'Breathe: Into the Shadows' Reinforces Stigma Around Mental Health

The series recently released on Amazon Prime Video

4 min read
A poster of Breathe: Into The Shadows.

By the time I finish writing this sentence, I can think of at least three movies belonging to the thriller genre with the climax characterised by the protagonist/antagonist having some sort of mental or behavioural disorder. It is not unusual for any kind of mental disorder to find its place in various films and pop culture narratives.

When Deepika Padukone, followed by other influential personalities, came out with their stories about depression, it steered the conversation around mental health to a new direction. While movies such as Dear Zindagi portrayed sensitive conversations around mental health, social media influencers churned out (and continue to do so) one content after another around its importance. As a result, depression and anxiety began to be viewed through a much kinder and empathetic lens.

However, the bizarre portrayal of other conditions like multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia in Indian celluloid has definitely added to the woes of stigma patients struggle with every day. Pick any five psychological thrillers, and at least three will have the protagonist (essentially the killer) suffering from either schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder.

Breathe:Into The Shadows, despite having a promising premise backed by stellar performances, limp-walks on the crutches of similar archaic tropes. Unfortunately, in 2020, it does leave a bitter taste in your mouth when a series on a mainstream web platform helmed by a star chooses to go back a hundred steps as we are trying to navigate forward positive conversations around mental health and eradicate the stigma around it.

In 2005 Anniyan, the Tamil movie starring Vikram and directed by S.Shankar, hit the screens. One look at the poster and it tells you it’s an action-thriller flick with a generous amount of blood and gore. No brownies for guessing who the murderer is. It’s the protagonist revealed to be suffering from split-personality disorder and uses his alter-personality to murder the wrong doers of the society.

Darr is another classic example. The portrayal of a clinically-obsessed lover had catapulted Shah Rukh Khan’s stardom to another level. However, what was shown as a violent obsession was as a result of trauma suffered by Rahul (Shah Rukh) after he lost his mother. Unfortunately, this aspect was ignored in the entire narrative. In the end, Rahul is killed to justify that there is no place for such violent monstrosity in our society. Even the title Darr further vilified Rahul’s character and propelled forward a narrative that such people are frightening.

Shah Rukh Khan in a still from Darr.
Shah Rukh Khan in a still from Darr.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

In 2008 released Ghajini by A.R Murgadoss. Aamir Khan’s Sanjay Singhania develops anterograde amnesia after a violent encounter with a dubious criminal. To avenge the death of his lover, he is out plotting to hack the murderer. Sanjay with anterograde amnesia is shown as a violent, aggressive man looking for vengeance, a complete contrast to his romantic personality before the tragedy.

These are a few examples wherein the complex and sensitive conditions of mental disorders are constantly used as meat for thriller content. The characters are turned into villains, shown as terrifying beings or treated with utmost apathy. In Aashiqui 2, Rahul (played by Aditya Roy Kapur) is a depressed alcoholic who chooses to kill himself as he considers himself an obstacle for the woman he loves and her career. More often than not, these characters are either shown as either one-dimensional or scary their only 'punishment' being death or remorse.

With so much being spoken about mental health these days, one can imagine that things are changing and conversations have evolved. However, Breathe 2 casts a shadow of doubt if at all things have changed.

Brutal murders. Check. Ominous background score when the character with personality disorder appears on screen. Check. Cat & mouse chase. Check. Gimmicky representation of personality disorder symptoms. Check. The Amazon Prime web show ticks all the boxes it shouldn’t have while while delving into the human psyche and trying to understand the complexity of the mind.

I wish the ‘thrill’ in any thriller would not stem from the symptoms and conditions of a particular disorder. At this day and age of such heightened awareness, I wished to see a character with personality disorder in a film/series in a more empathetic light. Instead, all we get is a tedious backstory to explain and justify his mental health. To see such an impoverished portrayal of mental health the celluloid is frustrating as it does nothing but reinforces the very stigma we all are fighting to eradicate.

(Bhavna Devchoudhury works as a content strategist in an advertising firm in Ahmedabad. She spends most of her time reading, writing and looking up authors on social media. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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