Depictions of mental illness in popular cinema reflect its ability to consistently transform characters into caricatures. Even as researchers acknowledge that they have barely begun to explore the human mind, popular cinema has experimented with mental disorders ranging from clinical depression to Alzheimer’s and doled out improbable cures and unsolicited advice with equal panache.
Despite the derision heaped on popular cinema for annihilating nuances, its representations of mental illnesses, especially lesser understood conditions such as dissociative identity disorder, are instructive. Dissociative Identity disorder, characterised by the fragmentation of a person’s identity into at least two personalities, has become an enigmatic plot device for storytellers all over the world. Indian filmmakers have employed the shroud of mystery surrounding this disorder to conceal moralistic lessons, social assumptions and plot twists.
Satyen Bose’s Raat Aur Din features the newly married and virtuous Varuna (Nargis), who transforms into the uninhibited Peggy at night. As Peggy, Varuna swaps her sari for a dress, sways to loud music and sneaks into a club to serenade an unknown man. Since Varuna’s marriage with Pratap (Pradeep Kumar) is hasty, he is unaware of her past and suspects her of leading a double life. Psychiatrists eventually diagnose Varuna’s condition: a series of accidents led her to believe that she was responsible for her mother’s death, and she developed an alternate personality.
While exposing superstitions around mental illness, Raat Aur Din also represents the cultural and religious connotations around women who smoke and drink. The Westernised Peggy, consistently regarded as a negative and twisted incarnation of the chaste Varuna, is equated with darkness and night.
Ajay Phansekar’s critically acclaimed Marathi film Ratra Aarambh also evokes the metaphor of darkness to signify its protagonist’s descent into schizophrenia. At night, crime novel aficionado Prabhakar Phadke believes himself to be blind industrialist Vasudev Thombre and is sure his offspring will murder him for his wealth. After Phadke kills his son while believing himself to be Thombre, he is institutionalised.
Ratra Aarambh features psychiatrists who indulge in scientifically dubious practices that can most politely be described as eccentric. However, Dilip Prabhavalkar portrays Phadke’s internal conflict and Thombre’s hysteria with equal chutzpah. Ratra Aarambh is refreshingly free of moralistic judgments and overblown theatrics, instead capturing a man’s painful struggle against an incomprehensible disorder.
Shankar’s Tamil film Anniyan (2005), on the other hand, attempts to pack together a multitude of social messages and winds up with a potpourri of morals. Idealistic lawyer Ambi (Vikram), frustrated with his inability to cure social apathy, transforms into a vigilante named Anniyan who kills recalcitrant offenders.
When the love of Ambi’s life refuses to accept his grand romantic overtures, which include a neatly handwritten copy of his CV, another personality named Remo is born within him. Armed with a dashing personality and the presumption that he is god’s gift to women, Remo wins Nandini’s heart.
As circumstances cause Ambi to adopt the personalities of Anniyan or Remo, his neat coiffure also undergoes inexplicably spontaneous transformations into vision-impairing locks and dyed waves.
After some well crafted fights and general tomfoolery, psychiatrists diagnose Ambi as a patient of multiple personality disorder and prescribe treatment. His alternate personality as Remo disappears when Nandini is made to feel ashamed for loving his charming incarnation instead of plain old Ambi, but it is hinted that Anniyan never quite goes away.
Despite its many logical and scientific hiccups, Anniyan was spectacularly successful and was dubbed into Telugu, Hindi and even French.
Fazil’s extremely successful Malayalam film Manichitrathazhu (1993) was also remade in several languages, including Kannada (Apthamitra), Bengali (Rajmohol) and Hindi (Bhool Bhulaiyya). Manichitrathazu features a newly married woman (Shobana) who moves into her husband’s ancestral palace, which is rumoured to be haunted. The resident ghost is rumoured to be a tragically wronged dancer. Traumatised by childhood experiences and raised on a steady diet of fantastical stories, the bride is particularly susceptible to the ghost’s sad story, and develops an alternate personality congruent with that of the dancer’s.
Her condition is diagnosed by a visiting psychologist (Mohanlal). Although he is consistently (and understandably) derided for his outlandishness, the psychologist works in conjunction with a tantric to cure her. While blithely discarding logic, Manichitrathazhu and its remakes attempt to depict that religion and science are inextricably linked in the attempt to understand the human mind.
Vijay Lalwani’s Karthik Calling Karthik (2010) steers clear of superstition and religion. The eponymous character (Farhan Akhtar) is a pushover clad in unimaginative attire. Like every lovable filmic schmuck, he is subjected to a makeover. Karthik transforms after he illogically accepts advice from a man who calls his landline claiming to be Karthik. His alter ego is a veritable life coach, helping Karthik to decisively stand up to his boss and landlord. In his changed avatar, Karthik also woos the office bombshell Shonali (Deepika Padukone). Things go downhill when the telephone version of Karthik threatens to wreck the life the real Karthik’s life and eventually murder him.
After some fumbling, Karthik's psychiatrist diagnoses him with split personality disorder. She realizes that the phone calls are actually messages left for Karthik by the assertive side of his own Karthik’s personality. At Shonali's urging, Karthik eventually agrees to get himself treated.
Karthik Calling Karthik reflects the affluent and privileged Indian’s openness to seek medical help for mental disorders.
In Deewangee, Taran (Ajay Devgn) commits a murder and pretends to have dissociative identity disorder to get away with his crime. Strangely enough, his charade convinces a trained psychiatrist, an astute lawyer and his childhood friend. Considering the several social assumptions about mental illness and criminal tendencies, the depiction of a criminal who fakes a mental disorder is particularly harmful.Housefull 3 features a less dangerous depiction of the disorder. Sandy, frustrated with racism and straining under financial pressure, develops an alternate personality, Sundi, who surfaces when Sandy hears the word Indian. His transformation, accompanied with supposedly comical expressions and sound effects reminiscent of Hannah-Barbara cartoons, is as unimaginative as his alter ego’s name. Sandy himself refers to his illness with ridiculous phrases like “Buy one get one free.” Sandy's flippancy about his illness is unsurprising considering that when the psychiatrist arrives at the accurate diagnosis of DID, he ingeniously decodes it as Dance India Dance.