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South Asian director brings mental illness out of hiding

Washington, Aug 8:

South Asian filmmaker Rehana Mirza has chosen to tackle the taboo of mental illness in her directorial feature debut "Hiding Divya" and hopes to begin a dialogue with the community in America to not let silence take over and make it worse.

"I think it begins a dialogue on what mental illness is," says Mirza of her writing and film that won much acclaim when it played at film festivals in New York, London, and other cities.

"I think it shows how much worse it gets when you let silence take over," Mirza told IANS in an interview ahead of the film's Aug 20 release in selected markets across the US, including BIG Cinemas Manhattan, New York.

Shot in New York City and New Jersey, the English-language drama provides a rare, realistic and poignant glimpse into the lives of three generations of women and the taboos created in the South Asian American community from mental illness in the family.

"In following the character that is not directly affected by the mental illness, I hope that the film involves the audience in a way that they cannot distance themselves from the issue," Mirza said.

"And again, it is not romanticising the issue or letting audiences off the hook," she said. "It is hopefully pointing out the responsibility that we all have, as a community, to promote mental health."

Mirza said she took up the project when a family friend asked her and sister Rohi Mirza Pandya to make a film that deals with the stigma of mental illness within the South Asian community after her father shot himself and was hospitalised still without an acknowledgment of the actual issue.

She chose "bipolar disorder in particular, because I think often mental illness is romanticised in films" and "often portrayed, and shown as a 'genius' disease or an 'artistic' disease."

"I wanted to show a regular family, living every day with mental illness, and could be your next door neighbour," added Mirza. But it's not part of a recent trend of portraying disorders "as trends fade and then what are you left with? Mental illness is not going to fade away."

She was asked to write the story in 2003, well before the release of Aamir Khan's "Taare Zameen Par" about dyslexia and Shah Rukh Khan's "My Name is Khan" about autism. "It was a real issue -- the stigma facing those families who struggle with mental health" then. "And to this day, it still is an issue."

Although "universally there is a certain level of stigma in all families, regardless of their background," Mirza said, "I think that South Asian families tend to try to take care of it on their own, until it gets to a critical point."

"I hear of stories of relatives who were put away somewhere and they never hear of them again. I hear stories of a grandmother who acted erratically but everyone ignored it," she said. "It exists, but no one will give a name to it."

To portray grandmother Divya Shah, whose bipolar illness has been denied and covered up for years, she turned to veteran actress Madhur Jaffrey of "Cotton Mary" and "Shakespeare-Wallah" fame because "I couldn't think of anyone else who could bring the nuance and depth to the role."

And "Jaffrey couldn't help but inspire all of us", Mirza said. "She has an ease and grace about her that I feel counteracts the chaotic nature of the set. She is an icon to my generation and I'm sure for generations to come."

For Divya's rebellious daughter, Linny, Pooja Kumar ("Bollywood Hero", "Sita Sings the Blues") was the choice "because of the openness and vulnerability that Pooja could bring to the role."

"The character is written very torn and bitter. I needed someone who could play that but show the hurt lurking just underneath the surface."

"It was a tough five years" to make the feature as an independent filmmaker through a crashing economy, Mirza said. But a supporting family helped her through an exciting new adventure.

Sister Rohi and her husband Gitesh Pandya, editor of Boxofficeguru.com, "pushed me every step of the way to make a better script, and then to make a better film", she said.





Rehana Mirza