Mental health & Hindi films: How Bollywood glorifies obsessive & manipulative behaviour in men
Bollywood has a problem of glorifying obsessive and manipulative behaviour to the extent that it not only promotes toxicity but does disservice to the conversation around mental health. An analysis of how intertwining poor mental health with romantic passion in Hindi films has had real life consequences.
In the 2003 blockbuster Tere Naam, the protagonist played by Salman Khan, Radhe, is a jobless ruffian who falls in love with Niraja played Bhumika Chawla. In just a few meetings Radhe professes his love for Niraja and says that he will beat up her father if she does not marry him. Nirjara is too shocked to say much and utters "Yes" when Radhe asks her if she was listening to him. Radhe does not let her speak anymore and takes this as her acceptance of the proposal.
Later when Niraja finally tells Radhe that she doesn't love him, and that he is a street thug, Radhe goes on a violent spree beating up people across the town with a broken heart. Soon, Radhe abducts Nirjara so that she would listen to him express his feelings for her. Nirjara initially feels intimidated, but ultimately falls in love with him.
When the film was released, everyone wanted a lover like Radhe. But if this behavior was to play out in real life, Radhe should have been put in jail at the very first instance of forcing Niraja to say yes. But throughout the film, the obsessive, violent and criminal actions of Khan’s character was justified as a result of his mad, passionate love which consumes him.
Another Khan, Shah Rukh’s, one of the breakthrough characters, the stammering loner Rahul from Darr (1993), gets introduced while obsessively stalking his classmate Kiran played by Juhi Chawla. Over the course of the film, Rahul constantly stalks and scares Kiran and her family, and even defaces their home with “k-k-k Kiran” with blood.
Imagine a character like Jack Torrance from The Shining only if he was a Bollywood hero in a romantic film.
Though Rahul is technically the ‘anti-hero’ of the film, his is the author-backed character with the best scenes and most amount of screen time. This film catapulted Khan to the heights of stardom and played one of the big reasons behind how he came to be known as the ultimate romantic hero of Bollywood.
Not only does Rahul harm himself by writing Kiran’s name on his chest with a knife, but even admits that he has been mentally ill all along
While his behaviour is outright criminal and a result of serious psychological issues, it was reinforced as a beloved romantic routine as a result of the strong tradition of heroes stalking women in Hindi films. This led to a few more films where the romantic Khan reprised his obsessive stalker role where women might be viewed as the reason for Khan's spiral into madness.
Even in more recent films like Raanjhana (2013) or Kabir Singh (2019), we can see how Bollywood glorifies and hero-worships manipulative, emotionally distressed mess of men who have been rejected by women.
Male romantic leads in these films are all likeable heroes who become
obsessive passionate jilted lovers distress manifests as various mental health issues — from suicide attempts and self-harm to substance abuse and beating up the female lead.
In the November 2020 issue of the medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry, Sohini Chattopadhyay explores how mental health has been depicted in Bollywood.
Men, women and insanity on celluloid
She traces the question back to Khamoshi, released in 1970, which she calls “the first notable film to touch on mental health.” In this, the heroine is a nurse who cares for two broken hearted patients, jilted in love. But by the end, she is a patient at the institution herself.
She even factors in the modern, more ‘woke’ depictions of mental health in issues in films like Hasee Toh Fasee or Dear Zindagi. But she remarks that, “In all these films, mental illness is shown as something that is caused by women (failed love) or something that affects women. This is a theme still seen in the more thoughtful films released in the past few years, whereby mental illness seems to affect women, while men stand by as anchors or therapists. Sometimes, the male characters are depicted as manipulators, but remain untouched by mental illness.”
This phenomenon finds itself most crystalised in films like Woh Lamhe, Fashion and Heroine - where differences between male and female insanity in Hindi cinema is most stark. These female-led films do not cast her self-destruction in an attractive, ‘relatable’ light, nor does it glorify it. And more surprisingly, no male characters in these films or films of the time, as suffering from any mental illnesses.
While women can and have suffered mental illnesses in Hindi films, men suffer the ravages of failed love: as such, their dysfunction is seen as grief and not as depression.
This problem is not only textbook sexism (rooted in Victorian psychiatry and how women would be prone to “hysteria”), but is also harmful for men who suffer from serious mental health issues in this country. In fact, according to data on suicides from India's National Crime Records Bureau, out of 1,39,106 suicides recorded in India in 2019, 70·1% were among men and 29·8% among women.
Real life consequences
In the films mentioned earlier, and in hundreds like those, self-destructive behaviors and extreme expressions of love are normalised because of this dangerous cocktail of intertwining poor mental health with romantic passion. And this spills over to real life India, where millions of young people learn about love from Hindi cinema. In 2016 a stalker who said he was influenced by the film Darr, elaborately stalked and later kidnapped a young woman. In 2019, a man who said he was influenced by Kabir Singh gunned down a woman he loved because she decided to marry someone else.
Even when it’s not so extreme, today we see a culture of young and heartbroken men using self-destruction or self-harm as a means to get attention from the women they are pursuing. In a twisted way, Bollywood has glorified manipulation as the ultimate romantic flex. Due to this, not only men, even young women too, grow up wanting a “passionate” lover like Kabir Singh. Yes, a toxic man who regularly uses abuse (substance or otherwise) to justify his aggressive, hyper-obsessive and overprotective behaviour.
Another feature of this narrative culture is that the women, almost always, embrace the obsessive lover at the end of the film in a way that the toxic behaviour seems like the reason behind the heroine loving the hero back.
This glorification of obsessive behaviour, and disservice to men’s mental health have been going on in Hindi film for too long. Thus any angry, knee-jerk reaction would not sustain. Rather if the modern writers write films with the men facing consequences for their problematic behaviour, we can slowly expect a change in both culture and in terms getting layered, mature films.