Portrayal of mental illness in Indian cinema

Creative liberties leading to misinterpretations


April 26, 2019

/ By / New Delhi


Indian cinema has been rightly accused of portraying mental illness in a poor light

The Indian film industry known for its entertaining musicals, focuses on serious subjects like mental illnesses, too. The ambiguous fashion in which the latter are portrayed, however, leaves room for misinterpretations on part of the audiences; and while many films miss the mark, some do portray a real picture.

Slamming of new-age actor Rajkumar Rao starrer Mental Hai Kya (2019), for an insensitive portrayal of mental illness, has stirred an old debate revolving around the rocky relationship of  Indian cinema and mental illness. A rather unrealistic portrayal of mentally unsound people as ones ready to lash out or as subjects of mockery in Indian films has only strengthened audiences’ beliefs in taboos surrounding the issue. Twisting of facts in the name of creative liberty and presenting them before the audiences has only acted as fuel to the fire.

Sudhir K Khandelwal, head of psychiatry department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the leading medical research institutes in India, ridiculed Indian cinema in an article he wrote for a leading national daily. He pointed out the portrayal of mentally ill people being stereotypically projected as violent, unpredictable, and dangerous in Indian films.

Adding on to the chaos, many a time, films about development disorders or learning disabilities were interpreted to be based on mental illness, by an already confused audience. Barfi, a film based on autism (development disorder) and My name is Khan, on asperger’s syndrome, again a development disorder, are two examples. Even Tare Zameen Par, laurelled for a brilliant portrayal of dyslexia- a learning disability, had the same fate.

In such a scenario, the need for creating awareness in the audiences becomes imperative.

Here are some Indian movies that attempted to paint a picture closer to reality, sensitising the audience towards mental illnesses.


Khamoshi (1969)


Way ahead of its time, cult classic Khamoshi was one of the first Indian films on  mental illness

Cult classic Khamoshi was one of the first Indian films that acquainted the Indian audience with this sensitive subject. Way ahead of its time, Khamoshi is a twisted tale of a nurse, played by the veteran actress Waheeda Rehman, who succumbs to her inner conflicts and loses her mental balance while treating a mentally unsound patient, played by the yesteryear superstar- Rajesh Khanna. The film was not only applauded for a well-knit script but also for presenting the story from the point of view of a female protagonist, a trend not prevalent in Indian cinema at that time.

Devrai (2004)


The plot of Devrai revolves around a science student who is fascinated by a mysterious grove in his village

This Marathi film is one of the best cinematic representations of schizophrenia. The plot revolves around a failed science student who is fascinated by a mysterious grove in his village. As the film unravels, many sub-themes surface. The film portrays the dilemma and challenges faced by the protagonist’s family as well as the plausible failures of treatment. This film invoked the audiences to cater schizophrenics with utmost care and love.


15 Park Avenue


Unlike many Indian films on mental illnesses, 15 Park Avenue did not twist the facts in the name of creative liberty

Konkona Sen Sharma starrer 15 Park Avenue attempts to shed light on not only the condition of schizophrenics but also their family and friends. Meethi, the protagonist of the film, lives in an imaginary, parallel world of her own, where she has a family of five children and a husband. The English film, which was later dubbed and released in Hindi and Bengali, was applauded for an accurate portrayal of schizophrenia. Unlike many Indian films on this subject, 15 Park Avenue did not twist the facts in the name of creative liberty. “We know someone very close to us who’s schizophrenic… a very close relative. So Konkona got to study the traits very carefully,” Aparna Pillai, director of the film was quoted by the media.



A Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, Black has bagged maximum Filmfare awards till date

A film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Black is the story of a deaf, mute, and blind girl whose mentor is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The film was the first of its kind in the Indian film industry. Applauded for a brilliant portrayal of the dark world of not only the biologically but mentally disadvantaged, Black has bagged the maximum Filmfare awards till date. However, experts ridiculed the movie for presenting the disease as curable and evoking false hopes in the audience. The character played by the legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan regained his lost memory towards the end of the film, contradicting the medically proven fact that Alzheimer’s disease is incurable, though treatable.


Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007)


Akshay Kumar plays the role of a psychiatrist, who is called to treat the mentally disturbed sister of one of his childhood friends

With romance, drama, comedy, and songs Bhool Bhulaiya is a typical Indian movie tailored especially for the masses. It touches upon a number of themes, with mental illness being one of them. While the film manages to keep the audience glued in the first half using witty dialogues, the script cleverly slips in the theme of dissociative identity disorder, a mental illness, in the other half. Actor Akshay Kumar plays the role of a psychiatrist, who is called to treat Radha, the mentally disturbed sister of one of his childhood friends. As the movie unfurls, it turns out that it was friend’s wife Avni, played by Vidya Balan, who was actually ill and been indulging in bizarre activities, the blame of which she had put on Radha.

Karthik calling Karthik (2010)



Karthik calling Karthik reiterates the need of loving and caring the people battling Schizophrenia

This psychological thriller, starring Farhan Akhtar and Deepika Padukone, tells the tale of an introvert suffering from schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. The protagonist Karthik is threatened by mysterious phone calls every night, which later are revealed to be his own pre-recorded voice messages. His lover, played by Padukone, refuses to succumb to the stereotyped fear of being around schizophrenics and not only helps Karthik with the treatment but also keeps her relationship with him alive. The film reiterates the need for loving and caring for those battling this incurable disease.

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