Picture this. On prime-time reality TV, contestants are asked to “pretend” that they are physically challenged, while one among them would pretend to be a doctor. Laughter and merriment ensue as the contestants outdo each other in portraying the stereotypes associated with those with physical disabilities. A laughter riot ensues as contestants compete to come across as one with the most insensitive behavior, and derogatory words are freely thrown around to describe the physical disabilities.

Does this come across as insensitive and demeaning? Well, it should.

Unfortunately, the above incident took place recently except that instead of lampooning the physically challenged, the target of mockery were people with mental illnesses. Unless you have been living under a rock, you would have heard of the Tamil reality TV show “Bigg Boss” telecast on Vijay TV. I have watched a few of the episodes and my social media feed has kept me up to date on the happenings in the show. However, I have been appalled over the proceedings in the last two episodes, wherein the house was turned into a “research Centre” and contestants were made to portray terribly insensitive caricatures of people with mental illnesses.

The contestants are assigned mental illnesses that are terribly inaccurate, including in one case – transgender-ism. One could write entire pages on the number of things that are wrong in this episode, and it still would not do justice to the pathetically ill-informed portrayal of mental health on the show.

But indeed, should we be shocked? For decades, mental illness has been used as a plot device to invoke humor in Indian cinema.  There is prejudice against the mentally ill, with them being stereotyped as ‘mad’ and expected to be violent. The symptoms are usually exaggerated or falsely portrayed just to increase the entertainment quotient, feeding out of the viewer’s lack of awareness. Even when portrayed in a non-comic context, mental illnesses were used as a convenient way to move the story forward.

At a time when Indians are finally learning to open up about mental health issues, is it too much to expect a TV channel that prides itself on being progressive, to not make a mockery of mental health and the millions of Indians who deal with them daily?




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