Why Atrangi Re’s view of mental health made me furious

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Why Atrangi Re’s view of mental health made me furious

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The thing about movies is that, although we look at them as a form of entertainment, their impact goes a long way, and perhaps that is why it is important to discuss Atrangi re. I’ve always believed that mental health needs to be given space on the silver screen, but have always had my reservations about how an industry largely suited to be ignorant would use it more than just a story pivot it looks like from afar. To which point Anand L Rai’s recently released Atrangi Re is an offensive, almost criminal handling of a subject that calls for much more sensitivity and restraint.

Anand L Rai’s recently released Atrangi Re is an offensive, almost criminal handling of a subject that calls for much more sensitivity and restraint.

The film claims to be an eccentric story of Rinku (Sara Ali Khan), who we first see eloping with her boyfriend, whose name, and appearance are unknown to all except Rinku for years. Later, in the film, we’re told that Sajjad (Akshay Kumar) the man that Rinku believes to be her boyfriend, is nothing more than a figment of her imagination. Rinku has had a traumatic and difficult childhood, witnessing the honour killing of her parents – an interfaith couple. To deal with this reality, Rinku has created Sajjad, a trauma response that has led her to retreat to this imaginary world every time she feels uncomfortable. We learn this from Dr. Madhusudhan, who sets out to meet Sajjad and Rinku in a cafeteria and finds Rinku talking to herself. Dr. Madhusudhan is a psychiatrist and friend of Vishu (Dhanush), also a resident doctor. Vishu and Rinku’s worlds are forcefully brought together in what feels like a revival of Dhanush’s Ranjhaana persona.

Atrangi Re’s idea of love feels flawed. It casts partners as ignorant saviours, in it for their own heroism, rather than empathetic listeners who crave nothing more than a better understanding of their partners.

In one scene our psychiatrist friend tells Vishu that ‘Rinku should be in a museum in France’ implying how her mental disorder is an eccentricity that should be treasured within the four walls of a museum.  In another scene Vishu breaks into a celebratory dance after learning that the ‘other man’ in Rinku’s life, is no one but an imaginary Sajjad that she has conjured up, forgetting that this need to create an imaginary character stems from grave childhood trauma, fear and maybe even worse. From ridiculous pills to paying everyone at the Taj Mahal to clap for her, to self-diagnosing Rinku’s trauma, Vishu spins a vicious little circus in the name of yearning and love. Rai, as he did with Raanjhana glorifies self-harm and stalking, only this time he romanticises mental disorders and implores one to say that if this isn’t love, what is.

Rai, as he did with Raanjhana glorifies self-harm and stalking, only this time he romanticises mental disorders and implores one to say that if this isn’t love, what is.

Atrangi Re’s idea of love feels flawed. It casts partners as ignorant saviours, in it for their own heroism, rather than empathetic listeners who crave nothing more than a better understanding of their partners. I’ve been raised in a family that understands mental health, that understands the need to heal. I have been taught the gravity of mental disorders and the need for therapy to address them, but at the same time, I’ve also seen friends suffocate in their own skin because they came from families that didn’t believe in counselling. Atrangi Re normalises this culture of ignorance.

A friend recently managed to convince her family to get her help by showing them Dear Zindagi; it’s a testament to the kind of impact that films have. We’ve been conditioned to believe that films are pure entertainment or time-pass, rather than a medium to drive social change, but films can often drive home points that struggle to find a syntax that is universally understandable. Which makes Atrangi Re’s problematic messaging that more worrying. Not the least because it’s 2022 and by now these are basics that you’d believe elite artists are aware of.

Even though you can sense that Atrangi Re set out to talk about mental health it falls gloriously short in the most crucial department of compassion that no music, acting or cinematography can compensate for.

In a scene from the film, Madhusudhan groups OCD, Schizophrenia, Bipolar, and Alzheimer’s patients into one and claims that they can all see Sajjad, the imaginary character created by Rinku. It prompts you to believe that there’s really no difference between those who are suffering from mental disorders, and they are all simply put ‘mad’. Even though you can sense that Atrangi Re set out to talk about mental health it falls gloriously short in the most crucial department of compassion that no music, acting or cinematography can compensate for. Rahman’s background score, Dhanush’s craft, and some bewitching frames don’t make up for the missing sensitivity quotient in Atrangi Re. Dear Zindagi is perhaps a good example of how a mainstream movie on mental health can be made sans titular romances and quirky plot points that only cement the immaturity of the creators. Because Mental Health in Atrangi Re ends up being nothing more than a plot point added to make the film seem ‘intelligent’, without a nose for both compassion and empathy.

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