While mental illness is looked upon with shame and denial in any culture, that taboo takes a specific form in Indian-American culture. Not the least of which is negative attitudes in this country towards immigrants that exacerbate stress-related impairments, along with more recent manifestations of racial profiling related to terrorism that has unfairly impacted the South Asian community here. Rehana Mirza is a young female director who explores some of these issues in Hiding Divya, her dramatic debut about emotional breakdown striking one Indian-American family. Here’s my conversation by phone with the filmmaker.
What inspired you to make a film on the subject of mental illness in the Indian-American community?
REHANA MIRZA: Mental illness in that community is something that’s not talked about, and it definitely has a lot of stigma. So I wanted to create a film that could address mental illness, and try to eradicate some of the stigma. And I feel that film is a medium to reach many people. So that’s why I set about making this movie.
Why did you decide to have as the mentally ill in your movie, only females?
RM: For me, I’m drawn to female characters. I want to see strong, three-dimensional nuanced female characters on the screen. I don’t get to see that enough.
And I really wanted to create something that had three generations of women dealing with this issue. So I was interested in the grandmother/mother/daughter relationships. So all those things really interested me.
Now, there’s also a stigma connected to mental illness throughout US culture. So how do you see it as different, and also the same, in the Indian-American community?
RM: I did do research on that. And the reason I wrote the film, is that a South Asian family friend had actually asked us to create a film about mental illness. Because her family was struggling with the issue, and they had no outlet.
You know, nobody would talk about it, and she had absolutely no guides, and no way to deal with it. And I think particularly within the South Asian communities, there’s a real issue with acknowledging any sorts of problems, whether physical or mental.
So there’s just not wanting to air these problems, it’s like they’re meant to be hidden. And so I wanted to make these issues in a particular community more universal, even if the nuances are slightly different.
For example in my research, I learned that a lot of these families will try to use Eastern medicines. And they think those will solve the problem. They also feel that prayer is a solution.
And because marriage is so important in South Asian culture, there’s also this guilt that so-called ‘bad blood’ can be carried on through a family. And that their children will be ostracized in the community, and will not be able to find a good mate.
So those are the issue that may have a lot of crossover into other cultures. But they’re very specific in the South Asian communities.
Do the attitudes towards mental illness differ in any way between India and that community here?
RM: I think so. For me, having grown up in the United States and creating this film, I was also looking at cultural differences, and generational differences. And I think in India, there is probably even a greater sense of denial.
Is anything being done to change those attitudes?
RM: Well, I think it starts with dialogue. And for me, creating this film was a way of starting that dialogue. There are also different organizations cropping up here, as well as in India, that deal with mental illness within the community. And offer services both for the person dealing with mental illness, and supportive services for the family.
And what about the stresses that may cause mental illness related to being immigrants or outsiders in this country, especially with the misguided racial profiling now connected to terrorism, and unjustly directed at the Indian-American community as well?
RM: Yeah, that’s always an aspect of my work, how others view the characters that I’m creating. And that does have a lot of impact on the immigrant community. For example, in the film the grandmother is ostracized by the other patients.
And a lot of times they don’t want to go into these care centers, because they are ostracized. And there isn’t that sense of community there. So they are ostracized at both ends. From their own community for having mental illness, and from the community offering services.
Because there are all these stereotypes that manifest themselves, when they see a person of South Asian descent. And that scene in the hospital actually did happen to the family for whom I created this film.
Her father had actually shot himself, and still there was this silence in the community about it. And the staff told her family, there’s nothing we can do for him because he doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t ask for anything.
And he actually speaks English fluently! But it was part of his withdrawal. So it was actually a symptom of his mental illness, that they were attributing to him being an immigrant.
So there’s such a double edged sword, when stereotypes are being used. But there are definitely certain pressures that immigrants face, and there need to be outlets to deal with that.
Would you say there are gender differences in those communities, regarding the mentally ill?
RM: Yes, there’s probably a great deal of pressure on males to be the breadwinner, and females to be the caretaker. So if there are any problems with the children, those are blamed on the mother. So that sort of issue arises.
And as for the patients themselves, I think there are stereotypes viewing the males as violent. And viewing the female as like a crazy woman. And that female stereotype of oh, it’s just hormones, you know?
But those are just from my own personal observations. I can’t say what’s true across the board, in terms of what gender biases there are. But I think the biases towards the mentally ill are so strong in general, that the gender biases really even out.
Since we’re discussing gender differences, what do you feel are the challenges you face as a female director, and a woman of color?
RM: You know, within the South Asian community, there are a lot of strong female directors that have come before me. So I’m lucky in that way, that I have role models, like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta. But they are coming from a different perspective.
They’re more international, dealing with issues within India, and within the UK. But for me, I’m embarking on a very different route. I’m sort of going for the independent, New York City, American film.
And so, it’s a mix of challenges. As a woman filmmaker, you look out there, and wonder why is the number of women making movies out there so low.
And then once you go beyond that and just want to make your art and do your work, there are challenges in finding the right team. And people who will believe in your vision.
And finding those who will be inspired by a woman filmmaker. So I think that’s really important, as a woman, to find people who are a hundred percent behind your vision.
What about being a daughter in a South Asian family, and how they react to your choice of a rather unconventional pursuit for a woman?
RM: Oh yeah! I started off early trying to defy those conventions. So for me, it’s been a long process of working out going against conventions. But it stems from the tradition of wanting a daughter to have a stable life, and be cared for.
But I think that I’ve shown along the way that I can take care of myself. And that this is a passion, and that it provides for me as well. And in a way that nothing else can.
What do you hope to convey with your film, especially to the culturally diverse audiences out there?
RM: I really wanted to show a regular family, just trying to make it through a normal day and trying to deal with those problems. As opposed to the tendency to romanticize mental illness, as a genius or artistic illness.
So an open attitude would really go a long way towards letting people know that they can seek treatment, and seek help. Or just even begin to talk about it. So I hope my film gives people the strength to go seek help.
And I think it resonates in the same way, for different cultures. And I hope people can recognize themselves in my movie, regardless of what culture they are.
What are you up to next?
RM: I’m working on an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland. And it’s set on the Internet!
More information about the theatrical release of Hiding Divya around the country is at: HidingDivya.com and RehanaMirza.com. There is also a college tour planned for the movie with the director present, in anticipation of resonating with a younger generation.