The Mental Hai Kya Poster Reinforces Dangerous Stereotypes About Mental Health

The recently revealed motion poster for the Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao starrer seems to sensationalize self-harm and has drawn criticism from mental health experts.

The recently revealed motion poster for the Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao starrer seems to sensationalize self-harm and has drawn criticism from mental health experts.

On April 16th, the twitter handle for Balaji Motion Pictures shared the motion poster for their upcoming movie, Mental Hai Kya, starring Rajkummar Rao and Kangana Ranaut. The images featured on the poster show the lead actors engaged in various forms of self-harm, in ‘quirky’ ways, as words like “crazy,” “bizarre” and “psycho”, appear under the images.

Moreover, the poster also carries a tagline, “Sanity is overrated.”

Mental health experts and other users on Twitter were quick to comment on the disturbing nature of these images, as well as the insensitivity inherent in the title and its tagline.

Psychologist Smriti Joshi pointed out that the images not only reinforce stereotypes about mental illness, but can also be triggering for those who are struggling, especially adolescents.

Dr. Harish Shetty, referring to the use of the word “mental,” in the film’s title, spoke about how it is used in a negative sense to refer to people who are struggling with mental illnesses. “Politicians use the word ‘mental’ to abuse their foes. The title of this film does the same. No one uses words such as ‘diabetic’, ‘arthritic’, ‘epileptic’, or ‘asthmatic’ in a derogatory fashion than why, ‘mental’!,” he tweeted.

Psychiatrist Dr. Pavan Sonar also raised questions about the film’s title. There is still a lot of stigma around mental health, with words like “mental” and “psycho” being used in a derogatory and ableist sense. Speaking about the line in the poster that says “sanity is overrated”, Dr. Sonar tweeted, “Sanity overrated? As if (so called) ‘insanity’ is a choice for people suffering from #mentalhealth issues. #MentalHaiKya highly stigmatising name in context of real mental illness. Urge the creators to review & change it.”

As of the 18th of April, the matter has been taken up by the Indian Psychiatric Society, which has written a letter to the Censor Board.

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The fact that the poster and title are so problematic is even more surprising, considering that the movie is supposed to portray mental illness sensitively. In an interview last year, actor Kangana Ranaut had said, “We won’t show people as pitiable, sympathy-seeking characters. We’ll portray the issue with sensitivity. The film takes a stand against equating individuality with madness.”

In the same interview she had also pointed out that the words “mental” or “psycho” were also used to shame her, and that part of the reason she is part of the film is because she wants to break the stigma around them.

While it remains to be seen if the film does portray mental illness with sensitivity, the poster and title certainly do not do so.

Mental health issues in India are largely misunderstood, and people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, are often labelled as ‘pagal’, ‘psycho’, ‘mental’, etc. This Quartz India article reports that an estimated 56 million people suffering from depression and 38 million from anxiety disorders, as per a report by the WHO titled, “Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders — Global Health Estimates”. The article further reports that 47% of respondents to a survey conducted across eight Indian cities, could be categorised as being highly judgmental of people perceived as having a mental illness, according to non-profit The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF). 26% were categorised as being afraid of the mentally ill.

Bollywood does have a long and disappointing history with its portrayal of mental health issues. A few movies like Dear Zindagi, Margarita With a Straw, and 15 Park Avenue, are a few bright lights in this otherwise dismal setting. One hopes that the makers of Mental Hai Kya also see the light. If the film does truly aim to make a difference, then the journey to changing minds must begin right at the promotions.

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