Book Review/Hindi Film 101: Shaheen Bhatt’s Memoir About Depression

Thank you Filmikudhi for mentioning this book! It was a very good (and very quick) read. You can buy it for almost no money here. Really, check it out! Less than $2 and less than a 2 hour read.

This is mostly a memoir about depression. It is very clear than the goal is to try to describe the expression of severe depression in a way that will allow the reader to fully understand its horror.

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It succeeds in that goal, and I recommend it for that reason. Descriptions of depression that are written less clearly and specifically can tend to be, well, depressing. You read them and wonder if perhaps there is something wrong with you, if this is what you are feeling. I saw this as someone who is definitely not depressed, and has never been, not medically depressed. I imagine if you are someone who has been or currently is medically depressed, reading one of those more general descriptions can leave you frustrated, because it doesn’t let you recognize your feelings or help in describing them to others. But this book, this is written very well. I read it and think “Thanks be to God, I have never felt anything like this”, and based on the many grateful public reviews on Amazon, it made other people think “Thank you for finally describing what I am feeling, thank you for giving me words I can share with others”.

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Shaheen is very clear that she is lucky in her depression, since her family had the knowledge and resources to help, but is also clear that being rich or loved does not make depression any easier.

The way Shaheen approaches depression is as a monster that is separate from herself. One of the most interesting ideas for me is when she begins to question how much of what she thinks of as “herself” was defined by her illness. Did she cultivate a naturally silent and withdrawn personality so that it would be easier to hide when she was going through a depressive episode? Or is that her actually personality? What I like about this section is that Shaheen rejects the idea of the depression itself as a personality trait, it is an illness and an enemy and not herself, but still accepts that it has forever changed who she is. That kind of specific awareness of mental illness versus mentality is something I imagine only someone who has been through the kind of long term suffering that Shaheen has survived. I am so glad she wrote this book, because it is this level that I don’t think a psychiatrist or a relative of a survivor of depression could understand.

Shaheen was also particularly cursed because her depression arrived so terribly young. The book opens with excerpts from her journal talking about these terrible feelings and misery starting at age 13. In her description, at 13 she began to have these sudden feelings of complete misery, mixed with her regular confusion of puberty. From 15 to 23 she had constant black misery around her at all times. She self-medicated with food and alcohol, but it was only a temporary fix. At 18 she tried to kill herself, but stopped. It scared her so much that she finally, for the first time, talked honestly to her mother about how she was feeling. Her mother took her to a therapist and got her on medication immediately, but she resisted it, feeling like she should be in control, she should be able to fix her own mind. She finally found a good therapist and a medication balance, but still goes through periods of being so sick she cannot get out of bed. Her being “healthy” is that she still dreams and wishes to die, but is not planning to take active steps towards it. For her, this is normal, this is the only adult life she has ever had, she can hardly remember her first 12 years when she didn’t have the constant pain, or else the constant fear of pain.

That’s the one flaw in the book. Or, not really flaw, the one thing that is inescapable in a personal memoir like this. Shaheen doesn’t seem to understand that things are, someday, going to get even better than they are now. She talks about how it’s good that now, even while in the middle of an episode, she can remember it will end someday. Or that she will wish she could just die, but not actually try to kill herself any more because she is too afraid to do it. I don’t want to tell her story for her, or pretend to diagnose her, or anything. But when I read this book, it felt like someone who is going to be better someday, and doesn’t even know it herself. Like perhaps if I talked to her now, read some of these sections to her, she would say “no, I was wrong, I am better than that now already”. I can’t imagine how you can avoid that in a memoir about a chronic illness, you would have to write it on your deathbed in order to have a full understanding of the ups and downs of your life and your treatment, it is always going to be just a slice of time, and it is always going to feel to you like you are writing about what it is “always” like.

I don’t mean the phases like this, Shaheen describes how she can’t sleep, she can’t think, it is all horrible, but she knows that will go away. I mean in a larger sense, that Shaheen thinks her life will always be about feeling guilt for what her family has put up with, feeling regret for what she missed out on, and constant fear of another attack. That, I think, will get better some day.

All of that is very good and very interesting on its own. But this isn’t a mental health blog, this is a movie blog! So let’s talk about the very very small part of the book that is related to understanding the film industry.

The biggest thing to understand is that we shouldn’t think the superficial parts we see of celebrities, the things we envy, are all they are. Alia is spoiled and succeeded through nepotism. Sure, maybe, but she also spent her life from age 8 until now living with an older sister who was slowly dying of mental pain. Truly until now, Alia and Shaheen live together. So Alia’s whole wealthy independent young woman who can afford her own luxury flat lifestyle, is also about finding a way for her sister to have some feeling of independence and maturity without the deadly risk of living alone. Perhaps her bouncy cheerful “cute” way of behaving is less about pleasing the media and fans now that she is famous, and more about a lifetime of distracting and pleasing parents who can’t handle another unhappy child. Not saying that is the case, just saying that it could be, we don’t know, and we shouldn’t assume that anyone (famous or not) has a better life than we do, we shouldn’t envy them or think of them as somehow impervious to the problems of the world.

Shaheen gives us a glimpse into the life of these famous families. She was the daughter of a successful director and her family had a film studio. But she remembers growing up in a two bedroom house in the suburbs, like any other middle-class family. The crazy wealth and fame and life in a bubble, that is only for very very few people in film, and even for them only recently. Alia lives that life now, but I don’t think her cousin Emraan does, or any of the other film people in her family. Shaheen also points gently to the sins of the previous generation, that her parents fell in love while her father was still technically married to someone else. That part of the reason their childhood was so scrounging and poor was because her father was supporting two families. And, the most vivid story, that her father missed her birth because he showed up at the maternity home so drunk the watchman drove him away. He came back, and her mother never said anything because she knew he was struggling with his own demons. 5 days later, Shaheen turned her newborn head away from him when he was holding her because the smell of alcohol on his breath was so noxious, and it shocked him, and he never drank again. She had a happy normal childhood, with the same kind of flaws and sadnesses that any “normal” childhood might have, a father who is a recovering alcoholic, stepsiblings and her father’s second family, and so on. Even in the previous generation, fame and popularity didn’t protect them from sadness.

Shaheen also gives a little glimpse to the “normal” problems of a child of fame. When she was a young teen, she and Alia went to visit their glamorous older sister Pooja on a photoshoot. Pooja asked the photographer to take some photos of the 3 sisters together after he finished the magazine shoot. He took the photos, and was struck by the similarity between Pooja and Alia, both pale-skinned and round-faced and adorable. He started taking more and more photos of just the two of them, and Shaheen went off to play with the dogs that lived in the house. Later, the photos of Alia and Pooja ended up going public, but Shaheen was not included. Shaheen gives us enough information to understand that Pooja thought she was doing the right thing. Shaheen loved dogs at that age and hated the camera, Pooja tried to include her but she didn’t seem happy to be there, so she let her go and let Alia (who loved the camera) stay. The photographer suggested printing the photos of Alia and Pooja because Alia looked like a little Pooja (which was obviously true), no one thought that silent unhappy Shaheen was being hurt. But she was. It’s the same kind of unhappy moment that most children go through, that hurt that is unintended and yet still hurts when you are 13 and sensitive, but it’s carried out on a national stage. And it’s only gotten worse since then, at least this only came up because Pooja gave them the special treat of watching her at a photoshoot and the photographer got carried away. And Shaheen only had to listen to her family and friends talk about how pretty Alia was in the photos, what a perfect pair of sisters they were. Now, it is impossible to escape the photographers who follow you everywhere, and the online commentators who feel they have the right to judge children just because they have famous parents.

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It was probably this photo shoot, with adorable little girl Alia and dark-skinned over weight unhappy on camera Shaheen just out of frame.

What was also fascinating was Shaheen talking about the judgements she made on herself. How she felt like she “should” be working in the film industry, because the rest of her family is. And how she felt bad about herself because she wasn’t as successful as the rest of her family. This is another section where Shaheen does a good job separating out the symptoms of her disease and her responses to it. The disease made her miserable and in pain and unable to get out of bed. Because of that, she was never able to really move forward in a career or any part of life. And because she couldn’t move forward, she felt bad and guilty and unhappy with herself. She’s on the way to a better balance, accepting that her life is what it is, but still struggles with these feelings of failure. Remove the depression, and this could be the same story that any less successful child of a famous family tells. Uday Chopra could have the same feelings, anger at not succeeding as much as he feels like he should be before finally accepting that he is what he is. So could Harshwardhan Kapoor or Abhishek Bachchan or Imraan Khan. And we know they have good loving parents, because if they didn’t have good parents, that kind of pressure would destroy them.

Shaheen talks generally about how part of learning to live with depression is understanding that it was a hard miserable slog for her family who loved her as well as for her, that she wasn’t alone in this confusion and misery. But she doesn’t go into details. I’m not sure if that is because she doesn’t fully understand what all she changed about her families life, or because she doesn’t feel it is her story to tell. But I think we can take some interesting assumptions about how it has affected the more public artistic parts of her family. Alia was 8 years old when Shaheen first began to get sick, the older/younger child dynamic could have got upended strangely with Shaheen becoming the focus of so much concern. Even the best parents struggle to give fair attention to both children when one of them is so troubled. And so, possibly, Alia grew up with an odd combination of the “cute” “happy” “simple” personality, the personality that would make her parents happy and be the opposite of her sister, and at the same time a hidden core of maturity and sophisticated emotional understanding. Which has made her into a fabulous natural actress, able to charm and delight onscreen and also reach shocking depths of emotion in a moment.

Not to mention having a front row seat to understanding the appearance of everything from insomnia to anxiety to crippling depression. No wonder her directors keep giving her roles that build from small things to massive emotional breakdowns. Even something happy like Shaandar has Alia with insomnia.

Shaheen talks generally about her mother as always being there, always supportive and loving, and her father being gone a lot working. Alia has said the same things, about her father being out of the house a lot when they were little. But on the other hand, when Shaheen talks about the things that get her through the darkest nights, they are her father’s lessons. He may not have been physically present in their childhoods much of the time, but he obviously was still a wonderful father who was there when they truly needed him. And Mahesh’s sophisticated understanding of human emotions, his enormous capacity for forgiveness and strength that we can see onscreen, is also there in how he talked to his children. Shaheen remembers as a child, before she was sick, being teased at school for being “stupid”, and her father explaining that if it was true, then there was no reason to feel bad, it was simply someone saying the truth to her. And if it was a lie, and she knew it was a lie, than why care? Neither truth nor lies have the power to hurt. It’s a little glimpse, but it confirms for me that Mahesh is not “just” a shallow popular filmmaker, but a sensitive thinker, a philosopher, an artist. And it gives me another idea of Alia, if she was raised with this sort of attitude to the world, than maybe she can survive all the horrible things the press say about her.

There were little things like that which gave me a new idea of the filmi part of this family, but it’s really not about that. Don’t read this book if you are looking for a glimpse at the world of fame or anything like that. Read it if you are sincerely interested in a well-written book about living with depression. And as a side-effect, don’t be surprised if it makes you feel a little more sympathetic and forgiving towards the famous families we see in magazines, because we can never know someone else’s pain.

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