Setting the stage for mental health awareness
Depression, the word supposed to be confined to bedroom conversations in India, suddenly became acceptable when actor Deepika Padukone publicly spoke it on social media. For a lot of people struggling to smile between doses of antidepressants, it did become easier to accept that just like a typhoid or a kidney problem, their brain was going through a tough time. But decades before social media was born, a clutch of theatre people were toiling hard to drive this point home.
In 1996, we did a play called She is Mad where we talked about the problems of the implementation of the Mental Ill Health Act. This dealt with the whole issue of where does madness lie, says Sanjay Kumar, founder Pandies theatre group.
Kumar, who has spent years doing activist theatre, adds, In current times that we're living in, the lines between sanity and insanity are practically non-existent. Every other person is bipolar or dealing with some kind of mental issues. Perhaps that's why it becomes so important for a play like Unravel to be staged in the city the second time within four months. Presented by theatre group, Kaivalya Plays, Unravel is an interactive theatre production that explores issues related to mental illness.
Says Varoon P Anand, the director, Even though depression is considered a trendy topic now that movie stars have talked about their experiences, people would still react very negatively if a family member were to suggest that they wanted to go for therapy. Removing the stigma that a mental health illness or condition means that the individual is somehow damaged and shouldn't talk about it is our hope. That people can sit across from each other and empathise and listen.
But Anand has had his own share of struggles while staging this play. Delhi theatre groups deal with immense bureaucracy, a lack of funding, no true rehearsal spaces and just about no revenue to stage shows.
Imagine how much harder that is when you set out to do something important and still have to go through the grunt work of trying to sell a play, he says. ROLE PLAY In a country which finds it so hard to deal with mental health issues, one wonders how theatre helps.
Senior theatre person Sohaila Kapur says, Theatre is extremely cathartic. It always helps when psychologically when you are not yourself and putting yourself in someone else's shoes. In an oblique way, you're able to gauge your responses. That's why there's a greater understanding.
OF FORM AND FORMAT
Unravel was first enacted in December 2018 at Max Mueller Bhavan, marking the centenary of the publication of Bertolt Brecht's first play. It includes performances and settings that evoke recognition of a symptom of mental illness.
The play combines the interactive aspect of improv shows (short for improvisation) while also applying a show within a show format that depicts the germination of the idea of the show itself. A sort of mini-theatrical inception. The difference between other treatments and improv is that you are never alone when you do improv. There's always another actor, another performer watching your back, and this creates a support group of non-judgmental friends, says Anand.
This play doesn't draw firm conclusions about improv curing depression. We also don't suggest improv as an alternative to therapy but, rather, as a supplement, adds Anand.
With Pandies, Kumar has been using theatre workshops for the most neglected sections of society, whether it is slums, faraway villages or railway stations. One of his most popular workshops was at Nithari.
He says, If you're living in a patriarchal society like ours where people are talking about temples and gods and on the other hand there are patriarchal forces that are suppressing all young people, particularly women, how can you not be mad? And, that's why, theatre is relevant.
Adds Anand, The culture of watching cinema has changed, with single-screen cinemas making way for multiplexes, multiplexes making way for streaming platforms on phones. The alienating nature of being glued to your phone has a natural reaction that people are looking for something that addresses the anxiety that comes from separating oneself from real-world interactions and moving to comment boxes on social media. There is a dearth of empathy. As Kumar aptly summarises, Madness has become a norm.