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Realities and Representations

Jayasree Kalathil
March 2006

“If everybody in this room, except you, insisted that this flower vase was a table lamp, would you question your reality?” This question, addressed to the professor by the psychiatrist, is the basic concern of Aparna Sen’s film, 15 Park Avenue. It immediately strikes a chord in me – as a subject/witness of mental distress, the struggle with reality and its manifestations is only too familiar. Is reality my experience of my life and context? Or is it a matter of common opinion and general perception? Or does it become an issue only when there is a conflict of opinion about the “truth” of a certain reality? 15 Park Avenue attempts to look at the sanity of realities through the lives of a young woman with schizophrenia and her older half sister who looks after her.

According to Aparna Sen, the film is made in English because it is about schizophrenia and hence needs “a more discerning audience.”1 And that discerning audience seems to be quite happy with the film. The reviews all say the same things – it has a magnificent cast – Shabhana Azmi, Waheeda Rehman, Konkana Sen, Dhritiman Chatterjee. Perhaps this was what we all have been waiting for – a sensitive representation of mental distress on Indian screens. aaina started its life in 2001 as a special issue on media and mental health, looking at the various ways in which mental health issues were represented in the media. The articles on cinema there pointed to the fact that in Indian cinema mental ‘illness’ served three main purposes – bringing comic relief into the story; justifying the violence of husbands/lovers and other villains; and evoking pathos, most often through the infantilisation of the character.2

There has not been a vast amount of work in this area, despite the explosion of interest both in mental health and in cinema as subjects of enquiry. I for one, had started feeling like a broken record – having said that the representations are not only all wrong, but also hurtful and adding to the stigma that people who experience mental distress already suffer, what else can one say? That the cinematic portrayals only serve to increase the myths surrounding mental distress and the discomfort, fear and social isolation of people who experience mental distress is self-evident. There is no attempt to engage with the issues that are being highlighted by mental health advocates, people who experience mental distress and concerned carers.

Perhaps it is this context that makes one sit up, take note and start feeling optimistic in the first half of the film, 15 Park Avenue. This film’s sophistication; its connectedness with issues of advocacy in mental health over the last ten years in India; its engagement with everyday issues in the life of a family looking after a person experiencing schizophrenia: these are unprecedented in Indian cinema. Yet, it leaves me gasping with a sense of betrayal. And I leave the cinema feeling cheated.

The film tells the story of young Mithi who has been experiencing schizophrenia for over a decade. Anu, her sister and a professor of Physics, looks after her with the help of their old mother and maid Charu. Mithi lives in an imaginary world where she is married to her ex-fiancé, Joydeep, and has five children. But she cannot find their house which is on 15 Park Avenue. Her only source of information about her family is Saddam Hussain who speaks to her from the television.

Anu is protective of her younger sister, sympathetic and sensitive to her needs, even taking her on numerous searches for her house at 15 Park Avenue, a non-existent address in Kolkata. She is the cement that holds this family together, handling the effects of Mithi’s illness on the family, allowing very little time for herself and her professional, personal and emotional needs. She has put her life on hold, declining invitations for a life together from long time friend, Sanjeev.

Anu and Mithi are set up from the very beginning at the opposite ends of a power relationship. Anu’s selfless yet occasionally frustrating life is what is at the centre of the story as opposed to Mithi’s narratives which are full of easily discreditable accounts of her conversations with Saddam Hussain3 and her non-existent husband and children. Anu is the hard-working, responsible parent; Mithi the dependent child, even urinating on the carpet on occasion. If not for Anu’s protection, Mithi will be helpless, even homeless, as the figure of the wandering mad woman watching Mithi outside her house signifies.

The unfolding narrative tells us that the main trauma that precipitated Mithi’s illness happened eleven years ago. Mithi was gang-raped by political goons when she was on a journalistic assignment outside Kolkata. She had taken on the assignment to prove to her office and to her fiancé that she was serious about her career. She asks Anu to go with her but her sister declines. Thus, her rape while on this assignment is a big issue of guilt both for her sister (for allowing her to go alone into a potentially dangerous situation) and for her fiancé (who mistook her propensity to depression as a sign of weakness and frivolity). Joydeep breaks off the engagement with Mithi as he cannot deal with his guilt or her illness.

Mithi’s story is revealed to us as it is narrated by Anu to Mithi’s new psychiatrist, Kunal. Thus, the power of the narrative voice is from the beginning weighted against Mithi. The only stories she has to tell us are about her non-existent family and house. Given this narrative power, it is not surprising that the psychiatrist Kunal’s mediation in the treatment of Mithi’s schizophrenia is addressed to Anu and not Mithi. This is illustrated well in a scene about electro-convulsive therapy (ECT).

The administration of ECT is perhaps the most controversial among the representations of mental illness in Indian films. As is evident to anyone who is a regular reader of aaina, there is a significant debate about the efficacy and appropriateness of its use. Dr Chitharanjan Anrade argues that the general public has several misconceptions about ECT and that, if administered properly, it can produce faster recovery.4 Our doctor in the film tends to agree with this and the scene that depicts Mithi being administered ECT is perhaps a first in Indian cinema. We see Mithi being prepared for ECT and as she undergoes the procedure, Anu watches it with the sensitive Dr Kunal taking her through it step by step, explaining how it works. There is none of the usual cinematic techniques which are employed to depict the horror of ECT or of madness – no screams, no convulsing body on the bed, no heartless orderlies forcing the poor victim down. This is psychiatry at its best – understanding, patient and friendly.

But there is Mithi – and her protests and terror. The camera captures it fleetingly but the narrative chooses not to address this. Here is where Soumitra Pathare’s counter argument about ECT in the same issue of aaina becomes significant5 – where is the informed consent? Why is there no effort to mediate with the person who is undergoing the procedure? The film does not allow Mithi any reality or existence other than that defined by her illness. And this in turn allows her to be totally ignored in matters of her care. It is enough to mediate the experience for the family member, who anyway has ultimate control over what happens.

This scene poses, for me, one of the main tensions in watching the film – shall I be thankful that madness has been discovered by “progressive” cinema and is being depicted sensitively (at least as far as the experiences of a family engaged in caring for the person), or do I have to deal with the sense of betrayal for the marginalisation of our voices and needs as people who experience mental distress – yet again?

Let us come back to the question of reality. Aparna Sen says: “One of the basic themes in the film is the question of reality... the sick girl's reality and that of others around her. Who's to say which is more real? This is a question that has been bothering me for a long time. We're all searching for the core reality that we can't find.”6 This is, as suggested at the beginning of this article, the central theme of the film, addressed by Anu in her search to understand and come to terms with Mithi’s illness.

On one occasion, when Anu is in college, Mithi’s mother and their maid Charu bring in a witch-doctor who they believe can exorcise the demons causing Mithi’s illness. The scene of the exorcism is set up as a painful and horrific experience for both the characters in the film and the audience watching it. The intercutting of the exorcism with Anu’s lecture on Quantum Physics also sets up a conflict between indigenous beliefs about madness and Western scientific medicine, especially when compared to the ECT scene described earlier. When Mithi tells Anu about the exorcism, she does not believe her. It is when she discovers that Mithi was telling her the truth that Anu starts questioning her own idea of reality and what it might be for Mithi.

This is an interesting scenario. Firstly, there is the reality as we all know it, a comparable, common reality. Then there is the reality as is experienced by people like Mithi – what others might call delusions. It is the perceived contradictions between these realities that Anu (and Aparna Sen) is trying to come to terms with. Aparna Sen’s claim that the film tries to address the question of reality is thus restricted to finding a hierarchy for realities and their truth values.

There is a third kind of reality that often goes unaddressed. How does Mithi’s experiential reality of her own illness differ from Anu’s experiential reality of it? People with the experience of mental distress have been saying for quite some time that in order to understand our realities, we need to be able to narrate our experiences. But having defined us by the “reality” of our condition, it is easy to cast us off as people with no agency or narrative voice.

Anu goes to the psychiatrist to understand Mithi’s reality. What he explains to Anu is the medical understanding of schizophrenia. But there is no acknowledgement anywhere that this is not necessarily the reality of Mithi’s life and existence that Anu is so desperate to understand. And the psychiatrist seems satisfied enough to understand Mithi’s history from Anu. Nowhere is Mithi part of this process. Perhaps Anu’s (and Aparna Sen’s) quest to understand multiple realities would have been more fruitful if the person whose reality one is trying to make sense of was part of that effort. Hence, despite all its sophistication in the narration of the story of a mentally distressed woman, the film fails in its endeavour by not giving Mithi a narrative voice.

Mithi’s silencing is completed by the second narrator of the story – Joydeep. Part of Mithi’s story is revealed to us when he narrates it to his wife. Mithi and Anu are advised to go on a vacation to Bhutan, where they run into Joydeep, now happily married with two children. Joydeep is shocked by Mithi’s present life and by the fact that while in her delusions she is married to him, in “real” life she does not even recognise him. It is now his turn to come to terms with reality and his own sense of guilt in betraying her by breaking off the engagement with her ten years ago.

It is his need to assuage his guilt that drives Joydeep to assist Mithi when she asks for his help in finding the family in her delusions at 15 Park Avenue. Joydeep takes her to the place she directs him to, followed by Anu and the doctor in another car. And in a surreal moment, Mithi disappears into her reality, into the non-existent family house with Joydeep and the five children, which only she and the audience can see. The film ends with Anu, Joydeep and the doctor frantically searching for her in the streets of Kolkata.

The ending of the film is reminiscent of the ending of The Yellow Wallpaper,7 where the protagonist identifies totally with her delusion/creation of the woman in the wallpaper. Is Mithi free at last, having found her reality? Or is it being suggested that she is now totally lost to the “real” world, having disappeared into the world of her delusions? We won’t know because unlike the heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper, Mithi has had no voice to tell us her side of the story.

15 Park Avenue has all the hallmarks of a film that will be well-liked by the “discerning audience” that Aparna Sen addresses. It might even win some awards. For the subject/witness of mental distress, the search for a legitimate space for her narrative voice continues, both outside and inside the representational spaces of Indian cinema.

References

1. Interview with Subhash K. Jha (2006). Plans to dub it into Hindi are underway at the time of writing.
2. Bhargavi Davar (2001). “'Curing' mental illness: the cinematic way”; Jenny Rowena (2001). “The uses of mental illness in cinema: a brief reading of Sadma.” aaina, 1.1.
3. Why Saddam Hussain? If it is meant as some kind of social commentary, it is lost on me, apart from the obvious association to the distressing times we live in.
4. Chitharanjan Anrade (2002). “ECT: to shock or not to shock.” aaina 2.1
5. Soumitra Pathare (2002). “ECT: a shocking practice.” aaina, 2.1
6. Subhash K. Jha (2006), above.
7. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. First published in 1892.