Gauri Shinde’s heart-warming Dear Zindagi tries to destigmatise psychological therapy, but winds up reducing the process to a few charming witticisms and fortune cookie-esque one liners.

Kaira (Alia Bhatt) turns to psychologist Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) when a series of upsets leaves her reeling with heartache and insomnia. Jehangir (call me Jug) is a character straight out of a Ruskin Bond story – quirky, twinkly-eyed and compassionate.

Dear Zindagi steers clear of leveraging Shah Rukh Khan’s stardom with meta-references to the numerous Rahuls in his past. But it winds up buying into his star image nonetheless, portraying him as a magician who cures the emotionally messy Kaira before we can say Sigmund Freud. But the fault is not only in our stars (cinematic or otherwise). It is also in the cinematic medium.

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‘Dear Zindagi’.

Psychological counselling is a primarily verbal activity, especially when it takes the form of the conventional talking cure. Cinema, on the other hand, is an overwhelmingly visual medium. It is often difficult to translate the intimacy and intensity of a therapy session into an engaging cinematic sequence. It is even harder to cram in the lengthy, inconsistent and often tedious process of psychotherapy into a manageable running time.

This has not prevented Hindi filmmakers from trying, though. They have navigated around these limitations with different techniques – by interspersing therapy sessions with flashbacks to break monotony, for instance, and sometimes by having visually appealing actors enact the therapist.

In Asit Sen’s Khamoshi (1969), the gorgeous Waheeda Rehman plays the dutiful nurse Radha, who inexplicably doubles up as a psychotherapist. Most Hindi films often do not bother to distinguish between psychologists and psychiatrists.

The doctors in Khamoshi demonstrate their ignorance of ethical boundaries by asking Radha to administer the highly scientific course of treatment of “hamdardi aur pyaar” to male patients suffering from mania after being hurt in love.

Radha is already burdened with requited love for her erstwhile patient Dev when she is asked to administer the same treatment to Arun (Rajesh Khanna). She cures Arun, but chafing against suppressed emotions and despair, Radha becomes a patient of mania herself.

Waheeda Rehman in ‘Khamoshi’.
Waheeda Rehman in ‘Khamoshi’.

The template makes a reappearance in Priyadarshan’s Kyon Ki (2005), when psychiatrist Tanvi (Kareena Kapoor) falls in love with her patient Anand (Salman Khan) at the asylum run by her father, Khurana. After Tanvi cures Anand, she hopes to make a future with him but her father is displeased with the alliance. Khurana resorts to a medical dictum that firmly belongs in the last century: If you can’t convince them, lobotomise them. Tanvi is understandably distraught by this development and is unable to retain her sanity.

Much like Khamoshi, Kyon Ki buys into the misconception that psychiatrists often wind up on the other side of the table, especially when they cross professional boundaries.

Not all psychotherapist-patient love stories are doomed to failure. In Shakti Samanta’s Pagla Kahin Ka (1970), Shalini gets attached to Sujit (Shammi Kapoor), a man who has been unlucky in love and is therefore resentful of women. She cures him with a curious blend of outdoor promenades and singing (the hauntingly melodious Tum Mujhe Yun Bula Naa Paooge). Although she initially struggles with doctor-patient boundaries, Shalini eventually succumbs to her attraction for Sujit.

In Yakub Hassan Rizvi’s Baharon Ki Manzil (1968) super-psychiatrist Rajesh (Dharmendra) confirms his amnesiac patient Radha’s mental acuity by checking her pulse and blood pressure. Rajesh then does some swift detective work to unearth Radha’s past and gets a happy-ever-after as his reward.

Essentially, a psychologist is a detective of sorts, who gently separates the layers of a patient’s past, attempting to determine how past events influence their thought patterns and behaviors. In Karthik Calling Karthik, the titular character’s psychologist, Kapadia, diagnoses him with schizophrenia after considerable sleuthing.

Psychologists like Kapadia, who adhere to professional rules even as they treat patients with compassion and empathy, are a rare breed in Hindi cinema.

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‘Bhool Bhulaiya’.

Bollywood mostly vacillates between portraying psychologists as staid and boring rule-abiders or rebellious but compassionate eccentrics. It is only the subversive psychologists who are any good. In Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007), the dapper Aditya (Akshay Kumar) uses outrageous techniques to diagnose and cure Avani, a patient of Dissociative Identity Disorder. In Dear Zindagi, formally attired and jargon-spouting psychologists are juxtaposed with the casually clad Jug and found wanting.

Unlike Jug and Aditya, most screen psychologists are incurably vapid themselves, with faces as starched as their suits. Their presence is barely felt at all. In Abhishek Varman’s 2 States (2014), an appropriately lugubrious Krish (Arjun Kapoor) settles down in front of a therapist as he begins to tell the tale of his heartbreak. These sessions have merely been inserted as a narrative device. The therapist barely even utters a word and Krish’s suicidal tendency is dismissed as hyperbole.

In Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2007), Jai’s (Saif Ali Khan) therapist is a thoroughly beige woman (in personality more than attire) who cannot offer him anything more than platitudes in an implacable accent. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is, like many depressed and/or insane heroes before him, a casualty of Bollywood’s most ubiquitous malady – love.

Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), is one of the few films in which a mental condition is not the product of unrequited love or familial troubles. Munna (Sanjay Dutt) is terrified when he begins to see and converse with Mahatma Gandhi and seeks psychiatric help.

The uptight psychiatrist rationalises that Munna’s hallucinations are a product of stress, but Munna goes into full-fledged denial. The scene illustrates the knee-jerk reaction of a patient who has been told he suffers from a mental condition. Although he is undeniably logical, the doctor is so woefully tactless in his delivery that we cannot help but side with Circuit (Arshad Warsi) for his instinctively protective rejoinder.

‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’.
‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’.

A single scene in Shakun Batra’s Ekk Main Aur Ek Tu (2012) sums up the social assumptions around mental illness and psychotherapy. Riana (Kareena Kapoor) is upset after a bad break-up and tells her mother over the phone that is going to a therapist because she’s “feeling low” and wants to feel “normal” again. She seems particularly annoyed at the suggestion that she is probably suffering from premenstrual stress or just “being a drama queen”. Riana’s desire for a quick fix through therapy and her mother’s instinctive rebuttal are the most common manifestations of our ignorance about psychotherapy.