Reviews Film

Indian “psycho”

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 11 November 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1191
  1. Dinesh Bhugra, professor of mental health and cultural diversity (d.bhugra{at}
  1. Institute of Psychiatry, London

    Can “Bollywood” films teach us anything about mental health?

    Films—be they Hollywood, independent, French, or Hindi—reflect the cultures in which they are embedded. The pleasure that commercial films offer and the desire they create make them a vital part of popular culture and an important site of cultural interpretation. There is no doubt that some films are less realistic in their interpretation and projection of everyday reality than others. In Hindi cinema the costumes, the sets, and the lifestyles shown are often wishful rather than realistic. The narratives of films are essential in understanding their impact on culture and, in return, the impact of culture on films. The advantages of studying films for understanding cultures are manifold, even if the portrayals are stereotyped. Films can be used for teaching psychopathology as well as cultural understanding to students, trainees, and clinicians. (See my articles in the Psychiatric Bulletin, “Using film and literature for cultural competence training” (2003;27: 427-8) and “Teaching psychiatry through cinema” (2003;27: 429-30).)

    The world's largest film producer, the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay—hence “Bollywood”), dates back to the early 20th century. Historically, the patterns of film making followed the trail set by Hollywood: initially by developing and sustaining studio systems and then the creation of star systems. Film production in Mumbai is still heavily influenced by Hollywood, with genres such as romantic, mythological, and war films, although commercial considerations require indigenisation of the films (one characteristic of the Hindi film is the use of a lot of song).

    Recent film history can be divided into the Nehruvian “romantic” age from 1947 to 1966 (although the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in 1964), the period of “villainy” from 1966 to 1980, and in the past 20 years or so a period of new villainy and new romanticism. This distinction, although arbitrary, is based on changes in the country's leadership and economic plans. Until 1964 the newly independent country was young, idealistic, and nationalistic. People had a sense of liberation, achievement, and enthusiasm and of having a clear purpose. Democratic institutions were being established; and the non-aligned movement and socialist principles were crucial. Access to education increased, and local democracy at the village level was introduced. Surreptitious invasion in the Himalayas by China and two wars with Pakistan led to loss of innocence. Politicians, particularly Indira Gandhi, became all powerful. When Mrs Gandhi imposed an emergency and imprisoned opposition leaders the people became ambivalent in their feelings towards the “mother.” This period also saw rampant inflation, devaluation of the rupee, excess governmental control, erosion of fiscal prudence, low foreign investment, deterioration in bureaucratic standards, and increased corruption. In the third period, right leaning coalition governments brought about economic liberalisation, greater industrial production, and a reduction of the fiscal deficit but an increase in caste politics.

    My hypothesis is that the political and economic climate determines the portrayal of mental illness in Hindi films. Like its Hollywood counterpart, Hindi cinema has portrayed mental illness in a number of ways—comic, villainous, or existential, for example. One unusual portrayal in Hindi cinema is of mentally ill people as divine and intelligent and with special powers.

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    Bollywood has portrayed mental illness as comic, villainous, or existential

    The 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of Hindi cinema. Several films of the time portrayed mental illness in the protagonists. In one of these films an asylum is called the International Lunatic Asylum and the patients can be identified as African, Chinese, and other nationalities. In several films the hero is a comical character, but the portrayal is gentle. At least two films of the period used psychoanalysis in a similar way that Hitchcock used it in Spellbound. In one of them a nurse therapist falls in love with a patient who leaves the hospital once he is better, breaking her heart. When she is asked to take on another patient she initially refuses. This patient falls in love with her, but she ends up psychotic. Films portraying mental illness in this period also showed the family in a supportive role or, conversely, as causing the illness. Mental illness was seen as caused by failure in love, stress, or a traumatic event.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, with the changed political, social, and economic climate, the portrayal of mental illness became more aggressive. The mid-1970s saw the birth of the “angry young man” character, and these films were huge hits. Typically, this hero must take a lone stand and extract revenge, because there is no hope of getting any recompense from governmental systems that have failed and have become corrupt. Initially these films' plots centred on a demand for justice, but they evolved into stories about sociopathic villains who feel no guilt at murder and show no redemption but are nonetheless seen as heroes. Violence is seen as a justifiable tool for changing the system. An occasional female psychopath is seen, but they generally redeem themselves through repentance before the end of the film.

    With the 1990s came the “naughties”: with economic liberalisation the female characters are seen as chattels and the men are psychopathic, jealous, and possessive. Partly based on Sleeping with the Enemy were half a dozen films in which men stalk women, including wives. In some films psychotic heroines perhaps indicate that what a man can do a woman can do better. Other films were evidence that the political climate (with the right wing Bharatiya Jarata Party (BJP) in coalition power) favoured films showing the superiority of traditional Hindu (Ayurvedic) medicine and massages in managing mental illness.

    The films portray reality as the director wishes to show it. However, films are not made in a social or cultural vacuum, and the director's view will be influenced by the social, political, and economic climate. The similarities between Hollywood and Hindi cinema portrayals are many, and clinicians need to be aware of the influences that such portrayals can have on people's attitudes and their help seeking.


    • DB's study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and was carried out at the Wellcome Trust Institute of History of Medicine, London. It is the basis for a forthcoming book, Mad Tales from Bollywood.