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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Shah Rukh Khan & Mental Health Tropes In His Movies

Shah Rukh Khan is synonymous with superstardom, talent and glamour. Really, he does not need an introduction and a simple Google search is sufficient to enlighten you on his journey in Hindi cinema.

His movies do not only hold sentimental value, but they are effective in conveying human emotions across the spectrum. Just recently though, I’ve realised that his movies are quite effective in highlighting mental health issues. But just to emphasise, I am not an expert and this observation has been made by research and societal conversations taking place on mental well-being.

In his initial days of playing ‘anti-hero’ roles in movies like Baazigar (1993), he plays a scorned man driven to avenge his tragic loss. Koyla (1997) touches on themes like power and child abuse. Mohabbatein (2000) sees him dealing with the news of his lover taking her life. Then in Chak De! India (2007), he plays a character who is ostracised due to public speculations and media trials.

Recently in Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017), we see him grappling with the past and how it impacts his present day. Many such roles of SRK present human flaws, vulnerability and sentimentality, in a sincere manner.

Darr (1993)

I often read views on Darr and how ‘problematic’ it is. Unfortunately, I’m not a medical professional to give an opinion on that, but yes, exhibiting an individual with mental health challenges as a villain is not ideal.

Khan’s portrayal of Rahul seems to have trauma deep-rooted from childhood. We see him speaking on an imaginary phone call to his deceased mother about a girl he is smitten by. His illness perhaps stems from childhood distress and seems to display symptoms of obsessive-compulsive (OCD) and Schizoaffective disorders.

OCD, according to the NHS has three elements. First, “obsessions – where an unwanted, intrusive and often distressing thought, image or urge repeatedly enters your mind”. Second, “Emotions – the obsession causes a feeling of intense anxiety or distress.” Third, “Compulsions – repetitive behaviours or mental acts that a person with OCD feels driven to perform as a result of the anxiety and distress caused by the obsession.”

The NHS describes ‘schizoaffective disorder’ as a form of schizophrenia and Mayo Clinic presents the signs as: “Delusions — having false, fixed beliefs, despite evidence to the contrary. Hallucinations, such as hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there. Impaired communication and speech, such as being incoherent. Bizarre or unusual behaviour. Symptoms of depression, such as feeling empty, sad or worthless. Periods of manic mood, with an increase in energy and a decreased need for sleepover several days and behaviours that are out of character. Impaired occupational, academic and social functioning. Problems with managing personal care, including cleanliness and physical appearance.”

All these are traits that Rahul displays, of course in a larger-than-life, extreme and sensationalised manner. The character’s actions are not condonable, whatsoever. He definitely is a questionable personality. But it’s time that mentally-challenged characters are not viewed as ‘antagonists’ of society as they are people who require apt medical attention.

Devdas (2002)

When it comes to characters who exude self-destructive traits, Devdas is certainly one that first springs to mind. Many find the role troublesome as it exhibits the suffering of two women, due to a ‘toxic’ man. This again seems true to an extent but appears more entrenched than that.

Dev is sent away for a decade to study at law school. He recounts his childhood ordeal of getting ‘whipped’ by his father after making mistakes. A trauma to punish him. This according to NSPCC is a form of physical abuse, which is defined as “when someone hurts or harms a child or young person on purpose.” Clearly, at a young age, Devdas is emotionally abused. This is described as “deliberately trying to scare, humiliate, isolate or ignore a child.”

It almost seems like Paro (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is Dev’s escapism. His true meaning of life. However, the thorny backdrops of casteism and classism omit his utopia. We also see him get angry and at times violent, which may indicate having an Antisocial Personality Disorder. Misogynistic and narcissistic attitudes within him seem heavily influenced by his father.

Understanding all these factors, perhaps it is why Devdas resorts to Alcoholism. Healthline describes this illness as: “Alcohol use disorder develops when you drink so much that chemical changes in the brain occur. These changes increase the pleasurable feelings you get when you drink alcohol.”

The withdrawal symptoms, according to the website, can prove to be lethal. It says: “This makes you want to drink more often, even if it causes harm.” Dev often says that he drinks to ‘tolerate’ the pain and exterior circumstances. Ultimately, he suffers the lethal consequence of the disorder. Nonetheless, it is heartbreaking how years of emotional neglect and ignorance of mental health result in such a tragic ending.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)

Having played characters who suffer from emotional issues and that of the mind, Khan has portrayed several roles where he acts as the healer. As such, he tries to resolve the issues of those in emotional pain. A prime example is his persona of ‘Aman’ in Kal Ho Naa Ho. 

The movie, whilst it centres around complex romance, in essence, is a narrative on broken souls and how to cope with dysfunctional relationships. One key strand in the film is how protagonist Naina (Preity Zinta) and her family cope with the suicide of her father. This tragic loss causes a major rift between mother Jenny (Jaya Bachchan) and grandmother Lajjo (Sushma Seth). Aman, despite being a terminally ill patient, pursues to fix this estranged bond.

Mind describes the sentiments evoked by the tragic loss of a person who takes their life. “Feelings you might experience when you lose someone to suicide include intense sadness, shock, anger, frustration, confusion and isolation,” the website cites. “Some people also talk about experiencing a sense of shame or guilt. While this is a very common reaction it is important to remember that people who take their own lives are often trying to stop feelings of distress that can feel as intense and real as physical pain – the reasons for suicide are complex and you are not to blame.” Scenes when Lajjo lies about her son’s death or Naina reading the final letters, reflect the emotions cited above.

Aman’s character, despite suffering from an ailing heart condition, acts as the ‘voice’ who reaches Naina’s family. Subsequently, he spreads positivity and the message to live happily.

Dear Zindagi (2016)

Dear Zindagi sees the actor stepping into the shoes of psychologist, Dr Jehangir Khan. Known informally as Jug, his approach to therapy is quite unconventional and exudes a ‘cool’ appeal. He addresses mental health issues in a comprehensible and informal way.

The movie focuses on how Kaira (Alia Bhatt), a cinematographer whose disturbed past impacts her current life. This leads her to have insomnia. We eventually discover how abandonment during childhood has led her to emotional instability and dysfunctionality. Dr Jonice Webb describes the three major effects of childhood abandonment. She says: “Disconnection, lack of fulfilment and feelings of being empty and alone, among others. If physically present, well-meaning parents can fail their children in such a subtle way that harms them, you can imagine the powerful impact of parental abandonment.”

WebMD also explains the main symptoms of abandonment issues as: “Giving too much or being overly eager to please. Jealousy in your relationship or of others. Trouble trusting your partner’s intentions. Feeling insecure about your relationship. Having difficulty in feeling intimate emotionally. Needing to control or be controlled by your partner. Settling in unsatisfactory relationships.” Kaira experienced many such problems.

Through practical and profound methods, Jug educates Kaira on how to deal with major concerns with simplicity. From playing ‘Kabaddi’ with water to metaphoric storytelling, his character encourages therapy and accentuates the importance of receiving it. Moreover, the movie largely addresses how even the most minuscule concern can have a major impact on life.

Final Word

Shah Rukh Khan himself has faced a whirlwind of emotions to reach the legendary status he currently holds. From breaking into a cut-throat industry as an outsider to coping with personal losses and financial challenges, he too has faced immense hardships of life.

Seeing the distinction of him playing the sufferer and healer in the titles we explored, I wonder whether and if many of such characters are an extension of his life? For an artist to exude the emotions they do it must take a lot of internal processing.

Having said that, I mentioned titles like Koyla in the introduction. It is interesting how that showcases a mute character who fights back evil through love and courage. Many of his movies are commercial crowd-pleasers and thankfully the mental health undertones are not always doom and gloom. Some prove that resilience can overcome the darkest space in our lives.

If you have been affected by any of the issues highlighted within this article, please know that help is always available and you are not alone. In the UK, Samaritans is available 24 hours and 365 days per year to help with whatever you’re going through. The service is free to call. You can also self-refer or request your GP to refer you for NHS Talking Therapy here

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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