Friday, December 16, 2011

The Bollywood psych ward


Working on the premise that science is a world inhabited by joyless stiffs in white coats determined to ground flights of fancy with a dose of ECT, the theatrical production The Bollywood Trip poses a simple enough question: if sanity is measured by our grasp on reality, is it mad to dream?
Opening this week at the Southbank Centre in London, Parminder Singh’s barely restrained musical analysis of madness invites the audience to consider whether it is better to accept an existence weighed down and defined by our limitations, or to embrace the illusory life, where we can be anyone we want to be.
In many ways, Bollywood and psychiatry make natural bedfellows since major flights of fantasy are central themes in both. The Bollywood Trip is a competent enough show that uses its revolving stage floor and skateboard ramp set to ensure fluidity of movement. (Alas, the set also encourages some strike-a-pose mimes). Scenes of straight theatre set in a mental hospital are punctuated, Bollywood-style, with song-and-dance outbursts. This might seem like a surefire recipe for bad taste, yet, with the exception of a cringe-inducing dance sequence in straitjackets, director Rolf Heim manages to portray sympathetically the complexities of mental illness as well as its paradox - that those who are mentally ill occasionally seem to have a better grasp of reality.
The central character, King Haroon, is convinced he is a Bollywood superstar. It is a claim his fellow patients at the psychiatric hospital readily believe. The psychiatrists, naturally, don’t buy it. Yet despite failing to “cure” a single patient, they stick rigidly to the rulebook, persisting unsuccessfully with group therapy to treat two other patients, who inevitably fall under Haroon’s glitzy spell. The musical never explains what mental condition Haroon’s fellow patients suffer from, other than that they both seem wildly delusional. Still, their characters are fleshed out in a way that gives them more individual personality than many depictions of mental illness on stage or screen.
The tension between creative imagination and hard science that the musical tries to explore is encapsulated in the relationship between Haroon and his psychiatrist Dr Jens Sloth, where the patient coaches the doctor on love, life and the universe.
To illustrate the importance of letting the mind run free, Haroon spells out early on in the show the nine rasas, or the yoga of nine emotions (helpfully mimed by the dancers in case you might be unsure what “joy” or “sadness” might look like). Haroon announces that the dream-bashing robot that is Dr Sloth must experience such emotions to be a “complete human being”, whatever that means.
“Everything is illusion,” Haroon later professes. So if free will gives us choice, why not devote ourselves to the illusion of happiness? This strikes a chord with Dr Sloth, for he is a man in love with the hospital’s nurse Mette, who seems oblivious to his ardour. And when it comes to wooing, no film genre does it with quite as much gusto as Bollywood. In the magical world of Hindi cinema, it’s all about escapism, with free license to burst into song at any point. The Bollywood Trip nearly makes full use of this formula, albeit with a soundtrack that owes its influence more to David Hasselhoff than Hindi classical singers like Mohammed Rafi. Love must overcome rejection, tragedy is inevitable, everyone learns a lesson and all ends happily with a dance ensemble. Even the dull old Dr Sloth ends up boogie-ing down to bhangra in a red sparkly sequin jacket.
But there’s not really a happy Bollywood ending for Haroon; we learn at the musical’s close that it was all an illusion. Haroon is actually Thomas Lindorf, an orphan from a Mumbai slum adopted by a Danish family. Lindorf’s alter ego is borne of the torment of not knowing where he comes from.
As this and other productions demonstrate, depression and mental illness are increasingly taking centre stage. British comedian Jo Brand often peppers her act with issues of mental health, while the American comic Ruby Wax had a London show earlier this year devoted to depression and bipolar disorder. Comedians may be drawn to talking about mental illness because it is one of the last social taboos, but it’s a useful way of having honest and open conversations about a difficult subject.
While The Bollywood Trip does seem to want to provoke genuine debate about mental illness, it falls short of a proper analysis by succumbing to stereotypes of science. Any credibility built by a sympathetic portrayal of mental illness is shot in the foot by its fundamentally flawed assertion that logic drains the mind of imagination.
Scientists may, quite rightly, battle against mystical mumbo-jumbo and encourage people to see the world as it really is. But in the battle between reality and illusion, when the nemesis comes clad in tight white pants, channelling the magic of love with cheeseball wisdom like “tell her you complete my soul’, I doubt science has much to fear.

No comments:

Post a Comment