Sony Entertainment Television’s most popular soap opera Beyhadh (literally, ‘Limitless’) ended last month. True to the show’s ethos, its climactic act involved a love triangle and a Mexican standoff. For the last two years or so, audiences across India had been heavily invested in the fate of its central character, Maya (Jennifer Winget, whose undeniable charisma was the show’s biggest asset), a drop-dead gorgeous, obsessive, mentally ill woman who goes to tremendous lengths to unequivocally possess the object of her affection, Arjun (Kushal Tandon).
Maya is initially introduced as a high-flying (she’s the CEO of a firm that hires Arjun) but eccentric woman with a troubled, abusive past that grows darker and darker as the show progresses. We learn that she has a knack for using violence to acquire whatever she wants. We also learn that she has, in the past, required psychological help. That latter bit, however, is never allowed to become a leading story arc (as it should have been). Except, of course, when we see the naked horror of the other characters when they realize this about Maya: What if her paagalpan consumes them next?
It’s this convenient, catch-all tag that allows screenplays to slide into super-regressive mode — and this is where I feel Beyhadh missed a historic opportunity. Here we had arguably the most popular cable TV show in the country, with the chance to take a responsible — if not quite enlightened— stand towards mental illness. Instead, it played shamelessly to the puritan, middle-class gallery and served a mashup of 80s and 90s Bollywood clichés about the mentally ill.
Again and again, we see variants of the same scene: people connected to Maya in one way or the other, manage to track down her mental health history. Through their hysterical reactions to this moment of ‘discovery’, these end up being the same people who lead to Maya making further dramatic, often violent decisions — all of which must boil down to possessing her lover Arjun, at the end.
In episode 182, male nurses discover a creepy work of art behind Maya’s bed, in the asylum (I use the archaic word because ‘institution’ seems too charitable for the medieval place depicted by the show) where she was admitted due to her illness. The artwork is an installation made out of her pills. She has basically carved Arjun’s face with all the medicines that she was prescribed, that she pretended to consume while stashing them away. All this time, she was lying to her family members about seeking medical assistance for her condition.
It’s important to remember that Maya had tried to kill herself on more than one occasion, and she had used the threat of suicide whenever she was unable to achieve her agenda. This could have been an interesting if over-the-top scene, combining her past and the present with her refusal to take medication — which is always a morally and medically complicated decision.
But of course, because this is Indian network television, Maya’s refusal is explained away with this bromide instead: “Only love can cure her”. As backup, we are presented with Maya’s desi version of ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, playing plaintively in the background. It says,
“Tujhe pyar pyar karke
teri neend tak udaa doon
Aaoon jo apni hadh pe
Tujhe kya se kya bana doon”
(“When I love you
I love you till I leave you
And I turn you inside out
when I’m on the brink,
It’s also significant that throughout Beyhadh’s telecast, the nature of Maya’s illness is never elaborated upon. Is she bipolar? Is she clinically depressed? We don’t know, and it seems the makers do not particularly care. Now, it’s not like neatly labelling mental health issues is essential. But surely, in a show where mental illness is such a major plot point, we deserved a little more clarity on this?
As if this were not enough, the origins of Maya’s psychoses are even more cringe-worthy. The oldest trick in the paagalpan playbook, in fact: Maya’s father, we are told, had abused her repeatedly when she was a child. He would lock her in dark corners, hit her, terrorise her psychologically. Now, nobody is denying that child abuse is a serious matter and that it can and frequently does leave psychological scars on the survivor, well into adulthood.
But in the case of Maya, whenever her behaviour as an adult feels particularly excessive or violent, we are taken back to these scenes from her childhood, ad nauseam. It’s almost as if the show is suggesting the impossibility of a mentally ill person ever getting better: ‘This person is broken, and what was broken a long time ago cannot be fixed’. Finally, when Maya murders her father, the treatment is cathartic; although for our conjecture, we don’t really know the facts behind her father’s case.
All of which indicate lazy writing — and worse, a tendency to club people from across the mental health spectrum in the same amorphous category, namely paagal. The show’s name itself, ‘Beyhadh’ or ‘Limitless’, seeks to make a tenuous connection between this same paagalpan and the passion or junoon associated with your average Bollywood romance. These are the same words that have been conflated with romance since the 1980s; so much so that a clear distinction between the criminal and romantic variants is difficult to arrive at.
Once you have been tarred with the brush of paagalpan, you can be used as an exceedingly convenient narrative device. A working woman who has the temerity to assert herself and her self-worth at office? Paagal. A woman who likes to take the lead in the bedroom, who forthrightly pursues the object of her affection? Paagal. A woman who, horror of horrors, dresses the way she feels like? Paagal.
Both these things — the comfortably amorphous category “paagal” and its sociological implications — are part of the reason why Beyhadh was such a runaway hit with the Indian middle-class. The show presented its two main female characters, Maya and Saanjh, as polar opposites, asking us to hate the former and adore the latter. Maya, clad in figure-hugging dresses, was shown as the independent working woman: hyper-sexualized, literally her husband’s boss at her workplace, ambitious, successful and so on. Saanjh (also teased as “Saanjeshwari Devi”) is the proverbial “homely” girl, whose chief mission in life was to support her best friend (and later, husband) Arjun in whatever he chose to do. It’s clear who the middle-class was rooting for and Beyhadh exploited this “divide” to the hilt.
As the show was premiered in the 9pm slot (until Kaun Banega Crorepati came along), family audiences were hooked. It wasn’t marketed as the usual saas-bahu soap opera but as a much more volatile brand of entertainment. However, as I’ve explained in the preceding paragraphs, it ended up reinforcing familiar stereotypes. The only redeeming points were Jennifer Winget’s acting, and the moments (few and far in between) where there’s some recognition for the efforts of mental health professionals. The way things are with Indian television, this itself is a significant step. But overall, Beyhadh was a massive chance missed.
Sweta Pal, who works on the youth mental health awareness campaign It’s Ok to Talk, at Sangath, says, “A sensitive portrayal of what it’s like to live with mental illness is very necessary as opposed to the melodrama. It is understandable that the show makers will prioritise profits and good ratings, however, the same should not happen at the expense of a growing mental health crisis.” The ignorance of Beyhadh is all the more surprising because it was not too long ago that Alia Bhatt and Shahrukh Khan, two A-list Bollywood stars, appeared in a mental health-centric film, Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi.
But then, Indian television is to Bollywood what pioneering modern-day mental health institutions were to the Victorian asylum: that is, deliberately regressive, to the tune of 30-40 years. When Elaine Showalter was writing about Victorian women and insanity, she observed: “It is notable that the domestication of insanity, its assimilation by the Victorian institution, coincides with the period in which the predominance of women among the insane becomes a statistically verifiable phenomenon.”
Had Shahrukh from Dear Zindagi met the Shahrukh from Darr, he would’ve been sympathetic to a fault. But had he met Maya, odds are that he would’ve declared her a paagal aurat, one who ought to tamed and domesticated. And that is where Beyhadh missed a trick, leaving me with so many more unanswered questions.