It was my own fault. I looked to a Bollywood movie for validation; Alia Bhatt as a prettier version of my own hurt for years. Or maybe I wanted something to translate what I had been trying to tell my parents for months — the mainstreaming of mental illness. That this is how your mental health chips away without your noticing, that these are the ways brown women are taught to function methodically even when you are unable to sleep, or need to sleep too much. To wake up three or four times in a night and watch hours of The Office and sleep through class.
I wanted Dear Zindagi to be my recourse. It wasn’t going to be perfect, I already expected that. It was Bollywood. I was just hoping to hold onto the essence, the gist — to point and locate. Moments of empathy, of reality. No trivialization of mental health. But that’s not what I got.
Conversations about my mental health were painstaking little sermons of me doing a lot of translating to my parents. They had sent me to America for an education, but I returned with emotional and mental baggage. In America, they had words for the baggage — they call it anxiety, depression. Back home, those words don’t exist. To explain them was to divulge their consequences. Like a lack of sleep, lack of concentration, hope, panic attacks during class that made me step out, crying then being too tired to cry. And a lot of forgetting.
“But Bollywood rarely delves into nuance. The movie reduced those with mental health needs to the image of an attractive, financially successful young woman living alone in Bombay.”
I was repeating this, while being unable to give concrete answers to my parents worried looks. My mom told me to go on walks and pray more and care less, she thought the world was too heavy if I thought about it for too long, but I couldn’t care to listen. I would talk about myself in a detached way, relieving the tension we all felt. In abstraction, the pain wasn’t their daughter’s, and the three of us could just figure out a pain outside of us. So Dear Zindagi, I thought, would show this. The movie would show, in a succinct 2 to 3 hour form, what I had spent months trying to explain.
I was hoping for nuance surrounding the conversation. It didn’t have to be mine, necessarily, because I still don’t have a clear narrative about my mental health, nor do I want to admit that my mental health is worth having a narrative about. But Bollywood rarely delves into nuance. The movie reduced those with mental health needs to the image of an attractive, financially successful young woman living alone in Bombay. The stress of my mental health, and the mental health of a lot of South Asians, is related to the pressure of academic, career, and financial success, so this was already a departure from the majority of South Asians dealing with their mental health.
Her symptoms were also reduced to a few choice stereotypes: Alia Bhatt’s character, Kaira, has a fear of abandonment given her parents’ choices to work abroad during her childhood, leaving her without her parents. At various points in the movie, she was upset over her love life and couldn’t commit to anyone, she was shitty to her parents because the privilege of financial independence afforded her bad manners, and she had a successful career that she could throw herself into and relieve herself of as she pleased. She even had the luxury to afford mental health resources. And, because it was a Bollywood movie, all she needed was Shahrukh Khan to tell her to make up with her parents and she would be okay. It worked, obviously, because the movie ends with her meeting a new guy, the perfect happy ending.
I don’t know how to talk about my mental health in a way that isn’t flippant. When I feel marginally better, I stop going to therapy. I deal with it in unhealthy ways, like letting myself get really busy and then burning out and not doing anything but watching TV Shows for days. I don’t know how not to be overworked. In the pit of it, I only left my room to eat. When I would, I would eat unhealthily, either too much or too little. I’m a compulsive liar about how I’m doing, even to my own self, and have perfected the art of letting on that I’m not doing too well, without admitting the depth of my state. I’m unable to concentrate on one thing for too long, including conversations with loved ones. I get short-tempered and impatient if they want to talk for too long.
“In America, I have been told to put the care of myself before anyone else’s. I never learned how to do that. Self-care can, often, feel like a betrayal to the legacy my female ancestors left for me.”
I’d like to question how many of these things are just aspects of my personality and how many of them are results of my mental illnesses. Sometimes I feel like I’m hiding behind my mental health for being an extremely mediocre person in a competitive setting. I see similar qualities in my family, and it makes me question if temper or impatience or irrationality can really be genetic, because depression or anxiety can. When I lose my temper at home, my mom will look at my dad and jokingly say to him, “She’s definitely your daughter.” I think back, guilty, to all the times when I was younger and my dad’s temper confined us all to smaller spaces. I know mine can do the same to the people I love. He’s better now, and it makes me think I, too, will get better.
The bar for pain tolerance is high in the women of my family. No one has said it outright, but I have seen the brown women in my life package away pain and anger into places with other brown women, the kitchen, the masjid, dinner with friends. In America, I have been told to put the care of myself before anyone else’s. I never learned how to do that. Self-care can, often, feel like a betrayal to the legacy my female ancestors left for me. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel that dramatic. Sometimes it just feels like American nonsense from people who don’t know my context. It felt like an insult to the way I had learned how to cope and the way the women who raised me cope.
Bollywood romanticizes the pain of South Asian women. I grew up watching movies like Devdas, where Paro had to be hit by Devdas to soothe his ego as she married someone else. Movies where women had to be big enough to take back their cheating husbands, in the name of feminine strength. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Rahul’s mom advises Anjali that men are weak. So women have to be their strength. That kind of familial weight and social burden we put on South Asian women exists in our communities, too. It extends even in arenas such as academia, careers, marriage — any aspect of our personal and social lives involves our compromise.
“If I can ignore how I’m doing, I will.”
The suicide rate among South Asian women is higher than the U.S. average. The stigma associated with talking about mental illness is part of the problem. But our definitions of strength and weakness subjects women to take on more labor than a person should. South Asian women have to be the ambassador for our families, our culture, our faiths, and now, when so much is stacked against us, how we present ourselves matters even more. To have a mental illness, with so much else going on, feels like an annoying itch I’d rather ignore than deal with.
I still don’t really know how to talk about my mental illness without needing to laugh at myself, a little. I still downplay its effect on my life. I’m trying to be highly-functioning anxious or cool depressed girl, and not scarily anxious or too numb to cry, since those seem like better trade-offs. If I can ignore how I’m doing, I will. I’ll lie to people who love me when they ask how I’m doing. I’m trying to deal with it, though, without a brown man telling me how.