How Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue Depicted Mental Illness Without Romanticising It

Bollywood

How Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue Depicted Mental Illness Without Romanticising It

Illustration: Arati Gujar

“What right do we have to take away the happiness Meethi gets from her imaginary world?”

I had to hit pause and take a breath when I heard Anu (Shabana Azmi) say this line to Dr Kunal (Dhritiman Chatterjiee), a psychiatrist, while discussing the hallucinations of her schizophrenic sister, Meethi (Konkona Sen Sharma). It was this moment when I knew that Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue wasn’t your usual run-of-the-mill film trying to explain something that it does not understand. This empathetic scene blurs the lines between what the society considers “normal” and what it conveniently deems “abnormal.” It poses a rarely discussed question: If hallucinations are just as convincing as real perceptions, what right do we have to object to someone’s experience simply because it deviates from ours?

As a mental health activist and a film enthusiast, I’m usually skeptical about Indian cinema’s misguided portrayals of mental illness that have more often than not, bordered on romanticisation. In the 15 years since this film came out, I doubt any other Indian film tailored sensitivity and accuracy with a poignant storyline on the subject as beautifully as Sen managed to portray in 15 Park Avenue.

If we consider “mental illness” as a subgenre of cinema at all, it brings with it a burden on storytellers: What is it that they want to tell the story about? Is it about the person in distress? Is it about their journey to healing or perhaps it is a story in which this person only exists as a device? The National Award-winning 15 Park Avenue transcends these questions. Meethi’s diagnosis, her journey from the past to the present, as well as the burdens of a caregiver are keenly etched out. What we witness is a gestalt of someone’s life in psychological distress.

Is it about the person in distress? Is it about their journey to healing or perhaps it is a story in which this person only exists as a device?

We learn about Meethi’s mental state in the film’s opening sequence itself — she’s in a car trying to find the address of her house (the titular 15 Park Avenue) but a minute later comes the realisation that there is something wrong. As it turns out, there is no address such as 15 Park Avenue; it is just a figment of her imagination. Her longing for a family, a house with her husband and children, which was once a half-achieved dream, has moulded itself into symptoms of schizophrenia.

There’s a particularly striking sequence in the film that drives home the stigma attached to schizophrenia. While Anu teaches quantum mechanics at her college, Meethi is being “treated” by a faith healer at home. These two shots run parallel to each other hinting at the regressive mindset that spills over in the lives of even the most progressive people. Most people with mental illnesses in India, for instance, come to professionals after having visited such unreliable healers.

Much of the reason Meethi becomes a compelling character is due to the conviction in Sen Sharma’s turn. It’s also elevated by its attention to detail — there’s a scene where Meethi unknowingly urinates while standing in the living room. Although this isn’t directly linked to schizophrenia, it does happen to be a typical side effect of the medication. I wonder how many filmmakers would have gone so far to retain such an important detail.

Even more remarkable is how Sen’s writing lays bare the origins of Meethi’s schizophrenia. Instead of relying on causal factors, the film gets into specifics. We’re told that Meethi’s symptoms are triggered by an encounter of horrific sexual abuse but that she has also carried within herself a biological vulnerability for developing schizophrenia. The reasoning is backed up by a peek into her childhood: the tragic loss of her parents, the episodic isolations, as well as the weird sensation that people could hear her swallowing. All these tiny, vivid details pose significant clinical information. Sen also smartly uses dialogue to bust the myths that often stop patients from seeking professional help. The conversations between Dr Kunal and Meethi raise serious questions over the power structures that alienate people with mental illness.

More than anything, 15 Park Avenue’s normalisation of mental illness stands out even today, given that Sen refuses to other it. The split in Meethi’s mind doesn’t estrange her; it invites viewers to live her experience in many layers. What Sen manages to remind her through the film is that perhaps, in dreams or while awake, we have all once struggled to find our way home.

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