Dear Zindagi - How well does it handle the concept of mental health?
“Are you seeing a therapist to tell people you’re gay?” “No, I’m seeing a therapist to tell myself that I am gay.”
One thing that Dear Zindagi can convey spot on is how people take therapy, not for others but, to heal and be okay within themselves. Sometimes to learn to be okay with who they truly are.
A mainstream Bollywood movie made its way into the hearts of the public and, they found it endearing to watch the journey of Kiara (Alia Bhatt) navigating through therapy to understand her issues.
However, in the mental health community, there was a mixed reaction. On one hand, we are delighted to see this kind of representation and an openness to viewing therapy and the practice without any inherent stereotypes, however, on the other hand, there are certain aspects of the movie that we hope doesn’t mislead the people into believing that therapy happens in a certain way.
Therapists love to use references from movies to connect with their clients and, explore different ideas. Media acts as a bridge between the client and their therapist. Imagine the joy when you find out that a mainstream movie will be tackling therapy as its major plot point. So, this is going to be a psychologist’s take on having mixed feelings after watching this movie.
Let’s start with everything that Gauri Shinde (director) got right.
Conversation is KEY:
Truly. In the current rush hour lifestyle, our connections are largely based on on-screen interactions, to the extent that we are comfortable in expressing our feelings through memes, while real conversations and eye contact have become awkward. It is easier to assume and conclude instead of being honest about our expectations / issues. This was beautifully depicted when Kiara would lose interest while talking to potential romantic partners or avoid talking to her mother because just like all of us, we steer away from talking about what we are uncomfortable to face.
Talking about ourselves:
There is a reason why we avoid talking about ourselves. In the ploy of being liked and accepted by others, we don’t share our inner fears and desires. Modern society has made it normal to be detached and emotionally numb. It’s cool to have that ironic sense of humor and superficial drunk conversations, while honest feelings are kept aside with the fear of being ridiculed and seen as vulnerable. This, however, leaves us feeling lonely like something is missing even when we are having a good time with a bunch of people.
It is okay to seek help:
This is a long time coming for Indian cinema, after all the stigma attached to the mental health profession. An adult choosing to seek professional help instead of looking for the perfect love story to make things right in her life is the kind of representation we hope to see. To understand that you are allowed to accept yourself and also be okay with someone assisting you through a tough time in your life shows us how we all should be putting ourselves first.
It’s also okay to be skeptical of therapy at first:
Having a specialist create an accepting environment for their client, build a connection, and having a healthy dialogue in the first instance of therapy is one of the most important steps that we all need to be aware of. Dr. Khan (Shahrukh Khan) gracefully demonstrated how you enter into a therapeutic setup. The take away from this is that one always has to be aware that they are truly comfortable talking to their therapists. If at any point in time, one feels judged, one must address this to the professional or even move to a different one. It’s completely okay to do so.
Why mental health professionals matter:
Through the story, we find out that the protagonist and her parents had a strained relationship that stemmed from unhealthy communication. This is a common phenomenon because of which, as adults, we learn a similar pattern, which in turn hurts our future connections. Enter a therapist, who allows you to speak your mind and truly listens to what you are saying. That one hour in a week with them, allows you to work through so many facets of your life that you were afraid to face by yourself. Turns out they weren’t so scary anymore. Sometimes, we don’t need immediate resolutions, but just someone to listen to, and we can avail that service, you help yourself learn new ways to break unhealthy patterns in the future, that too, all by yourself.
Now, we also need to address certain aspects of the movie that might have needed a little more refining.
Your therapist is not your friend/lover/family:
This one aspect of the movie might be misunderstood by many. The relationship between the therapist and the client felt very causal, to an extent that it even hinted at moving beyond the boundaries of the therapeutic settings. Even if some therapeutic practices are flexible, they are done in a planned manner, and not surprise visits to a beach or cycle rides. Unfortunately, your therapist won’t generally be Shahrukh Khan in an aesthetically pleasing office, most of the time you’ll come across offices in busy hospital settings or neutral tone clinics with varied kinds of individuals and a professional who would probably dress in formals. It’s not a bad thing, however, just fewer expectations.
Therapy doesn’t happen at the whim of the therapist:
It is a more democratic approach where both parties are involved. The therapist won’t choose to skip a session and end therapy while a session is ongoing. Therapy is a gradual process for the client where they learn to cope with their issues with the help of the professional. Once that is achieved, the therapy then moves into the termination stage where learnings are revised, closure recognized and the two parties conclude the sessions together.
It was a bit alarming to see that Dr. Khan chose to abruptly stop the sessions knowing fully well that Kiara has some abandonment issues. It felt like a tough-love move, which is something our parents/friends would do to teach us something.
The therapist is not your savior, you are:
The way the protagonist saw her therapist as the one person who heard her, supported her, and told her that it was okay to cry is shown to be that savior to help Kiara in her difficult times. This was probably the tone of the scenes, but it felt like we were made to feel that you need someone to pull you out of the rut. However, the therapist’s job is to equip you to be able to pull yourself out of the rut. Mental health professionals act like crutches to help you walk, but eventually, you learn to walk by yourself and you will have to let the crutches go. We need to see a little bit of nuance when trying to convey such ideas.
One scene that did work best was when Dr. Khan didn’t help Kiara get up after her fall. Maybe the same tonality could have been maintained for their conversations.
Overall, Dear Zindagi does open doors for the audience and filmmakers to finally move in a more inclusive and non-romanticized or non-demonized version of mental health. It also made the mainstream audience look at things more differently. It is Bollywood yes, so we can’t expect everything to be realistic, but hopefully, it keeps getting better from here on.
It was an interesting watch from a counselor’s perspective and we hope that adds layers to your undertaking and emotions regarding the film.