Until late 2019, Shaheen Bhatt had been a popular internet personality only because of her lineage, being the elder daughter of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and actor Soni Razdan, and sister of Bollywood star Alia Bhatt. Now she is the best-selling author of I’ve Never Been (Un)Happier, which chronicles her lifelong battle with depression.
The book is her chronological account of dealing with depression since the age of 12, cross-cut with her description of a depressive episode in detail. Chapters are also bookended with pages from journals that she had been maintaining for almost two decades, which provide a peek into the sort of mental agony she faced day in and day out.
The anecdotes, featuring her family, are some of the most revealing portions of the book: On one occasion, an on-set photographer asked a young Shaheen Bhatt to step out of the frame as he took photographs of Alia Bhatt and half-sister Pooja Bhatt only because, Shaheen writes, she wasn’t pretty enough. Excerpts from an interview:
Young individuals from film families aren’t usually open about their weaknesses in life. Has being a Bhatt helped or hindered you in the process of writing this book?
Only helped. I know I got this platform because of my family. I would be deluded to think the book’s success has had nothing to do with my family. I know there is curiosity about it because of my family, and that that has given me and my book a reach that it otherwise wouldn’t have.
You were inspired to write the book seeing the responses to your viral 2016 Instagram post in which you first opened up about your depression, after which you also wrote a well-received article about it. Has this entire experience of public sharing, culminating with the book, helped in alleviating your condition?
Yes, deeply. Sharing has changed my life. Earlier, I wasn’t exactly concealing my depression but also not being open or forthright about it. What would happen was I would spend a lot of energy that I could put into other things on just dealing with depression. Talking has freed me. I don’t feel like pretending anymore, or hiding certain faces of myself.
Also, hearing others’ stories in return as helped me too. You always know on an intellectual level you are not alone, but when other people talk, you realise on an emotional level as well that there are others like you.
You write that depression made you introverted. But you had to talk a lot and be in the public eye while promoting your book.
It was initially hard, especially the first couple of interviews. I cancelled all appointments for two weeks after the book launch. I just couldn’t do it. But I began to notice that the interactions and conversations were not one-note. I was actually making meaningful connections with people.
That realisation has made it significantly easier to talk to strangers about my book and condition. I anyway cannot do five things a day, so I need to space out these press interactions. But I can see that they are making a difference to my life and adding value to it.
Since India is not particularly known for being sensitive to mental health issues, have you faced any flippant or ignorant questions during this process?
Not really. I have been lucky that way. I have been fortunate to get positive responses so far. Everyone has been very sensitive, which leads me to believe that people do have a deeper understanding of depression than we think. Everyone is facing some version or the other of this. People understand a lot more than we give them credit for.
Of course there are always people who say the wrong thing but that’s because they don’t understand it. And what you don’t understand you fear, which makes you abrasive about the subject.
How do you decide what to share and what to withhold?
I did not hold back at all with the book. I only did not talk about things which I felt were not relevant to the story, such as my relationships. Otherwise, I have been honest about my family, my suicidal tendencies, my alcoholism. There can be no half measures while opening up. Every aspect of your life informs your depression, so you might as well talking about everything.
But I might just talk about the things I did not purposely, some day. I have been raised with a good amount of emotional transparency, so I can expect that.
How did you structure the book?
It’s one thing to talk about the linear progression of my life and quite another to show people what depression feels like. So the italicised parts are me taking the reader through an actual depressive episode. The book opens with me being in the throes of one such episode. I followed myself for a couple of weeks and documented every thought. That and the journal entries show rather than tell, and the chapters do the telling part of giving context to my story. How I got to this point in life, and so on.
What was your writing process like?
Earlier, I would write late in the night since I had insomnia. There would be some intense bursts of writing, and then no writing for days. But now I have a writing routine: 5 am to noon, which I followed for the book, but I’d skip writing a couple of days since the entire process was emotionally taxing.
Your description of your first panic attack, some would say, is very specific and accurate.
I have had panic attacks frequently, and they always followed the same pattern. But I remember my first episode very vividly because it was a genuinely terrifying moment in my life and I felt I was going to die. I remember every step of it since it was a sensation I had never experienced before. Panic attacks after that were very familiar.
You write that being depressed makes you hyper-cognisant of existential questions like “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?” or “Why am I alive?”, which people usually tend to ignore. Shouldn’t that make you empowered rather than weak?
I think so now. It depends. Such awareness can be both a gift and a curse, but I have come to realise slowly that it’s much more of a gift. Still there are days I feel burdened, when I feel I have to put more into my day-to-day life than is normal to just be okay or comfortable. That’s why I dedicate the book to my 16-year-old self saying that back then I didn’t know that suffering could be a gift. This suffering has made me more in tune with the world around me.
It’s interesting, as seen in the pages of your journal, that you write only in capital letters.
Weirdly, dad [Mahesh Bhatt] also writes in capital letters. I have always done that, don’t know why. I never liked to write in cursive. Writing this way obviously takes a lot longer.
Did you write the book as a cathartic exercise, or to reach out to those who might need help, or to assert and own your identity?
Initially, I wrote it to help others, but I didn’t realise that the other two things would fall into place. I saw the difference my Instagram post or my article was making. And if I speak of opening up in them, I thought I better lead by example and be vulnerable myself. I had no idea that my book was going to be well-received. It just made sense for me to write it, and if it helps even one person, great.
You say you write screenplays. What kind of stuff do you write?
I write a lot of fiction, short stories mainly, alongside my journals. I don’t have any particular genre. I write about anything: crime, war, love. But one thing I am fascinated by a lot is true crime.
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