Facing up to the facade: We must do better on mental health in Bollywood, says Anupama Chopra
Showbusiness is a brutal field. It wears one down. And while it is always hard to create a mental-healthcare system, it is time to try, says Anupama Chopra.
I first met Nitin Chandrakant Desai on the sets of 1942: A Love Story.
He had created a fictional British-era town named Kasauni, including a bazaar and army headquarters, in Mumbai’s Film City. The 1994 release was his first major film. Nitin went on to become one of the most celebrated art directors in Indian cinema, wowing audiences with his sets in landmark films such as Lagaan (2001), Devdas (2002) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008).
Nitin was the king of big. For Mansoor Khan’s Josh in 2000, he created a Goan town in Film City, over seven acres of land, with a 125-ft-tall church facade, bakeries and a café with original Mario Miranda drawings on the walls.
In 1998, when I interviewed him for India Today magazine, he said: “There is so much opportunity here. Our sets will soon be comparable to Hollywood.” On August 2, Nitin died by suicide. He hanged himself at his sprawling ND Studios in Karjat.
There are complex issues at play here, but Nitin’s tragic demise brings to the fore once again the issue of mental health in the entertainment industry.
Showbusiness has always been a place of brutal and unique pressures: uncertainty, intense competition, public failure and fleeting success, amid constant scrutiny and vocal judgement (exacerbated in recent years by social media).
Fame and money don’t provide a shield, as actor Deepika Padukone, who went public with her battle with clinical depression in 2015, can attest to. She was on a career high, yet grappling with suicidal thoughts.
Deepika’s vocal stance and her work to destigmatise mental illness (she runs the Live Love Laugh Foundation with her sister, the golfer Anisha Padukone) has helped raise awareness. But creating organised and sustained mental-health support for the estimated 2 million professionals working in the Hindi film industry is an uphill task.
Nitin Tej Ahuja, CEO of the Producers Guild of India, tells me that supporting mental health is “the highest priority” for the Guild. “While the specifics of what support system is available to crew members is the prerogative of each production house, we periodically share advisories and resources with members that may be useful in this critical goal,” he adds.
Another producer who did not wish to be named said, “The question is: How do you design a programme that gives competent help to the multitudes of problems people have? Who funds it, especially since so many people on a film crew are freelancers? And beyond that, there is always the question of liability in case it doesn’t work. But,” he added, “this is a huge issue that requires everyone in the industry to work together to create a meaningful and workable support system.”
In Hollywood, a few films have provided on-set trauma counsellors. Among these were Florian Zeller’s The Son (2022), which dealt with teenage depression and suicide, and the 2021 series The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s novel about slaves attempting to flee the deep south.
In the UK, since 2021, the British Film Institute has underwritten a programme that funds “well-being facilitators” who advise productions on stress and mental health. They are not but can refer crew to qualified psychotherapists.
In India too, a few companies are providing support. The talent agency Collective Artists Network introduced the Employee Assistance Program for its staff in early 2020. It is a counselling service paid for by the organisation. Amazon Prime provides a similar service: free, confidential, mental-health support from professional counsellors who are available 24x7.
The onus still lies on individual companies and producers, which is clearly not enough. Finding a scalable solution is challenging, but I hope that the various associations in this ecosystem invest time and energy in creating one. Because it is humane and necessary, and an industry so large, so influential and so at-risk cannot afford to ignore this any longer.