Is there a go-to therapist for Bollywood celebrities, I ask Deepika Padukone on the sidelines of a talk on mental health organised by FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) in Delhi last month. "Oh God, I hope not," is her instinctive response before toppling the question with a counter-blow: "Is there a go-to therapist for journalists?"
Dressed in an all-white pantsuit-like ensemble, Padukone is calm and self-assured. Especially when you grill her on mental health. On just this one subject alone, you can be sure the reigning Bollywood actress, one of the highest paid in the industry, will not evade questions or simply smile and chuckle or leave room for wonder and speculation. If you try to sneak in questions about her upcoming wedding during a conference on mental health in India, be prepared to be reprimanded; she will politely but firmly remind you of her unswerving commitment to the cause. Three years after she spoke publicly about her own battles with depression and starting her own foundation—The Live, Love, Laugh Foundation (TLLLF)—to spread awareness and destigmatise mental health issues, Padukone says she completely agrees with an oft-heard and oft-derided statement, "Everybody needs a shrink".
Back in 2015, she told TV journalist Barkha Dutt on live television, "I woke up one morning just feeling empty, you know like this pittish feeling in my stomach. I woke up like feeling directionless," narrating how her emotional descent began at the height of her career. Over three years after recognising and coming to terms with that "pittish feeling", Padukone has not stopped going to a therapist. "I think it's very important for people to see a therapist irrespective of whether they feel like they need it emotionally or not. That is my personal opinion. I feel it is very important to make it a part of our lifestyle. The same way people have started going to the gym regularly or have started taking care of their physical health, irrespective of whether they have put on weight or not. You go to a gym because it makes you feel good or feel fit. Similarly it is important to visit a therapist regularly, irrespective of whether there's been a trigger or you've been feeling symptoms of depression," says Padukone in an exclusive interview to THE WEEK.
The fact that many in India consider seeking therapy to be a Western construct confined to the upper echelons of society doesn't seem to perturb her. She knows the debate has moved beyond whether we need therapy or not and today it is more about making it accessible. She says her foundation has successfully managed to create enough awareness about seeking help from mental health professionals. That the website of her foundation, which was started in 2015 on October 10, celebrated as World Mental Health Day, is a comprehensive database on counselors, therapists and psychiatrists under one one roof along with self-help tests and informational material.
She believes there is a dearth of affordable mental healthcare because of limited demand. "It is kind of a ripple effect. Today we are in a situation where we have created that awareness. Hopefully that would lead to a lot of doctors wanting to specialise in psychiatry which then means you can have doctors, counselors, psychiatrists at various price points based on what your pocket can allow," says Padukone who was once shocked to see that people in rural, semi-urban areas are more "open to seek help, to take medication, to go to a therapist regularly, to understand the difference between the shame they are made to feel about their problems or it being a medical condition. You would think it would be the opposite there," says Padukone recalling her visit to Davanagere in Karnataka once.
But the website of The Live, Love, Laugh Foundation has one buzzkill disclaimer: "TLLLF does not make any recommendations or guarantees regarding the quality of response and medical advice you might receive from any of the therapists... TLLLF disclaims all liability for damages of any kind arising out of calls/visits made to these therapists."
Why not start her own clinic with trained staff? Deepika says the focus so far has been on spreading awareness and forging collaborations and partnerships with existing non-profits and other players in the domain. And that she is primarily interested in staying focused on depression, stress and anxiety which was her personal experience. She is particularly upset about her foundation's General Physician programme not taking off. "Maybe because GPs feel like it's not within their purview, their scope; there's no money in mental health, there are no perks. But the truth is that the first line of defence begins with the GP in India," says Padukone.
The portrayal of mental illness in Bollywood cinema is largely flawed and leaves much to be desired. It is perhaps telling that when asked to name one film that she remembers for its sensitive, smart treatment of psychological disorders, Padukone can't think of an Indian name. "I think it would be A Beautiful Mind."
Padukone says she's been thinking of working on a film which tackles mental distress for a long time now. "But it's a very tricky subject. You want to be able to make a film that captures the emotion and the psychological subject, and also conveys the message. It is not like a romcom. The creative part of it has to be correct. And at the end of the day, its a film; it has to be told in an engaging way. It has to come together in the right way and at the right time," she says.
In a ruthlessly competitive entertainment industry, how does Padukone stay emotionally mature? "A lot of self awareness. And compartmentalising your roles. "She is particularly insistent on self awareness. "Self care comes with self awareness. It comes from knowing what role I am playing at what point. When I am home, there is morning chaos and domestic issues to deal with and then when I get to work, I am the professional, I am an actor. I am constantly playing different roles and very aware of that. I try as much as possible to not allow one emotion to flow into another." says Padukone.