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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Mad Tales from Bollywood: Portrayal of Mental Illness in conventional Hindi Cinema

Josie Phizacklea is a 4th Year Medical Student at Cardiff University

Larger than life

Mad Tales from Bollywood: Portrayal of Mental Illness in conventional Hindi Cinema

For Cardiff University Psychiatry Society’s first event, Professor Dinesh Bhugra, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, spent an evening exploring the portrayal of mental illness in Bollywood through the decades. After enjoying a buffet of Indian food, 60 students and trainees settled down to enjoy a fascinating insight into another culture's perception of psychiatry.

Professor Bhugra began by emphasising the role cinema plays in the understanding of any culture, with social themes influencing film and film, in turn, influencing society’s thinking.

As the world’s largest producer of films, Bollywood is an important window to a global perspective of mental health and has a powerful role in shaping the views of a vast audience. Bollywood movies are unique in being very fantastical, colourful affairs, with larger than life sets and often unrealistic storylines. Ubiquitous across India, from small, shared TVs to glossy multiplexes, they are a huge part of the lives of ordinary Indians, often providing sanctuary from the trials and tribulations of everyday life in a developing country. Bollywood movies often do not reflect reality but are vital, instilling hope and giving something towards which to aspire.


Clichéd boxes

The Wellcome Trust has funded Professor Bhugra to study more than 50 films that include a protagonist with mental illness. This enabled him to examine the evolving attitudes towards psychiatric illness in Indian culture during periods of massive political, social and economic changes.

Professor Bhugra points out that the three main periods in Hindi cinema were each defined by turning points in the social norms. The films of the 1960s were influenced by the idealism of a newly independent republic, and reflected this confidence in a period of ‘Romanticism’, where a mood of optimism was coupled with a gentle representation of the mentally ill. 

Film clips illustrating this included Khamoshi (The Silence, 1969) which describes the story of a young nurse who migrates to the West and saves a psychiatric patient from misery by falling in love with him. Working alongside her was a caricature Freudian psychiatrist, sporting a fine beard, who ticked all the clichéd boxes you could hope for.

However, “growth of government corruption and an unstable political climate” during the 1980s led to a national feeling of discontent and spawned the period of ‘Villainy’ in the Hindi film industry, resulting in a plethora of ominous psychopaths appearing on Bollywood screens.

A ‘New Romanticism’ appeared with the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. Professor Bhugra described how, "women were seen as possessions in both society and the cinema, and the portrayals of stalking and morbid jealousy increased”. This point was illustrated by characters demonstrating signs of paranoia in clips of this era.



It was a privilege for the students and trainees who attended to be guided so thoughtfully through the captivating periods of India’s history in relation to mental health; we are enormously grateful to both Professor Bhugra and all those who organised the event.


It was fascinating to learn how the societal and political climate in India effected change in Bollywood Cinema and to consider how the portrayal of psychiatric patients reflects society’s treatment of the mentally ill at the time. An understanding of these cultural themes will help us to appreciate the perspective of patients we encounter as medical students and foundation trainees. Many of us left the event with a refreshed enthusiasm for pursuing our interest in the speciality.



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