“When people say they don’t understand mental health, they actually hate it”

On 31 May, the India International Centre organised a screening of three PSBT(Public Service Broadcasting Trust) documentaries under the theme – “Negotiating Spaces: Films on Development and Gender”. Though distinct in subject, each documentary was connected by the many stories of personal, political and organisational resistances from individuals and communities that are relegated to the margins.

In an earlier post, I wrote about Maheen Mirza and Rinchin’s Agar Wo Desh Banati (If She Built a Country) which documents the journey of adivasi women from oppression to resistance and from activism to leadership. The film draws attention tocapitalist interventions that changed gender relations and dispossessed women, an issue that has long been ignored by media and policy makers alike.

In this post, I discuss the second film, Breathe (2018) by Anushka Shivdasani Rovshen andMadhuri Mohindar.The film explores the intersections between identity, sexuality, mental health and the many alleys through which women negotiate freedom and dignity.

Documented through first person narratives of Swati and Ray ,Breathe chronicles their everydaylives as they struggle to balance their mental health with the demands ofthe boundaries of intimacy, desire and relationships.

Including a film on mental illness under the overarching theme of gender and development is a crucial intervention. This move answers the question that all people with mental illness are faced with: Hey! Isn’t this all in your mind?

Since there is a lack of awareness about mental health in our society, most often, even the patients suffering with the illness remain unaware of the gravity of their illness when it first hits them. When they voice their pain, due to the stigma associated with mental illness, they find no listeners Thus, survivors are deprived of even the most basic compassion, empathy and care freely given to patients ailing of physical illnesses.

Breathe builds on the issue of visibility and takes it forward. Both women are young, educated and independent, ‘modern’ individuals based in different states in urban India of the twenty-first century. Sure, compared to a section of the population, they appear privileged, but they stand for your girl-next-door. Ray could be your best friend, or the girl you once shared a cab with. Swati could be your neighbour, or your colleague at work. They are the seemingly ‘normal’, ‘healthy-looking’ women whom you meet every day, and who are going by the same things as you, except that they are not; and you have no idea what they are going through internally. Through this commonplace-ness of the cast, the documentary makes the point that mental illness affects everyone. Although the damages of the illness may be curable, neither the triggers nor the symptoms work in isolation. For women, the problems become especially aggravated when they get compounded with the expectations of public morality. The women, in the documentary, shared how their mental health was creating problems in their romantic relationships. It was not so much their depression, but the lack of supportive partners who were incapable of being with them. Each time they opened themselves to a romantic possibility, they found themselves judged. They were told how “difficult” they were to love and were rejected on grounds of being a “psycho”. Each rejection rendered them even more vulnerable than before.

But neither the film nor the cast projects them as victims. They are confident and articulate women who are far too self-aware to fall into patriarchy’s trap of victim-blaming. In a powerful scene, Swati looks straight into the camera and into the conscience of the viewer, and boldly addresses shame.“When people say they don’t understand mental health, they actually hate it. They expect me to hide it or be apologetic about it. They want me to be broken. They have a problem with me owing it.”

Breathe advocates for a fierce occupation of public space. Watch the trailer of the film here :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVGu7wYv4x0

Rovshen is an independent filmmaker whose work delves into the conditions of the human mind. Her film Us Paar (The Opposite Shore) explores themes of astrological superstition and destiny, and was funded by the Gelman Fellowship/ Grant.

Madhuri Mohindar has directed various documentaries, such as Can’t Hide Me and My Kashmir, which examine immigration, race and gender through the experiences of South-Asian women.

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