I first encountered the word “mental” as a slur to describe my great-grandmother. A former midwife, her last months of being alive were explicitly painful. She was removed from her ancestral home and brought to live at my grandfather’s house as she grappled with the deterioration of her dementia.
Visitors would collect in the veranda and offer my grandfather, her second son, their condolences as they tut-tutted about this shrinking “mental” woman as she alternated between bouts of screaming rage at every moving shadow, and a childlike pattern of repetitive inquiry about names and identities whenever we approached her.
I have little to recollect by way of memory alone; I was too little and too infrequent a presence at that house. I remember her green velour lihaaf and a small peacock shaped bottle of attar.
What I do have are sporadic entries from my mother’s diaries and journals. On those pages, is a portraiture of a formidable woman who was active during the Indian freedom struggle, survived an abusive marriage and ostracism from patriarchal messiahs of her time as she refused to participate in female feticide. That woman seemed impossible to trace in the dim outline holding the blood and bones of this wrinkled husk shaking on the cot. In her illness, my great-grandmother was no longer seen or heard for who she was but became a cracked mosaic of only what she was or wasn’t doing.
I don’t remember her death. What I do remember is that she would often speak of seeing a black cat hovering in the corridors. No such cat was spotted by anyone else in the house apart from her.
In Judgmentall Hai Kya, Kangana Ranaut’s character Bobby often spots a cockroach as an ominous prelude to her breakdowns. It is a trigger from childhood trauma that eventually mutates into a fateful aberration that follows her around as she fluctuates between the tangible world outside and the discarnate one on the inside. The movie begins with a promise to center mental illness in the plot line of a slapdash thriller, but the mental states of the lead characters often come off as merely ornamental, or worse, incidental to, a plot that is ironically in a state of perpetual disarray.
As a practicing psychologist, I am always a little cagey about films or popular media that aims to sentimentalise or fetishise mental health and illness as a plot device. I have sat through enough therapy sessions with my clients where ill-chosen metonymy from movies or TV shows has signaled some truly problematic beliefs about serious conditions.
“Bobby’s loneliness and inability to trust is a gut-punch.”
The original name for this movie itself was Mental Hai Kya, which caught flak both from mental health and medical communities and those who live with mental health challenges. This was mostly for its abject rehashing of a precarious trope, by frequently describing Kangana’s character as “psycho” compared to other so-called “normal” people, and for displaying electroconvulsive therapy as a rather regressive contrivance to heighten the drama.
In the movie, Kangana’s character Bobby experiences an unspecified condition which seems to bring about acute psychoses, depersonalisation, and dissociative states. On some level, this is not far from present day psychiatric game of darts where often patients are unclear about what they are dealing with, but are immediately pumped with enough meds to keep them tethered to some realm of reality. It is a grey fact. Bobby’s loneliness and inability to trust is a gut-punch.
As a survivor and a mental health practitioner, I actually found the pre-release teasers to be a tad offensive in that they seemed to be plugging this oft-repeated allegory of mental illness as some sort of an acquired “quirk”.
A client of mine who in fact does have borderline personality disorder, or BPD, was the first to discuss this film with me while mentioning that one of her co-workers made a shoddy joke about whether she’s likely to electrocute people as shown in one of the posters.
Visual imagery can be persuasive and this not-so-subliminal projection of two supposedly mentally unwell people indulging in destructive acts was unsettling. The other character, that of Rajkummar Rao, is tinged with sociopathy assembled from the reruns of Criminal Minds.
The line between creative interpretation and faithful representation blurs rather quickly when it comes to this specific subject. Mental health in India continues to be taboo and widely misunderstood.
“I understand that the filmmakers didn’t actively want to label what Kangana’s character goes through, but I found this to be the choppier part of the story.”
We still equate psychosis with psychopathy without realising how detrimental that false equivalence is for people. We are still chaining folks to mattress-bereft steel beds and banyan trees. We are still woefully unequipped in terms of funding for relevant structural help. I still have to plead with family members and even clients and patients to seek help on a regular basis without feeling ashamed about what they are experiencing.
In a country where films play an outsized role in influencing public conversation, I am always a little worried about how the on-screen treatment of a subject as delicate and yet piercing as mental illness will impact common conversations. This is truer for women who experience mental illness.
This is why one of the rarer moments of illumination in the movie is the two leads sitting in the police station and Rajkummar’s character openly declares he will kill Bobby if her allegations continue. She is petrified but the cops barely bat an eyelid and ask, “But he hasn’t done it yet no?”
I understand that the filmmakers didn’t actively want to label what Kangana’s character goes through, but I found this to be the choppier part of the story. Diagnostic criteria aside, they have unloaded a host of symptomatology and signs onto this single individual. Is she experiencing paranoid schizophrenia, bouts of bipolar ideation or a dissociative identity disorder?
As a shrink, it makes me question the research that went into understanding what these signs entail. I dislike harping on accuracy of depiction because clearly this is a film not an academic paper but some of the commingling seems like a really amateurish cocktail. This matters simply because mental illness is a scale or a spectrum and one can’t eschew the significance of choosing specificity when it is such an integral part of the storyline. We constantly speak of mental illness in binaries and that is not useful.
The movie overreaches and underwhelms because it can’t seem to make up its mind whether it desires to be a thriller embowered in the arc of a story about mental illness, or an investigation of how mental illness affects an individual occurring parallel to an untidy mystery. Both leads make concerted efforts to surmount and even manage to shine through a gradient roster of improbabilities but the story doesn’t always rise up to meet their efforts.
Ranaut is known for her penchant for portraying people who eschew moral or ethical classifications. Her journey in the film is a briar patch between what is schismatic and what is cathartic. Her affect for a woman splintering as the voices in her head get more pervasive and impossible to ignore, is actually more realistic and veritable when she makes an off-color joke at the dinner table or when she is struggling to navigate physical and existential roads in a fog of dissociation, than when she summons the hyperbolic replication of psychosis in her go-to mode of short-haired-wide-eyed-marionette styled explosions.
There are scenes from the movie that I recognize instantly from my own experiences with clients and patients — a pill bottle flung into a trash can, Kangana’s character’s immersion and escapism in the cheap romance of b-grade films till she can’t differentiate fact from fiction, her eviscerating a mattress in the throes of deep psychosis, or even the moments of hesitant abrasiveness that have an implicit honesty.
A moment that made me sit up in my seat was when she is desperately trying to convince a cop that she is being followed by other people. Only she can see them because they are the personification of the voices in her head. They are very real to her and in that instant, you recognize that for people who deal with a dissociative personality or are on the schizophreniform spectrum, there is no “lying” or “making up” of things. They are fully present in a version of reality that is only alive and graspable to them. The alone-ness of that separation can puncture a heart. As a viewer, we are both a witness and a voyeur for the decline in her mental wellness and this is the truest ache of people who striving to survive mental illness; the lack of empathetic witnesses.
“Kangana’s Bobby is unembodied and unwitnessed by the world except when she is breaking apart.”
In RD Laing’s controversial but seminal work The Divided Self, a case study explores the ideas of Embodied and Unembodied selves. Kangana’s Bobby is unembodied and unwitnessed by the world except when she is breaking apart. She inserts herself in dubious circumstance, sometimes with the aid of photoshopped imagination, because she has been forced to disappear behind her “madness”. This is a social fault-line not merely an individual one. As much as there are psychological and neurological markers, so much of mental and emotional health is dependent on socio-cultural factors also. This is the focal point of suffering—the world’s invisibility of a bodied self that is more than illness or breakdown. As poet Anne Carson wrote – “Why are you full of rage? Because you are so full of grief.” It is this grief of never having access to a compass for your several directions that are tugging at you with shattering force.
Focusing on the experience of schizophrenia, Laing noted – “To be understood correctly is to be engulfed, to be enclosed, swallowed up, drowned, eaten up, smothered, stifled in or by another person’s supposed all-embraced comprehension.” It is the knot at the cusp of the resistance and subtle gentleness of the bond she forms with Jimmy Shiergill’s character — a receptive and all-embracing theater director who does not attempt to prod or change or even understand her from his vantage. He believes her and let’s her be. This message needs to be played out loud for anyone who has someone in their life fighting a mental illness.
The movie could have paused and dived deeper into these moments to show how unconditional acceptance is a form of nurture and empowerment. She refuses to fall towards him so he falls towards her, risking the possibility of hitting the ground. When she finally catches him in his fall is when she is open and without fear; embodied.
This is more empowering than the mythological exaggerations attributed to her. This exploration would have been a more tender summation than the hastily cobbled ending which despite its best intentions doesn’t quite invoke tenable engagement. What I felt when I stepped out of the theater was ambivalence about what I’d seen. What I heard from others around me as we walked through the exit were more references about the spots of humor or violence in the film than Bobby’s pain.
At the end, I am reminded of Laing’s direct and unflinching report – “He is objecting to being measured and tested. He wants to be heard.”
Perhaps if Bobby was heard more and tested less in the film, we’d have a more resonant outcome and even a more interesting mystery.
Scherezade Siobhan is a psychologist and therapist.