Tamil cinema’s misrepresentation of therapists & mental health is harming real people

Speaking to TNM, mental health professionals deconstruct the inaccuracies in the depiction of psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists in multiple Tamil films that have released in recent years.

Dr Mangala, Assistant Director at the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF), could not believe what she was hearing when a patient expressed that they are reluctant to continue their medication to treat bipolar disorder after watching the 2019 Tamil film Nerkonda Paarvai, wherein Bharath Subramaniam (actor Ajith Kumar) who lives with bipolar disorder, mentions that he is unable to focus on his work due to the medication.

Speaking to TNM, Dr Mangala points out that though she was shocked to hear her patient’s concerns, it was not the first time that a patient has had doubts and misconceptions about their medication after watching films that misrepresent mental health and illnesses. “The same thing happened following the release of 3 (a Tamil movie released in 2012 where the protagonist has bipolar disorder). Patients who watched the film were afraid that their mental health would necessarily cause them to self-harm, as shown in the film,” she states.

Historically, film industries, including Kollywood, have received flak for not being able to capture the nuances of lived experience when it comes to portrayal of mental illness on the big screen. This, coupled with the failure to authentically capture the nature of work that MHPs (mental health professionals) do, have left practitioners wondering what it will take to steer the much-needed course correction in filmmaking.

If the older films like 3 (2012), and Nadunisi Naaygal (2011) painted mental illnesses with a broad brush by portraying survivors as antagonists and violent personalities, or as characters who inadvertently glorify self-harm, many films have depicted MHPs in poor light. If the therapist was seen as a manipulator and seducer in one film, their character was envisioned to offer comic relief in another.

Speaking to TNM, MHPs deconstruct the inaccuracies in portrayal of psychiatrists and psychologists in multiple Tamil films that have released in recent years.


Hey! Sinamika (2022)

From being portrayed as a seducer to a stalker; the portrayal of a psychologist in the 2022 Tamil romantic drama Hey! Sinamika unanimously received critically negative reviews. In the film, Kajal Aggarwal plays Malarvizhi, a marriage counsellor, who not only admits to taking up the profession only after being harassed by men and wanting to prove to the world that men are not faithful in their relationships, but also threatens to take her client Mouna (Aditi Rao Hydari) to court, thereby breaking client-confidentiality.

Sruthi, who did her masters in clinical psychology and offers family therapy sessions, tells TNM that the portrayal was inaccurate and unethical on many levels. “Forget marriage counselling, the first thing any mental health professional is taught is to keep the ‘personal’ aside while treating patients. If the case affects them personally, or if they share some kind of relationship with the client, they are expected to refer them to a different therapist,” she explains.

Helmed by debutant filmmaker Brindha, Hey! Sinamika tracks how Malarvizhi, ends up falling in love with her client Yaazhan (Dulquer Salmaan), who is Mouna’s husband. Portrayals such as this threaten to undo the years of work gone into normalising seeking therapy and psychiatric intervention, with people assuming that their vulnerabilities will be misused by the MHP. Sruthi says that in families of two, it is often one member who truly believes in seeking therapy, and the other might be reluctant. But she also adds that therapists are bound to try their best to offer their services to both the parties. In Hey! Sinamika, Malarvizhi befriends Yaazhan to help Mouna find grounds to file for a divorce. The problematic portrayal is a far cry from reality. “Even when it is at a level of toxicity where the therapist believes that the clients should opt for separation, it is ultimately the client’s call,” she says.

Taking us through the major schools of therapy that are used by mental health professionals during marriage counselling sessions, Sruthi quips, “Cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic therapy, and eclectic therapy are some of the methods to name a few. Therapists study the patient’s behavioural pattern, or help them find meaning and purpose in their lives, or follow a mixed approach, depending on the case at hand.”

The film has several scenes where the receptionist in Malarvizhi’s office and the husbands of women who have decided to part ways from their husbands and the relationship after seeking Malarvizhi’s help, belittle the psychologist’s work and believe that she was the cause of the separation. While one would expect the filmmaker to address the misconceptions, Brindha ends up stigmatising the concept of seeking professional help further by making protagonist Malarvizhi herself acknowledge that she has been working with an agenda all along. 

Watch:

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Beast (2022)

Vijay’s choice of roles in recent times, i.e. as a teacher speaking up against unfair treatment of women students at a college in a deleted scene from Master, and Bigil, where his character has a stutter, a speech defect that has been used for comic relief over the years, show how stars are willing to step out of their comfort zones and explore themes that audiences are interested in.

In Beast, Vijay appears as Veera Raghavan, a former RAW agent who is forced to take on the responsibility of saving civilians held hostage in a mall by terrorists. This, following a tragic incident where he feels betrayed by his own team and quits the force. He then visits a psychiatrist.

Instead of seeing a psychiatrist who would understand Veera Raghavan’s concerns and focus on his treatment, we find one who takes the ex-RAW agent to a north Indian wedding to check out women, derogatorily referring to them as ‘figures’, because he firmly believes that the protagonist is in dire need of distraction. Speaking about this portrayal of a psychiatrist to TNM, Aisha, who works as a media psychologist and therapist, points out, “The movie does not spell out Veera’s mental health concerns. Since he feels responsible for the accident and is hypervigilant, it could be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But regardless of what condition it is, no credible psychiatrist would say all the patient needs is a distraction.”

While Aisha lauds filmmaker Nelson Dilipkumar for normalising the idea of the ‘macho hero’ visiting a MHP, the treatment of the sequence is hardly sincere or realistic, she says. “Just like doctors visiting other medical specialists for treatment, psychiatrists too often consult other mental health professionals. However, in the film, the psychiatrist says he takes a consultation from a senior psychiatrist only because he does not know how to resolve Vijay’s issues. In real life, the moment an MHP is unable to handle a case, they would redirect the case to someone else. By telling the client that their issues are too overwhelming for him, the psychiatrist makes the client feel at fault for their mental health,” she explains.

Not only does the psychiatrist play matchmaker to the client in Beast, but is also shown in poor light when he objectifies women and passes lewd comments at the wedding he attends.

“PTSD is treated through cognitive processing therapy, where the therapist or psychiatrist understands the connections between the patient’s thoughts and behaviours and studies the thought patterns that are dominant,” says Aisha, “which is hardly what is shown in the film.”

Watch:

Read: Beast review: Vijay is leaner, meaner, stronger. The film isn’t.

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Nerkonda Paarvai (2019)

The Tamil remake of popular Hindi film Pink, which started important dialogues around consent, Nerkonda Paarvai was hailed as a largely faithful remake of the original movie, unlike the Tollywood remake Vakeel Saab. But the film courted criticism at the time of its release due to its misrepresentation of bipolar disorder.

Dr Mangala tells TNM that the portrayal of bipolar disorder, as well as the therapist treating the patient, have proven to be misleading as feared. Ajith plays Bharath — a retired lawyer who has bipolar disorder, whose diagnosis happens after the untimely demise of his wife. His psychiatrist advises him to take the pills he is prescribed without fail, or he could prove more dangerous to the people around him than to himself, which reinforces the harmful stereotype that people with mental health issues are often uncontrollable, violent. “People with bipolar disorder or any other mental illness for that matter, are portrayed as violent characters on screen. In reality, this may be the case with only a small percentage of patients,” Mangala says, while adding that the cause for bipolar disorder can be a combination of genetics, altered brain structure and other environmental factors.

In a sequence where Bharath beats several men up in a state of mania, his psychiatrist tells the goons over a call that Bharath has years of pent up anger to unleash, apparently justifying the violence. Shots of Bharath expressing his anger are seen along with visuals of an erupting water faucet, thus bordering on glorification. In yet another sequence with the psychiatrist, when Bharath expresses that he is unable to focus on his work because of the medication, the doctor insists he continue the medication, but does not clear his misconceptions.

“Even if the filmmaker had decided not to depict Ajith as a bipolar disorder patient, it would not have had any impact on the plot. Nerkonda Paarvai, unlike Pink, has been misleading,” states Dr Mangala. She adds that while all medicines have side effects, it’s wrong to portray medication as inherently bad because they do help people with mental illnesses.

Watch:

Read: My tryst with bipolar disorder: How I fought through several bouts of mania to embrace it

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Andhagaaram (2022)

The non-linear supernatural thriller Andhagaaram revolves around a blind government clerk in a library, a cricketer who is depressed, and a psychiatrist with a troubled past. Dr Indran (Kumar Natarajan) is fatally shot by his patient living with a mental illness, who also massacres the former’s entire family. Indran, who falls into a coma, loses faith in humanity and seeks revenge by plotting to kill all his patients.

A genre-bending film, Andhaagaram opened to critical acclaim for its experimental approach. However, it also raises questions about the portrayal of MHPs. Aisha points out that unlike in other Tamil films, the psychiatrist in Andhaagaram resumes his practice illegally, with a dangerous intent to cause harm. “Not all psychiatrists are shown in poor light here. Indiran is an antagonist, who also happens to be a psychiatrist. Even in Netrikann, we see a doctor as the antagonist. But the difference is, unlike seeking help from doctors, people hesitate to consult MHPs due to the negative stereotypes,” she says.

Indran uses hypnosis as a tool to manipulate his patients in the film. “Hypnosis is just one of the therapy methods, among many others like rational emotive therapy, or expressive art therapy. Contrary to popular beliefs, MHPs cannot take full control over a person with a healthy mind using hypnotherapy. It is also used in an ethical way to persuade patients to make behavioural and cognitive changes,” says Aisha.

She adds: “When I took up a course in hypnotherapy, my family members asked me to be wary of instructors taking control over my mind. When I introduce myself as a psychologist, a lot of people ask me to predict what they are thinking, because they are still under the impression that psychologists are mind readers, which is incorrect.” Portrayals like the above do not help as they peddle misinformation about MHPs when people are still wary of seeking help, she says.

Watch:

Read: ‘Andhaghaaram’ review: A mostly engaging thriller with great performances

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Galatta Kalyanam (2021)

The 2021 Bollywood film Atrangi Re starring actors Akshay Kumar, Dhanush, and Sara Ali Khan in the lead, was primarily shot in Hindi, and the Tamil-dubbed version released as Galatta Kalyanam. The film received flak from MHPs for its inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia. The film is based on the story of Rinku (Sara Ali Khan), who is forcefully married to Vishu (Dhanush), but is in love with Sajjad (Akshay Kumar). As the plot progresses, Dhanush, who is an MBBS student, and his friend, a psychiatrist-to-be named Dr Madhusudhan, realise that she has schizophrenia.

They theorise that she has episodes of delusion as a result of witnessing her parents’ murder as a child. They go to great lengths to play along with Rinku’s belief about Sajjad’s existence. “We see doctors enabling her behaviour rather than getting it treated. There are also lapses in how the diagnosis and treatment process is shown. Patients are forcefully drugged only if they are violent and aggressive, and in the absence of a caregiver,” Dr Sagar Karia who works as Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Sion Hospital, Mumbai, tells TNM.

The gross misrepresentation does not stop here. Madhusudhan saying Rinku “should be kept in a museum”, should not be allowed to “roam the streets of Delhi freely”, or stating that all his patients living with different mental illnesses share the same delusions, show how the makers bank on Rinku’s mental illness for comic relief, and belittle the experience of schizophrenia. “MHPs follow the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for schizophrenia diagnosis, which usually takes close to a month. Antipsychotic drugs are the main source of medication through which 50-60% of patients are treated. But unlike what is shown in the film, patients don’t recover when they have a huge emotional meltdown. It usually takes six to twelve months, and sometimes recovery is not a linear process. It is good that films are discussing mental illnesses, but they cannot promote unscientific information. It has to be more research-driven,” says Dr Sagar.

Even in recently released Tamil movies like Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal (starring actors Vijay Sethuapthi, Nayanthara, and Samantha in the lead), the protagonist (VJS) uses mental illness as a guise to woo two women at the same time. While Kollywood stars signing ‘experimental’ scripts, and OTT platforms, are trying to push the envelope, the stigmatising portrayal of mental health and MHPs in the space leaves a lot to be desired.

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