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A beautiful friendship


Doctor-actor Mohan Agashe on how movies, sensitively done, can help us understand mental illness.

Mental illness has long been the source for comedy or creepy horror in cinema as seen in countless portrayals of the violent, hysterical 'paagal' (mad person) in Bollywood, the murderous Norman Bates in 'Psycho', the uncontrollable schizophrenic and so forth. But cinema has also been used as a powerful vehicle to change perceptions about mental health. Veteran actor and psychiatrist Dr Mohan Agashe explored this subject in his keynote address at the Social Theory Forum Program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston recently.

Agashe himself has successfully bridged the two worlds of cinema and the medical field. While the audience is familiar with Agashe's roles in the award-winning films of Satyajit Ray, Mira Nair, Shyam Benegal, and his iconic Nana Phadnavis in Vijay Tendulkar's play 'Ghashiram Kotwal', his work in the field of psychiatry has also had a far-reaching impact. As advisor to the Maharashtra Government, he established the Maharashtra Institute of Mental Health and was instrumental in reorganising the mental health services in the state. He worked extensively in the aftermath of the devastating Latur earthquake of 1993 in for victims' psychosocial rehabilitation.

Cinema and modern psychology have long been associated with each other since their genesis. The curtain rose on cinema in 1895, with the Lumiere Brothers screening the first film ever. The same year marked the publication of Sigmund Freud's 'Studies in Hysteria'. In a candid chat, Agashe talked about the role of cinema in health awareness and education.

How can cinema be used for education?

A film has a psychological impact on the viewer and can also be used as an effective tool for education and learning. In recent years, there have been a few films that have dealt with mental health and behavioural conditions with sensitivity, like A Beautiful Mind, Taare Zameen Par - and these films have made a remarkable change in public perceptions. To give you a personal example, many years ago, I volunteered to meet teachers in Pune's schools to discuss dyslexia and other learning disabilities in the classroom. But they all told me that there was no such thing. Their attitude was that if you are stern with the student and discipline him or her accordingly, the student will pick up his books and pay attention, problem solved. Now, after a film like Taare Zameen Par addressed the issue of learning disabilities, people became aware of dyslexia and then there was a queue of teachers and professors who came to me for advice on how they could overcome it! The difference in attitude that cannot be achieved via written communication can be brought about by an emotional appeal to the senses - something that the film was able to do effectively.

To understand this concept, how do you learn something or gain knowledge?

Through information via books, academic learning and personal experience. Intelligence is a combination of experience and information. Literacy has become associated with intelligence but what are the tools that everybody uses before the age of 6, before writing? Image and sound. A film uses both image and sound to convey a certain message to the audience. Today's education is biased towards cognitive or cerebral skills. So that excludes a lot of intelligent children because their progress is marked only by their ability to read the textbook. The image in a film, however, is a democratic tool for education - anyone can see it and quickly understand its core message, better than a textbook. It can generate interest in a particular subject or issue in the minds of the students. Educational entertaining films are available and can be made - so it's just a question of looking for them.

You have also said that cinema can be used as a tool by therapists.

I recently gave a presentation at Harvard Medical School's Department of Psychiatry where we discussed the importance of audio-visual literacy in health education. We screened Umesh Kulkarni's Three of Us - which follows a day in the life of a family where the child has cerebral palsy. The idea was to show the reality of a family that has to live with their child's condition. A doctor is trained to see a health condition as a series of DNA codes that can be treated with certain serums etc. But if doctors can also get an insider's view of how the patient and his family will deal with the condition on a daily basis, which will give them a holistic understanding of the condition. If a short film like that can generate interest, then the process of learning becomes easier. I call this a 'cinematic diet' ! You go on a food diet when you have eaten too many wrong foods. Similarly, if you have seen too many mindless films, it would be good to go on a 'cinematic diet' by watching a few thoughtful films that will inform, educate and entertain!

Did being a psychiatrist help you as an actor?

To be very honest, my theatre helped me in psychiatry rather than the other way round. The reason is that you need to have some 'performance' intelligence when you are acting which develops other skills. As a psychiatrist, when you are listening to your patient explaining his symptoms, you need to have empathy, not sympathy. Cerebral intelligence cannot help you develop empathy. Empathy is when you can put yourself in the other man's shoes - and that is where my experience in theatre helped.

Talking about theatre, you brought the German GRIPS theatre to India, which was also revolutionary in children's theatre.

GRIPS will celebrate its 25th year in India. I was drawn to it because it brings the real world of adults into the realm of children's theatre, which is usually restricted to fairy tales and characters involving demons, magicians and so on. Usually children are protected from the real world by parents - so they have no idea of the grey areas of life. A better way to introduce reality and contemporary issues to children is through realistic children's dramas. Through an entertaining play they can understand these ideas.

You were in Boston just a few days after the Marathon bombing. What was your assessment of the response there?

What struck me was that the response in Boston has been symbolic - people will light candles, place flowers at the site, talk about the victims. I had worked with a research team in the aftermath of the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra where the response was less symbolic.

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