Cult cinema

The outsized outrageousness of drag artist Divine

The star of John Waters’s cult classic ‘Multiple Maniacs’, which is showing at the Mumbai Film Festival, stretched the boundaries of art.

One of the films playing in the restored classics section of the Mumbai Film Festival 2016 is John Waters’s 1970 black comedy Multiple Maniacs. Waters’s second feature film has been restored by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection, and is currently making the rounds of cine festivals worldwide.

The film, directed by 24-year-old Waters under his Dreamland Studios banner, was both criticised and appreciated for its nonsensical plot, which includes a lesbian sex scene inside a church and a rape committed by a lobster. The film starred Waters regulars – a bunch of actors who called themselves the Dreamlanders after his studio – whose most famous member was the drag queen Divine.

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‘Multiple Maniacs’.

Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine worked as a female hairdresser in Baltimore, where he was born, before shifting to drag performances. His extravagant stage persona caught the eye of Waters, who went on to cast Divine in a number of films, including Mondo Trasho (1969), Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974).

Harris Glenn Milstead.
Harris Glenn Milstead.

It was Multiple Maniacs, however, that received the most attention. Starring Divine as the leader of a show called the Cavalcade of Perversion, the film is a seemingly never-ending nod to the obscene and the unpalatable. Patrons at Cavalcade shows are recklessly murdered and a cow’s heart is eaten raw. Sexual assault takes place with an insouciance that stretches the definition of art.

Yet, the film found a resonance with the counterculture spirit of the times and was patronised by hippies, bikers and anti-Vietnam protestors. Its negation of accepted film conventions – the plot is little more than the unconnected antics of the protagonist – mirrored the essential difference of the Dreamlanders. Peopled by queers, the troupe looked to make unapologetic art that would shock viewers.

This ability to elicit disgust from audience members was a common Waters-Divine shtick. In his uproarious 1999 documentary, Divine Trash, Steve Yaeger focused on that unabashed grotesquerie, Pink Flamingos, especially its last scene in which Divine is shown eating dog poo, which unsuspecting audiences were made to watch as they bit into chocolate served to them during screenings. Many threw up.

The film brought Divine much notoriety for his outsize onscreen behaviour, a delicious mix of camp and horror. As in his riotous real-life performances, Divine shaved back his hairline and applied makeup liberally to create an outrageous visage that nevertheless attracted laughter. His obesity – which became the cause of his death in 1988 – was something to adorn and flaunt, and in that respect, was an exaggerated blowback against prettifying notions of female beauty that were to overtake the film and glamour worlds in the coming years.

In later life, Divine came to regret his earlier choices which she believed hampered his standing as an actor. Yet, in his 2013 film, I Am Divine, Jeffrey Schwartz showed how Milstead intuitively understood the laws of celebrity and exploited them to make a name for himself. With his last film, Hairspray (1988), Milstead finally found mainstream acceptance as the mother of the talented but overweight Tracy, in a role that must have especially appealed to him because it reflected his own story.

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‘I am Divine’.
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.