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Why Atrangi Re's portrayal of mental health is deeply problematic

Experts tell us that the movie reiterated tired stereotypes that are best avoided

Atrangi Re did not portray mental health in an apt manner
Atrangi Re did not portray mental health in an apt manner (IMDb )

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Atrangi Re,  which was released on Hotstar last month, is about Rinku, a woman engaged to Vishu but in love with Sajjad. As the plot progresses, it is revealed that Sajjad does not exist and is a figment of Rinku's imagination. Vishu and his friend, a psychiatrist, together theorise that this delusion is a result of Rinku's trauma of having witnessed her parents' murder. They conclude that Sajjad might be the manifestation of her father, as he appears whenever she is most vulnerable and needs protection. To 'help' her, they medicate her without her knowledge. In a flashback, the theory of Sajjad being a manifestation of Rinku's father is proved correct. Eventually, Rinku realises this, is 'healed', and marries Vishu after letting go of her paracosm and Sajjad. 

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The film sheds light on mental health disorders, treatment and recovery, but experts believe that all these aspects have not been portrayed with sensitivity, and there have been instances of misinformation as well. We speak to some renowned psychologists to understand what went" wrong and what filmmakers must do to portray mental health in an apt manner.

Building unhealthy stereotypes

The consensus of most therapists is that there has been a gross misrepresentation of mental health in the movie at a larger level. However, what has been truly insensitive is the representation of the patient. Shevantika Nanda, a Gurgaon-based counselling psychologist who watched the movie recently, points out that while it is possible that the filmmakers' tried to portray mental illness with sensitivity, they fell prey to what sells in Indian cinema, "comedy and love stories". In her opinion, there are a lot of areas in the film that are problematic from a mental health point of view. "For starters, the psychiatrist comically asks for reassurance on whether other people can see Sajjad or not. As a psychiatrist, he should have probably been better at picking up on what was going on in the first place. When he goes to Vishu to explain the situation, he says that Rinku belongs in a museum and shouldn't be roaming free in the streets. Aren't these the exact stereotypes we have been working hard to move away from?" she says. 

Tanu Choksi, Associate Fellow and Supervisor in RE- CBT from The Albert Ellis Institute, New York, echoes this opinion. Choksi points out that there has been an inaccurate representation of the treatment process where the psychiatrist belittles Rinku and medicates her without her consent. Additionally, the others treat her like a spectacle. "The narrative does, in my opinion, show a certain lack of sensitisation towards mental disorders and childhood trauma," she comments. She adds that the psychiatrist also suggests that all his patients have the same hallucinations. "While there are some standard things schizophrenics might hallucinate, they do not share the same delusions just because they have the same disorder," she clarifies. She also points out that there is also the undercurrent of sexism in this psychiatrist's behaviour, "He claims to know women and their behaviour just because of his profession."

Misrepresentation of the treatment process 

Concerning the treatment process showcased in the movie, Nanda says, "Psychiatric medication does not start working immediately; it takes several weeks or months for it to be effective. Trauma is very complex and nuanced, and psychosis resulting from childhood trauma is unlikely to resolve itself by simply popping a pill. The portrayal of the manifestation of the trauma weakening with every pill is dangerous as it gives rise to unrealistic expectations of recovery if people were to get mental health support."

Choksi points out another flaw of how the treatment process is showcased: the psychiatrist immediately diagnoses the protagonist. "This is not reflective of the true process, which takes a while, and includes taking the patient's history, speaking to them in detail, taking some tests, and then finally diagnosing. An immediate diagnosis could lead to error and misjudgement, which in turn could harm the person even more," she clarifies. 

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Hansika Kapoor, a clinical psychologist and research author at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai, agrees. Her concerns are primarily associated with the portrayal of the resolution of the mental disorder and the different treatment modalities to address the same. She opines, "I understand that this is a fictional representation of mental illness and therefore needs to progress in a linear manner (with an "ending"), but it could mislead individuals about an actual recovery process (which often includes "ups and downs)." She reveals that, more often than not, addressing mental health concerns requires sufficient buy-in from the clients themselves, who need to want to change. "Similarly, the mental illness portrayed in the movie is severe (active psychosis), whereas the majority of mental health disorders are more common (like anxiety and major depression)," she concludes. 

The need for realistic representation

While cinema needs to be entertaining and, therefore, the use of comic relief and fiction is necessary, the psychiatric community points out that it cannot be a source of misinformation. It can be extremely harmful when the fictional narrative gives utterly wrong ideas about the profession and therapeutic outcomes. Anshuma Kshetrapal, a Delhi-based psychotherapist as well as a drama and movement therapist, echoes this sentiment as she says, "A lot of mental health issues and therapeutic processes are represented as comic relief, which I find very bizarre. I've seen Bollywood use doctors for comic relief, and that isn't dangerous as the masses know how doctors can be helpful and believe in the profession. In therapy, we aren't there yet, and there is no reality to grasp onto. Hence, fiction becomes a reality. Hence, filmmakers need to show the reality and then have comic relief around it so that people don't base their understanding on the misinterpretation." 

Nanda agrees with Kshetrapal, pointing out that there have been many instances where "mad" characters would be introduced to provide comic relief in films. "The portrayal of mental illnesses was largely from the perspective of providing entertainment with little reflection on how the portrayal may contribute to a lack of understanding and empathy and instead increase stigma around mental health," she observes. Choksi agrees that the perils of misinformation to the general public are immense. "As storytellers, I believe that filmmakers have a certain responsibility in giving information and messages. Villainising those with disorders, or ridiculing them (which, to a certain extent, 'Atrangi Re does) perpetuates the pre-existing taboos surrounding these issues," she says. 

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