The conundrum of mental illnesses in Pakistan has a lot to do with the way they are represented in the media. Infact, the stigma attached to them usually emerges from the lack of representation altogether. While our television industry has managed to put out a few serials dedicated to highlighting the issue, Pakistani cinema continues to lag, possibly because of the fear of spreading misinformation.
Recent serials dedicated to the cause include Zahid Ahmed and Sonya Hussyn’s Ishq Zahe Naseeb and real life couple Sajal Aly and Ahad Raza Mir’s Yeh Dil Mera. The former featured Ahmed in the role of a person with dissociative identity disorder (DID). The latter, which is still airing, shows Aly’s character fighting claustrophobia while Mir’s (Amaan) suffers from seizures time to time.
Ishq Zahe Naseeb depicted the disorder as something vile and obvious – showing a character who is prominently familiar with his other half and dresses up as a woman to embrace it – whereas the symptoms of people suffering from a multiple personality syndrome aren’t always as blatant.
On the other hand, Yeh Dil Mera, manages to replicate the illness without dramatising it as much, making it a well-informed watch. The responsibility attached with developing and representing such characters is quite enormous; perceptions of expected behaviour from a real life patient may be etched on the minds of the audience from what they see onscreen.
Sonya Hussyn, the Ishq Zahe Naseeb actor, while acknowledging these responsibilities, discussed another upcoming serial of hers in which she will be playing the role of a schizophrenic.
The news has been doing rounds for quite some time now but the name of the serial has not been revealed. However, in an elaborate conversation with The Express Tribune, Hussyn relayed that the serial is directed by Mohsin Talat and she will share screen space with Sami Khan and veteran actor Aurangzeb Leghari.
She shared, “It is an entire documentation from diagnosis, to treatment and to potential recovery. It is basically the story of a seemingly ‘normal’ girl in a normal setting, who has symptoms of schizophrenia that people around her are unable to recognise.”
“I play a victim of this disease,” Hussyn added, “the woman enduring it disconnects from reality and undergoes delusions – which, as they aggravate, turn into hallucinations as well.” When asked about the purpose of the project Hussyn said, “It is trying to normalise the condition. Since we openly acknowledge diabetes and illnesses of other organs, we need to also realise that there’s little to no discourse surrounding mental illnesses.”
The actor also confessed that she was offered three scripts immediately after the success of Ishq Zahe Naseeb, but this project in particular caught her eye. “It was naturally appealing but it still took me a while to decide whether I wanted to go ahead with it. I had to do my research first,” Hussyn remarked while addressing the responsibilities attached with her as an actor.
She went on to reinstate the impact of her role in such a serial, “What we choose to show on television can influence impressionable minds as they give in to the world that we create for them. So, for about two months, the makers kept in touch with me about my training which gave me the confidence that I can pull this off.” Hussyn added that as a part of her training, she visited rehab centres with her director and producer to meet with patients suffering from the disorder before officially taking on the role.
Following this, Hussyn also realised she knew many people with symptoms of various disorders in real life that she could not identify earlier. “I think because most of us aren’t aware of the concept, we’re unable to recognise people around us that may be suffering. After having studied various conditions because of the characters I’ve done, I know that I’ve seen patients; even people in my family resonating similar characteristics.”
She went on to add, with statistics, “Every fifth person out of a hundred is schizophrenic in Pakistan, as opposed to DID which is comparatively rare. I think there’s also a myth that we cannot help these people because the illnesses are permanent, but they can very much be treated. Schizophrenia is combination of genetic imbalances, abnormal occurring of brain chemicals sometimes due to malnutrition, one’s surroundings, societal pressures among other causes. But it is very much curable through communication and medication,” the actor reassured.
After her previous serial, Hussyn added that she feels things are beginning to change in the society. “I do sense acceptability; we are less discomforted by the discourse and I can say that because the audiences have started to respond really well to these subjects.” As far as increased representation of such topics is concerned, the actor was confident that the lines between parallel and mainstream content have blurred around the globe, including Pakistan. “Makers are investing their time and energy into more substantial, darker, yet realistic subjects.”
But Hussyn admitted that there is a long way to go, and for starters, Pakistani television industry required a ‘feminine lens’. “The theory that suggests the camera has a male gaze still stands true,” she said bigheartedly. She went on to call it ‘regressive’ adding that “a stalk of words without a vision is a curse and while we have writers, some of them have a very myopic outlook.”
Hussyn discussed how her collaborations with Angeline Malik have proven to be phenomenal at shedding light upon certain issues and telling stories that only a woman can understand. “With more women being involved in the process of making projects, we’ll be able to project women as stronger, better-rounded and equal members of society.”
As far as her choice of picking onscreen characters is concerned, Hussyn confessed that she liked challenges and didn’t want her work to be monotonous. “I want to enjoy every character I take up, which is why each of them has been such unorthodox.”
However, due to the ongoing lockdown the shooting of her upcoming serial has halted and according to Hussyn, 30% of the production remains untouched. “We had begun filming, but due to the lockdown we had to stop the production until a further notice from the government.”
But staying positive about the future, Hussyn considers this break to be a blessing and is using her time to improve her grip on the character. “I can now live as a person suffering from the illness, away from civilization and the distractions of a busy life.” The serial was expected to go on-air after Eid, but its release date in indefinite now.
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