When I was in high school, a friend confessed to me that her mother was manic-depressive and explained how the illness wreaked havoc on the entire family. I was deeply saddened by what she told me. I wanted to help but didn't know how. I couldn't get her story out of my mind. Ten years later, a close friend's father put a gun to his head and shot himself. Again, I felt powerless to help.
But then it hit me. I could make a difference through my art. I decided to tackle the topic of bipolar disorder and the ways in which it impacts not only the afflicted, but also those around them — family, friends, colleagues and the community. My friends' stories revealed to me a shocking tendency for South Asians to treat mental illness as something to be hidden or ignored. By making a film about the illness within the South Asian community, I thought, perhaps, I could help to break down cultural barriers so that others facing mental illness would not unduly suffer from this universal taboo.
Emotional disorders are often seen as weakness, failure, or a genetic predisposition – the curse of "bad blood." In the South Asian community, the stigma can be almost as painful as the disease. The barriers created by our society seem insurmountable. Victims and families frequently find themselves ostracized and humiliated. Unlike physical diseases, emotional disorders tend to remain ignored, denied and untreated until they reach crisis proportions — often all too late.
As I researched the subject, I was struck by the ease with which bipolar disorder is often masked to those on the outside. I began to see how long-term emotional illness impacts the family, genetics notwithstanding. Although romanticized by poets throughout the ages, manic depression destroys lives. In my research I found case after case of emotional disorders that were compounded by stigma against the disease. Often times, family members who deny their loved one’s emotional disorder become plagued with guilt, stress, and fear that they, too, might be "cursed."
In creating HIDING DIVYA, I chose to portray Divya's disease through her own eyes. Since she is from India and a member of an earlier generation, I shot her "dream/fantasy" sequences to reflect her time and place — the way a 60's Bollywood film would look. As the central issue of mental illness took shape, I blended in cultural issues prevalent among South Asians — the pressure of marrying, the stigma of broken families, and the devastating effects of the concept of "bad blood." I didn't want to romanticize the subject, so I focused on a family that could be the people next door. I chose bipolar disorder, because often times those with this particular illness can seem functional enough to remain untreated. Yet the disease continues to exact unnecessary suffering upon all those afflicted.
The battle still continues for my two friends. The father who shot himself was paralyzed from the neck down. He has been living on a ventilator since his failed suicide attempt four years ago. Our friend's mother agreed to medication while I was in high school but still frequently "forgets" to take it. Thus, her cycles continue and have become increasingly debilitating.
While making this film, I was surprised by how many prominent South Asians — actors, directors, fellow colleagues —offered to help because they have a father, a grandmother or another loved one who suffers from mental illness. Hopefully, HIDING DIVYA will bring the subject into the light — humanize the problem, challenge the community, and eradicate a pernicious trend of denial and stigma.