7 October to 13 October is Mental Health Awareness Week. This is not just a week when we’re talking about the need to bring out the topic of mental health and well-being into regular living room conversations. It’s also a time when people across the world talk about ways in which we can best cope with stress in our daily rushed lifestyles, and understand when to ask for help ourselves and how to offer it to those around us.
A few weeks back, there was a movie that didn’t seem to have anything to do with mental health and wellbeing, but in fact, gave us a very realistic look at how and when things can start to go wrong. The movie is Laila Majnu, a present-day re-telling of the classic tale of love. The movie shows us our very own Laila and Majnu in a fast-paced contemporary world, where we’re trying to find our balance amidst the modern and the traditional, trying to take our own decisions and stand by our choices in love and life, but are still looking for validation from those around, whether it’s from our family, friends, or even the one we love. This is a battle we’re all fighting, one that is leading to a rise in cases of stress, anxiety, depression, and mental health issues.
While the movie received a lot of love and praise from the audience, especially the younger ones, one person who clearly stands out is Avinash Tiwary, the actor who plays the character of Majnu. What makes his character and the acting stand apart is the fact that Majnu has truly risen above what society dictates for you, and in his own way, has found that ultimate level of love and happiness that to us, seems a lot like madness. On mental Health Day,HotFridayTalks.com speaks to Avinash to know what went into the making of the character Majnu and how he discovered what people with mental health issues go through.
Majnu, your character in the movie Laila Majnu, is a positive and young guy in the first half, who slowly moves into clinical depression. What happens?
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Before Majnu becomes the guy who turns mad in love, he’s just a regular guy, one of us. He’s trying to woo the girl he’s fallen for, he’s charming and full of life and hope. There’s barely any clue of what’s to come.
But there are a few subtle signs that suggest maybe he’s getting into depression, especially when he starts retreating from those around him and goes in his own shell. Love and life are difficult, and we’re all prone to those moments of ups and downs. He’s no different either. The transformation of the protagonist into Majnu in the second half is massive, it’s in complete contrast to the person he was before, but the bounce back is amazing too. He starts losing hope, but then, even as the emotional turmoil reaches its boiling point, he finally finds a release. He realizes that much of the pain and hurt he was experiencing is because he’s constantly looking for validation; much like we often do in our life, whether personal or professional. We’re always looking for others to tell us how amazing we are. And when that doesn’t happen, we start losing confidence. Majnu reaches a point where he moves beyond the realms of validation, where he starts looking at things through his side of the picture and builds around him a world that makes him happy and positive again. He’s content, he’s not bothered about anyone else, and that’s when the confidence is back – he’s truly happy again, even more than he was when he was pining for Laila’s love and time.
Most of the things for us today are just momentary. We’re striving for something, with just the end result in mind, and once we’re there, it feels like we’ve got what we were working for and there’s nothing more to do. That’s when we feel disappointed, and it’s low for a lot of people, which can also lead to depression. In this age of instant gratification and social media approvals, finding that validation within and not looking for it desperately out there can be a great step to reducing our stress and improving our mental health.
Did you ever experience this kind of a low, or felt that you’ve done it all, now there’s nothing more to do?
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When I did the film I didn’t expect this kind of response. I really felt that people showed a lot of love and positivity towards me.
There are certain things in life that most of us want to achieve. For instance, for me, it was always about doing something in life that would make my dad feel proud about me and say it out in those many words – I’ve made him happy and proud. I always wanted to achieve that moment in my life, but never realized my dad would end up saying this about me so soon! When something like that happens, you feel a bit out of balance, it’s like, everything I was doing till now was to impress him, and now he’s impressed! Now what? These are moments when you feel you’ve achieved what you set out for; maybe that’s the point where the excitement, the novelty and the hunger for it slow down or goes away completely. That’s when you ask yourself – now what? And that’s when the low can start to hit.
Did this feeling of nothing-more-to-look-forward-to hit you too?
People always ask you what’s your dream, what is it that you want to do? I always wanted to do that one big film, where I’d give it my all and for which people would know me and remember me. I never thought beyond that. I was clear that I wanted that one big film, but what after that? Whatever life offers you is what you can do. You have to make your own choices but the options are given by life.
In the first few days after the movie released, I felt like taking a break from acting for a few years, maybe do something else – not because I felt too happy or felt I was too good; this was because of fear. I was scared and confused. Why was my father so happy? Why were so many people suddenly saying they liked me? That’s when I realized that this was part of my job. We reach that point and tell ourselves we’ve reached where we wanted to be; now it’s time to find that next point and reach over there. There are highs and lows after every point in life. Even when you think you’re successful, there’ll be times when you feel if this is really what you wanted. It’s best to start preparing yourself for it and take it head-on.
Your character in Laila Majnu goes through a lot of emotional upheavals, it’s an emotionally draining feeling. Did you ever think about mental wellness before you took up this role?
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I’ve had friends who’ve discussed their mental health with me, especially about things like hallucinations and so on. Of course, there are certain issues for which they visit a psychiatrist, but they’ve also put that faith in me where they talk to me about things that are bothering them, and the effect it has on their lives and health. Eventually, I realized that when someone is going through any mental health-related issues, especially depression, the first thing they want to do, but maybe aren’t always able to do, is to talk to someone who listens without judging. No one can help you unless you’re first willing to help yourself. Someone can hold your hand and help you walk, but finally, it’s you who’ll have to put in that effort and walk the way. This is why it’s so important to talk about it, to take that first step.
What do you think is contributing to the rise in depression today, especially among the youngsters?
I think problems of mental health, depression and the feeling of not-being-good-enough is because we’re doing a lot of things mindlessly, without truly understanding why we’re doing it. You could be mindlessly slogging off without really understanding or enjoying the work you’re doing; maybe you’re doing it only to be praised by your boss. Many of us do something just because it’s the trend and everyone’s doing it. When we talk about awareness, it’s also awareness for ourselves, about what we’re doing and what needs to change. That’s very important.
Young love, new relationships, speed dating, and breakups – do you think love has the power to completely take over our minds?
Image Credit: Movie – Laila Majnu
I think that’s what happens to Majnu. His whole agenda is initially to be with his lover, Laila. On the first date itself, he talks about his plans after marriage, he’s already convinced they’ll get married! But when things don’t turn out the way he’s imagined and Laila gets ready to marry someone else, the belief he was nurturing till now is shattered. Everything he’d put his heart and mind to and had started to think of as real has been taken away. At this point, Laila keeps coming back in his life in spurts but keeps stalling him, asking him for time, so that society will accept it. With this constant push and pull of love, there comes a point when he finally feels he’s had enough and moves away. Once he’s on his own, he realizes that everything he believes to be true is an image of what he perceives; an image or illusion of the reality he’s created for himself. When he reaches that level of seeking and loving, in an ironical way, he experiences love which is not restricted to one person only – it wraps in the world and the creation as a whole. He experiences love for love. In his avatar of ‘madness’, Majnu reaches a level of happiness and love that those who restrict themselves within social norms may never find. It’s a discovery that we can have when there’s freedom from judgments, expectations, and validation. When you’re beyond all this, the judgment and the unnecessary expectations, you can experience true love.
But this doesn’t mean you’ll be depressed if you’re in love, or that you have to stress so much that your mental health suffers. There are ways to have a happy and healthy relationship, in our regular social structure also, and this is what we need to find and work on. There is help too.
Do you think Majnu is also about finding your own self?
There’s a difference between madness and being ‘mad’. Even when Majnu turns into a person who people mistake as a madman, he’s reached a level where he’s beyond the trivial social constructs we’re meant to follow. Instead, he finds his own way to follow those same social constructs, not because he’s expected to, but because he wants to. Majnu is liberated, Majnu is free, Majnu is positive.
Are you always such a positive person?
The biggest obstacle in life is when you doubt yourself. As an actor, there are many ups and downs you’ll face, but the key is to be prepared and keep that faith in yourself. I have to work hard to get what I want and I have to be deserving of it too.
What keeps you going is most important – the belief that I’m good enough, I’ll give it my best and I’ll get it.
What keeps you going?
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One of the persons from the film industry that I was very close to was Mr. Lekh Tandon, an Indian filmmaker, and actor. Once while working together, there was a particular scene that was quite small but required a lot of effort. He said that even though the shot is too small, it’s part of the whole project and we have to give it our best – we have to do it for ourselves.
The day you start doing something for people’s perception, you’ll start to lose focus and the inspiration to work. Go by whether or not you like it, and not by whether or not others like or hate it. When that happens, you’ll give it your all, for yourself.
The movie Laila Majnu breaks many typical templates in film-making. Did the process help you or was it stressful?
My bio on my social media says ‘Defying Labels’ – it’s my personal motto and I want to stand for it. I don’t want to be ‘this’ guy, I want to be everything – maybe that’s what living a fulfilled life is all about. I want to experience the best and worst in all the characters that I can play, and this is the medium where I can be whatever I choose to be.
Ever been really disappointed? How did you get out of it?
Today, many people who saw the movie love me, but there are many more who didn’t watch it. I’ve been acting since 2003, but it’s now, in 2018, that people are finally seeing my work on a bigger scale and I’m getting such love and feedback. My job is to be true to my acting, ironic as it sounds, and do my best. What happens to the story once I’ve worked on it, how it goes on from there isn’t something I can control.
Mind you, Majnu is given to quirkiness and madness, but he’s not mad. And even though this may be about love and the way it can control your mind, it could happen to any of us, in love, in work, and in our personal lives. It’s important to start talking and to listen to those around us who may want to share something, but are hesitant. It’s time to start finding our own joys and quirks amidst the many social boundaries within which we’re contained and maybe set ourselves free in a way that still keeps us happy and content within the society.
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