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What happens when Oliver Stone interviews Vladimir Putin? Empty banter and immense silence

Rather than insight into the Russian president’s controversial policies, what we get is a puff piece.

Since the election of Donald Trump as the American president and the leaking of revelations that the Russians may have played some part in helping him win, Western politics has refused to bow to neat ideological categories. If Trump is conservative, what is the ex-KGB Vladimir Putin doing assisting him?

Oliver Stone, who has never shied away from his Communist leanings, has now added his own spice mix to this whirling paradox. In The Putin Interviews, Stone sits across from the Russian president and gets him to answer a series of questions that are intended to give us a deeper peek into the mind of one of the world’s most devious politicians.

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The Putin Interviews (2017).

The Showtime series, divided into four episodes of one hour each, takes us through a panoramic view of Putin’s life, an account that is suitably embellished by Putin himself. (Stone speaks no Russian and hired the services of an interpreter to help him conduct the interview.) Most of the facts about the President are well-known: he was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and took an early interest in judo; he rose quickly within the government first in St Petersburg and then in Moscow; he was chosen by Boris Yeltsin himself to take over the Presidency in 1999, a position from which he has never strayed too far in the interim.

Stone allows Putin to list his political achievements with candour, often egging him on. Over his two terms as President (2000-2008), Putin stabilised the Russian economy and brought poverty numbers down. The problem – and this is not restricted to the economy – is when Stone lets Putin get away with gross falsehoods. At one point, Putin speaks of his success in ridding Russia of oligarchs, and Stone nods sagely. This would be funny if not for the serial assassinations of critics of the state that well-heeled Russians have financed in other countries.

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The Putin Interviews (2017).

This policy extends to other realms. Stone fawns over Putin as the latter speaks at length about media freedom and LGBT rights, topics on which the President’s version of reality is dramatically at odds with that of his compatriots. There are no questions on Russia’s support of North Korea, its annexation of Crimea or its ruinous meddling in West Asia.

Rather, Stone, who famously makes movies about conspiracy theories that he perhaps believes to be true, gets into friendly banter with Putin about the “ways of the West”. It is one thing for the acclaimed director to believe that the West is still trying to dominate Russia and turn it into its own image. That’s Cold War territory which gave Stone some of his most exciting ideas.

But it becomes something of a parody when he gets the President of Russia to wax eloquent on how the West is out to get him/his country with nary a thought spared for the changed geopolitical dynamics since the 1990s or the very real consequences of Russian expansionism.

Not everything is a letdown, though. There are some interesting takeaways, such as Putin’s defence of granting asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden while also clearly enunciating that what Snowden did was wrong. Likewise, he channels Machiavelli when he says he did not help Trump in the election because a change in the leadership means little when it is the bureaucracy that runs government.

Stone has been defending Putin in media interviews since the release of the documentary. There is no stronger evidence that he has been played than the fact that even people in his camp – the Leftists, say – are turning away from his strident advocacy of a man who they find singularly responsible for installing Trump in the White House. Now that’s a conspiracy Stone should have explored. What we get instead is a political puff piece.

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The Putin Interviews (2017).
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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.