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Heroes Are Always Strong And Full Of Machismo. These Problematic Gender Roles In The Movie Industry Are A Breeding Ground For Mental Health Issues.

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2020 has not been an easy year. We’re only halfway there, but the body count racked up in six months has been tremendous. There has been too much death and despair, loneliness and frustration. And the worst part is, it feels like we’ve nowhere to go but stay home and wallow in our misery. This can be exceptionally hard for people with existing mental health conditions like depression. The passing away of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput by suicide has once again reminded us of how bleak the world can get, irrespective of fame, money, a phonebook full of friends or a profile full of followers.

The news of the actor’s passing evoked an avalanche of shocked responses from his fans and industry peers. Most of his colleagues from Bollywood wrote on their social media that they were ‘shocked’ and ‘heartbroken’ that the wonderful actor with a beautiful smile was compelled to take such an extreme step. How broken and alone he must be, they wondered, and there were some who expressed their regret for not reaching out to him. If only they knew the intensity of his condition…

Sushant’s last release, Chhichhore, was a movie that dealt with the very thing that took his life. In the movie, Sushant played a father whose son fails an exam and feels the need to take his own life because he fears disappointing his parents and is embarrassed about his failures. When his son is fighting for his life in the hospital, Sushant’s character reaches out to his college friends to help him tell his son about their failures, and how they never gave up, and it was still okay in the end. The internet could not stop talking about the bittersweet irony that while on screen, he remained positive and taught us such a beautiful lesson, his reality was much different.

What was different here? We cannot claim to know what the actor must’ve gone through to arrive at this juncture in life. Some say he was depressed; others that he was lonely. One thing that many agree on was that there were signs of problematic behaviour, of something being amiss. His fate could’ve been averted. And yet…. As Anushka Sharma said in her condolence tweet, Sushant Singh Rajput lived in an environment that could not help him through the troubles he was experiencing.

The world of glitz and glamour is a lonely one. Once the cameras are turned off, friends turn the other way; well-wishers can be the ones pushing you into an abyss and trust can be a rare commodity in the cutthroat world of showbiz. It is easily understandable by SSR’s depression and suicide was a shock to his fans. We perceive celebrities as deities or idols of perfection, but rarely as normal people who could be plagued with mental health issues like us. But for his industry peers, the ones who interacted with him or who were on the inside, aware of every fleeting gossip about tinseltown, for them to say they didn’t see the signs, feels a tad difficult to digest.

Didn’t all these stars, the younger lot in particular, hang out together and party often? Didn’t they post pictures of each other on social media, screenshots of WhatsApp conversations they’d always have, and of exotic vacations they took together? They united to promote each other’s work and celebrate at weddings and success parties. Did they never come together to help a peer, then? To check up on each other? To wonder if there was a more insidious reason for their peer’s erratic behaviour, tantrums and in some instances, heavy reliance on substance abuse?

What could be the reason for this oversight? Does this highlight a bigger, more insidious problem underneath? We can write this off as another life claimed by the nefarious 2020 we’ve been having. But could it be that the year has merely aggravated a problem that is already deep-seated in the industry?

Think about it. How many celebrities have we lost to depression and substance abuse, both in India and internationally? More than we’re comfortable admitting—Manmeet Grewal, Kushal Punjabi, Preksha Mehta, Pratyusha Banerjee, Jiah Khan, Nafisa Joseph, Guru Dutt, Robin Williams, Avicii, Chester Bennington, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain. At the same time, how many celebrities have spoken up about the mental health issues they’re facing or have faced at some point in their lives—Deepika Padukone, Honey Singh, Anushka Sharma, Ileana D’Cruz, Shah Rukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, Varun Dhawan and many others.

The staggering statistics indicate that the world of glitz and glamour is indeed a breeding ground for mental health issues. A lot of the blame can be levied on the lifestyle of these stars, which involves hiding any sign of weakness or show of emotion from the scrutiny of cameras. The need to portray a perfect life, one that infuses their onscreen personas with more conviction, and the stresses of keeping their fortunes and lifestyle lofty drive these celebrities into a rabbit hole that is hard to escape.

Theirs is also a world where every personal detail, every sign of vulnerability can be exposed and milked for publicity. This further compels them to keep their troubles hidden, lest someone tries to take undue advantage of them.

And then, there’s also the claustrophobia induced by superficial gender roles rampant in our society, that has its destructive part to play. With everything a heightened and exaggerated façade in the world of showbiz, we cannot overlook how the obligation for ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ to be a certain way could actually draw them deeper into depression.

In a 2016 study published by PLOS ONE journal, it is suggested that due to our society’s rigid gender roles, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men. However, one of the reasons for this difference could be that men don’t often seek help for their mental health. Traditional gender roles decree that men need to be in control of their emotions, hide them, never cry or get sentimental, and never show their weaknesses. This could be the reason why signs of depression in men are not easily identified by the society, and therefore, they’re more likely to maintain a strong façade while crumbling on the inside.

The study also suggests that because of this, men are likely to manifest their mental health issues by resorting to reckless, escapist, abusive behaviour and falling deeply into substance abuse.

Even in the film industry, we’re likely to find that more women tend to be vocal about their mental health issues than men. A leading man is always supposed to be macho, flaunting his bravado, and unaffected by failures. An ideal ‘filmy hero’ is one who is either happily seeing/married to a gorgeous woman (nothing less will do), or is a Casanova with no dearth of affairs. He must be seen smiling at parties even if his movies flop at the BO, or lifting weights at the gym or getting out of a swanky car with his entourage. If he throws a tantrum or reprimands the paparazzi, it must be only a certain way, or he will be trolled. He must be respectful of his seniors and Bollywood royalty, friendly with fans, and like a mentor to the younger lot.

As for the ideal ‘heroine’, she is always dressed for the cameras without a hair out of place, even when she is fresh out of the gym. Her makeup game must be on point, hair in a perfect blowout, kissing, hugging and waving at the world, which appears to be at her feet because she is so beautiful. There must be no chink in her armour, even if her personal life is in shambles or her career requires her to compromise. She must continue to pose for the cameras, arrive in designer wear at parties, and keep up her social media feed over all the issues that she normally talks about. Oh, and if he is in a relationship, her man better not fail because then she would be blamed for it and deemed ‘unlucky’ or a ‘distraction’. What about her career, you ask? Does it matter? As long as she looks stunning and can make crying look pretty, she’ll get roles.

It’s not like everyone’s forced to live this life and put up a happy front. Some do it because they have no choice. The lifestyle that comes with fame is an expensive one to maintain, and therefore, many troubled stars continue to drag themselves to work, living a dual life that messes with them.

That’s not to say those behind the camera are any less troubled. You’ll often hear a filmmaker or producer has gone AWOL after a venture of theirs flopped. Of course, we on the outside would probably buy into the whole ‘taking a break to contemplate’ or ‘finding their next big idea’ charade. But yet again, those on the inside probably know the truth. These people are struggling, and they don’t want to make a spectacle out of it.

Look at how mercilessly we exploited Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The spectacle that news channels created, speculating and theorising, harassing his family for bytes, and even circulating pictures of his lifeless body without a modicum of tact. Do you think they would’ve not sensationalised if SSR was spotted outside a rehab or a clinic for therapy? If he had spoken up about his mental health issues, would the campy Bollywood then have seen him as the same talented leading man or as a troubled star who must be pitied?

So many of his peers and fans put up messages of how “we’re here if anyone wants to talk”. But really, how many of us are actually available? If a guy were to talk about his problems, he would be shot down for being a p***y and letting his emotions show. If a girl were to do it, her company would be deemed too depressing, and she would be shunned for seeking attention. Bollywood is infamous for camps and target or blacklisting certain people who are deemed to be unworthy of being part of a certain circle, is a vile norm. We’ve also witnessed how celebs can target each other with gossip, spread rumours, and construct a lie that becomes the truth. Once hurt by this, it can get hard for any amount of fan support or loved ones to penetrate the shell that the person retreats into.

Where does that leave these stars, who look like they’re burning bright but they’re actually burning out?

SSR’s death has caused an influx of mental heath conversation on social media. But the question is, why does it take a promising young life being snuffed out for us to pay attention? If we talk about it now, only to forget it two days later, it’ll be an even bigger dishonour to his memory.

In Chhichhore, one of the reasons Sushant’s character’s son attempts suicide is because he think his successful, topper parents would be ashamed to have a failure for a son. It takes a full disclosure of his parents’ and their friends’ loser moments to teach him that it is okay to not be okay and fail.

Perhaps the film industry could benefit from its own lessons, the ones that it so beautifully imparts in movies like Chhichhore, Dear Zindagi and Tamasha. And we hope that it means what it says about understanding that staggering loss of a friend, colleague and a brilliant actor, and reaching out to people who show signs of depression. And most importantly, shedding its all-smiles façade to heal the gaping wounds underneath.

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