her for dinner, but it does also serve as a reminder. Mental health jokes, when cracked by Hindi films, only ever seem to trivialise trauma, but Judgementall’s levity can help us transcend it too.
The Mad Pride movement started in 1993 with a single objective—it wanted mentally ill persons to reclaim their “mad” identity and subvert words like “nutter” and “psycho”. Formerly Mental Hai Kya, Judgementall has a similar goal. When someone asks Bobby if she is all right, she smiles and says, “I’m not. I’m mad.” Bollywood, of course, has for long been using words such as “mad” to refer to the mentally ill, but it’s only in Bobby’s articulation that a Hindi film can claim to have gotten its lingo right.
Shreevatsa Nevatia is the author of How to Travel Light, a bipolar memoir.
This article is part of Second Thoughts, a series on mental health in India. Write to us here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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