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How Gehraiyaan portrays and addresses generational trauma

Director Shakun Batra's latest film provides insight into a rarely-addressed mental health issue

Siddhant Chaturvedi and Deepika Padukone both play characters who are experiencing forms of generational trauma in the film Gehraiyaan
Siddhant Chaturvedi and Deepika Padukone both play characters who are experiencing forms of generational trauma in the film Gehraiyaan (AP)

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At the surface level, the recently-released Gehraiyaan comes across as a movie about romantic and familial relationships. But as the film progresses, a lot of layers peel off, revealing deeper issues buried away in the characters of the protagonists Alisha (Deepika Padukone) and Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi). At its core, the movie is indeed about relationships - of mothers and daughters, sisters, brothers, marriage, and family. However, the narrative doesn't just explore the layers of each of these relationships; it also delves into the messiness of the past and how it can create ripples in the future. The film's events are set in motion years before, by an alcoholic absentee father and a depressed mother who ultimately kills herself.

The movie essentially talks about generational trauma, an issue that we aren't particularly aware of, and how this trauma affects our lives and future generations. Experts talk about how the issue was depicted aptly in the movie, what this trauma is and how we can work towards healing it.

The portrayal In the movie

Most psychologists agree that 'Gehraiyaan' did a fair job of representing generational trauma. Alisha experienced her mother's depression, how she felt sad and stuck; she's the one who found her body hanging from the fan, and years later, she takes pills for anxiety and depression. Zain, her cousin's fiancé, who becomes her lover, also had a traumatic childhood, experiencing his father repeatedly physically abusing his mother. Through the course of the film, Zain is revealed to be a manipulative and violent man.

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Tanu Choksi, Associate Fellow and Supervisor in RE- CBT from The Albert Ellis Institute, New York, says that she enjoyed the contrast between Zain and Alisha- two individuals with a tumultuous past, and how they each choose to deal with it. "Alisha believes that she has 'bad luck' and lives in perpetual fear of becoming like her mother. On the other hand, Zain believes in making different choices - he tried to help his mother as a child, realised she didn't want to be saved, and ultimately made a choice to leave that behind. Alisha viewed that as abandonment; he saw it as a choice." In Choksi's opinion, the film effectively depicted generational trauma through these two characters and their unresolved relationship with their pasts. She mentions that she liked the theme of inevitability and fate versus choices and the question of whether we are destined to end up like those who raised us or can we create our own path.

Hansika Kapoor, a clinical psychologist and research author at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai, who saw the movie, opines that Gehraiyaan portrays generational trauma in interesting and subtle ways throughout the movie. "For instance, Deepika Padukone's character struggles with intrusive memories associated with her past, and these visuals are spliced through scenes to indicate their pervasiveness and her lack of control over such thoughts. Through layers of strained family ties and misunderstandings, the penultimate scene of the movie creates an attempt at resolution and "leaving the past behind." However, the last scene is a very real reminder that your past trauma may never leave you -- you may have to learn how to integrate it and acknowledge its existence to work through it," she elaborates

What is generational trauma?

So what is this generational trauma, and how does it affect our lives? Generational trauma, also called transgenerational or intergenerational trauma, refers to trauma that a family collectively experiences and is passed from one generation to another. Jigyasa Tandon, a trained mental health educationist and a counselling psychologist (sensitive groups) with NIMHANS, Bengaluru, says it's a relatively new field of research. While trauma experienced by some family members can manifest in a mental health disorder in other members, it only happens in some who are susceptible to extreme trauma or rigorous, stressful situations in life. "But, a wholesome impact can be seen in certain behaviours like being overprotective, intrusive, having an excessive need to control the outcomes, sticking to safeguarding rules," she adds. She offers the story of the movie 'Coco' as an example--due to the struggle one family member experienced to make a career in music, the whole family across generations believed that music isn't healthy or good to pursue.

Anshuma Kshetrapal, a Delhi-based psychotherapist as well as a drama and movement therapist, throws light on the subject, saying that the trauma manifests itself at a primary and secondary level. She gives an example of a woman going through a toxic marriage, and her children are witnessing her trauma. The children of that marriage may end up going through two levels of trauma, points out Kshetrapal. "Their primary trauma would be of being children of a dysfunctional family, which means that they start becoming the caretakers - the listeners for their mother's troubles, the solution givers, the fixers. They associate with that role for the rest of their lives, where they feel that love is about fixing people. The secondary trauma would be the child drawing certain conclusions about life. They may think that love is clearly about the extreme compromise of the self or for the sake of your children or love is about chaos. They may grow up to be in relationships where unless there is chaos, the relationship doesn't feel real."

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She adds that growing up with a traumatic childhood also rewires one's brain-- being in traumatic situations releases cortisol and adrenaline in excessive amounts, which isn't natural for the body. "Sometimes, if the mother while being pregnant is going through a traumatic situation, then the fetus receives the hormonal imbalance of cortisol or adrenaline. So generational trauma is literally passed on through the body and not just the mind."

Identification and healing

Families worldwide go through some levels of trauma at multiple levels. Take, for instance, families who've experienced terrible events such as partition or the Holocaust—it is inevitable that this trauma is carried across generations. But what matters is the stage of the generation where the transfer of trauma has happened. If, for instance, grandparents can identify their behaviour patterns and the cause for it, the children would also recognise that they are working through something. In such a case, the impact of generational trauma would be less.

However, Choksi says that it can be quite tough to understand and accept you might be a victim of generational trauma, as it often might force you to question those closest to you. For instance, parents may have certain anxieties that they project onto their children- some insecurities about career or goals that they want their child to achieve because they couldn't do it themselves. "Another could be, as depicted in the film, if you unconsciously or consciously take on the role of parenting your own parent, in turn neglecting yourself and not letting your inner child heal," she says. This could manifest in specific trauma responses-- disorders like anxiety or depression, constant pressure to be like your parents or the opposite, commitment issues, fear of abandonment, complicated attachment styles. Kapoor digs deeper and says that signs and symptoms of generational trauma could also be a combination of PTSD (like hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, dissociation) and generalised anxiety (like difficulty sleeping heightened fear responses). "It is important to understand how different individuals cope with and give meaning to trauma experienced in their lives. All trauma is not equal for all."

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While it is possible to heal from generational trauma, the process essentially involves therapeutic intervention. "Since generational trauma is a loop which gets passed down through generations, it is best addressed with intensive therapy received by an individual," says Tandon, who also suggests group or family therapy. Kshetrapal adds says that the three steps of healing the trauma include identifying, observing and taking ownership of your trauma. "Observe your behaviour, notice where it's coming from and then try and mindfully, purposefully figure out if you want to change it," she says. And yes, apart from seeking professional help, communication is key, believes Choksi. "Trauma, like the colour of your eyes or hair, can also be inherited, "she says. "However, generational trauma can also be rewritten so that you can become more resilient in the future."

Divya Naik is a Mumbai based psychotherapist and rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) counsellor

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