A season of comebacks in Bollywood? Actor Imran Khan opens up about mental health issues

With more and more men in the mainstream opening up about their struggles with mental health, depression is no longer a stigmatised word, and that is good news for all

By Yasser Usman

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Published: Thu 14 Sep 2023, 8:13 PM

Last updated: Thu 14 Sep 2023, 8:24 PM

In a season of comebacks in Bollywood, we must celebrate not just a blockbuster film or the return of superstars but also the human spirit and acts of courage. When an actor chooses to stop hiding his vulnerabilities and brings the darkness in his life into the sun, it indeed calls for a celebration of his return to the spotlight.

The actor I am talking about is Imran Khan. He had a hugely successful and memorable debut in the delightful 2008 romcom Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na. Despite successful films like I Hate Luv Stories (2010), Delhi Belly (2011), and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011), it remained a common perception that his Bollywood career was solely propelled by his family connections to actor Aamir Khan. After his film Katti Batti (2015) tanked badly, which also coincided with personal turmoil and a separation from his wife, he took a break from acting. The film industry and news cycles moved on.

After years of silence, Imran Khan recently returned to social media and alluded to the pain he had experienced in the past, stating, “Sorry about the silence... when you've lived so long in darkness, the sunshine can feel unbearably bright at first… We all have scars, old wounds that still ache. But love heals.” It was heartbreaking for his audiences, who always associated him with the charming smile of the romantic boy-next-door, to know that he had been silently suffering, isolated and plagued by thoughts of self-harm for so many years.

The film industry is a fiercely competitive place and actors, in particular, face tremendous pressure that can deeply affect their mental health. In the recent past, leading actresses such as Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt and Shraddha Kapoor have courageously opened up about their battle with depression and anxiety issues. These stories received extensive media coverage, and it is commendable that they were handled with sensitivity. However, when it comes to male stars, there seemed to be a hesitancy to openly speak of their vulnerabilities in public.

I believe this reluctance stems from the stigma associated with male vulnerability and traditional notions of masculinity. We refer to our male actors as ‘heroes’ who conquer challenges in relationships, fight the villains and emerge victorious — all in three hours. In our society too, such expectations place tremendous pressure on men to exhibit toughness while discouraging open discussions about their feelings of vulnerability. This pressure can lead to profound isolation, depression and other mental health issues among men. In recent times, we witnessed the coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and how his mental health was subjected to ridicule in the media. Yet, particularly post the case, there seemed to be a significant shift in the discussions around mental health issues, particularly when celebs were involved.

In January this year, Hrithik Roshan, irrefutably one of the fittest Bollywood stars, opened up about dealing with feelings of depression and said he “was dying” while filming War. “I thought it was age, it was my body. I thought I was dying. Like some of the nights when I came back home, I was not sure if I’d wake up in the morning,” said Hrithik. “I was almost on the verge of depression. So I was completely lost, and that’s when I knew that I needed to make a change in my life,” he revealed. His candour in accepting his struggles made him appear more relatable and human. Fortunately, such confessions are no longer just easy fodder for gossip.

Any social observer would today talk of the evolution of audiences that represents a significant shift in perceptions from previous decades. I will give you two examples.

As an author of the biographies of the great filmmaker Guru Dutt and the former Bollywood superstar Rajesh Khanna, I have extensively documented the absolute lack of understanding about mental health issues five to seven decades ago. In the 1950s, the troubled actor Guru Dutt, while creating his timeless masterpieces, was also simultaneously trying to end his life. Just when Pyaasa was nearing completion, Guru Dutt had attempted suicide. Fortunately, his life was saved. He was so deeply affected that he made two more suicide attempts later on. But with scarce conversations around a socially stigmatised topic, neither Guru Dutt nor his family addressed the issues openly. When a friend asked about his suicide attempt, Guru Dutt had replied, “I am not dissatisfied with life, I am dissatisfied within myself.” Tragically, he passed away at the young age of 39. His family expressed regret, acknowledging the lack of awareness about mental health during that era. Guru Dutt may have felt trapped in a profound darkness, but he never talked about it or sought help.

In 1969, superstar Rajesh Khanna had attained a level of stardom that was unprecedented. However, within a few years, his films began to falter at the box office, and he faced personal turmoil too. During this difficult period, he admitted that he had contemplated ending his life. He said, “Once, I even attempted walking into the sea, but at the last minute pulled myself out of the depression. ‘I will not die a failure,’ I promised myself. I don’t want people to say Rajesh Khanna was a coward.” Unfortunately, this admission by a male ‘superstar’ was subjected to mockery by the film media of that era, reflecting the ideals of masculinity that prevailed at the time.

The harsh reality is that neither celebrity status nor wealth can shield individuals from mental health challenges. That is the reason I feel the candid admissions of their vulnerabilities and mental health challenges by mainstream actresses and now actors like Imran Khan and Hrithik Roshan are crucial in breaking down barriers and normalising conversations that were once considered taboo. Their openness paves the way for greater awareness and acceptance of mental health issues.

It is truly heart-wrenching to hear Imran Khan apologising for his struggles and for enduring difficult times. But it is crucial to support a ‘hero’ who talks about his weaknesses openly. To say ‘you’re worthy, you’re loved’ goes a long way. His message carries a deep resonance in dismantling stigma. His vulnerability and authenticity possess the potential to open doors for other men who may be going through similar challenges. Here’s to courageous comebacks!


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