Today, television and film are considered important tools for addressing taboo subjects and disseminating important information related to them. This is true especially for a developing country like Pakistan. One of these critical issues is, of course, the mental health crisis. Its magnitude can be assessed from the fact that out of a population of 216 million people, approximately 50 million Pakistanis are said to be suffering from common mental disorders. From this number, more than 14 million people alone suffer from moderate to serious psychiatric illness.
The issue is a hot button one, and Dr. Ayesha Mian, chairperson of the Department of Psychiatry at the Agha Khan University, believes that media should come forward and break the stereotypes by talking about it.
While for the most part of Pakistani entertainment industry’s history the mental health epidemic has remained in the shadows, some recent dramas have tried to address it. Some have managed a decent job whereas others, however, did not do justice to this important and very sensitive topic. Overall the picture presents a hit and miss scenario, and it seems a lot more work needs to be done to break the culture of silence. Let’s take a more detailed look.
Who got it wrong?
Depicting mental illness on screen is not always easy. For some directors and script writers, the temptation to embellish or exaggerate symptoms of mental illness for the sake of entertainment leads to inaccurate and sometimes offensive portrayals that only serve to strengthen stereotypes.
A case in point is Ishq Zahe Naseeb, currently airing on HUM TV, starring Zahid Ahmed, Sonya Hussain, Zarnish Khan and Zarnish Khan in lead roles. The drama tries to raise awareness about split personality disorder, and its lead character i.e. Sameer/Sameera (played by Zahid Ahmed) suffers from the illness, which also goes by the name of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
While Zahid Ahmed is terrific in etching out a character torn between his past and present, there is one thing the makers have gotten wrong. The symptoms associated with split personality disorder do not necessarily have to be so obvious; they are sometimes tough to pinpoint and they can also be very dark and scary.
The case shown in the play of an individual adopting an outwardly unique persona — and that too of a woman, does not present an accurate picture of the illness as it is usually accompanied by disturbing and debilitating symptoms which can be difficult to diagnose. While the character of Sameer or Sameera is great for entertainment, it does not do much to shed the stigma and stereotypes around this serious mental health issue.
Worse, it only strengthens the false notions surrounding mental illnesses i.e. the person has to look — and behave effectively, like a freak.
Who got it right?
Ye Dil Mera, starring the most loved couple of the industry, Sajal Ali and Ahad Raza Mir is a drama that does a somewhat better job at handling mental health. Both the lead characters of the drama Amaan and Noor are shown to have suffered severe trauma during their childhood and it still affects them to the present day.
Sajal’s character routinely experiences claustrophobia — and possibly some other undisclosed illness. Her horror at being enclosed in a small space such as an elevator is depicted quite realistically by the actress; at certain instances she is depicted to be on the verge of losing her consciousness. Ahad’s Amaan too suffers from seizures, and it would do well for the makers to point out what exactly is it that afflicts both the characters. However, it doesn’t help that the drama overall has a dark tone and instances where characters suffer from seizures or other symptoms only serve to add to its edginess.
A drama that does a decent job in depicting depression has to be the recently started Damsa. In the play, Saman (Momal Sheikh) has just come out of an abusive marriage and is finding it hard to come back to life. She essays quite correctly the trauma a depressed person goes through, and how hard it is to come out and face the world. The makers have to be lauded to portraying her character in a positive light and offering hope to others battling a similar illness that they too can make the recovery.
Sanam Saeed also portrayed her character Tehmina (from Aakhri Station) quite well, too. Tehmina is depicted to be suffering from depression and her character witnesses her mother committing suicide at an early age, something which latches on to her for her whole life. She is unable to function properly in society even when she has grown up and just like how common people in Pakistan would treat this serious issue, her father thinks that marrying her off is the best solution for her depression. Sanam’s body language and facial expressions as an isolated woman were on point.
How do films fare?
When it comes to mental health issues, not much has been witnessed from Pakistani cinema. Beyond the usual stereotypes of the obsessed lover or the senile mother/father, our films have not really offered much. Films can be instrumental in highlighting illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia — as has been seen in Hollywood, however, Pakistani filmmakers are yet to broach these subjects seriously and realistically. The silence from local cinema is indeed glaring.
Television serials and films can serve as useful tools for introducing the general public to the struggles people living with mental illness have to face. Through this exposure, there is the hope that we can reduce the stigma and discrimination against people affected by these conditions. It is hoped that the Pakistani entertainment industry would seize this opportunity to produce interesting material that can also contribute positively towards mitigating a rampant social issue.