by Neha Srivastava
In South Asian families, mental disorders are often shrouded out of feelings of shame and guilt. The movie Hiding Divya, written and directed by Rehana Mirza, bravely seeks to expose the issue psychological disease within the Indian American community.
On Wednesday, November 3, students gathered in Sudler Hall to watch Hiding Divya and then take part in the Q & A session with the film’s screenwriter and director Rehana Mirza. Mirza, a graduate of Columbia University and the Tisch School of the Arts, is a Sundance finalist and a Leopold Schepp scholar, and has written plays produced in theaters across America.
In the movie, a young, unmarried woman Palini reluctantly brings her daughter Jia back to her mother Divya’s home in Edison, New Jersey, as she searches for a job. There, Palini is forced to confront her mother’s mental illness, as Divya routinely hallucinates about her dead lover and spends her nights awake sitting in her car. Jia must also deal with her grandmother’s disorder, and realizes she has perhaps inherited a susceptibility to mental disorder. Palini and Jia together face Edison’s concerned Indian American community, portrayed as loving, but also stigmatizing and smothering.
In one standout scene in the film, Divya has been admitted to a psychiatric ward. Secluded from other patients, she sits by herself and hums. Suddenly, a young girl appears and throws colorful powders on the white curtains and walls. Music starts, grows louder, and Palini dances faster. The scene spins to the other inmates, also dancing to the beat, and Divya, watching the young girl move. This scene deftly incorporates Divya’s vibrant imagination, as well as her lack of rationality, with the Indian religious festival Holi, in which people throw colored powders. Like the movie itself, the scene encapsulates the confusion and pain of mental disease, the beauty and love within the Indian community, and the interplay between them.
Meena Shivaram ’12 moderated the Q&A session after the movie screening:
Q: What lead you to make this play?
A: I first made a film on racial profiling, which prompted a family friend to ask me to make a film on mental illness, for it was in her family but never talked about. This movie thus became a compilation of stories from different cultures and families whose members have mental disorders.
Q: Why was the play set in Edison, New Jersey?
A: I chose Edison as the play’s setting because the Indian American community is so strong there. I also find the mixing of cultures fascinating, and I like to explore where cultures navigate, which traditions immigrants keep, and which they build themselves. Also, Edison has been getting a lot of attention lately for its high population of Indian Americans, like Joel Stein’s article in Time Magazine.
Q: Why choose three women to show the manifestation of mental illness?
A: Primarily, I wanted to show three generations of strong women of one cultural background. I think it’s rare to see female protagonists; it brings out interesting, open dialogue.
Q: Why was Divya never diagnosed in the film?
A: I intentionally kept Divya’s mental illness ambiguous. I felt that diagnosing her would make the movie more about the cure, and I wanted the movie to be about the process of dealing with the mental illness, especially the acknowledgment of the disease. I wanted to focus on the family’s journey towards acceptance. Also, when you have a mental disorder, you have no idea what is going on. Family members are equally in the dark. This is much more intimidating and scary, which is what I wanted for the characters.
Q: What were some of the highlights and challenges of Hiding Divya, your first directing experience?
A: As an independent, low budget film, it really brought my community together. A lot of the scenes took place in settings from my childhood, which was exciting and nostalgic. Everyone worked hard to make this movie, which only took 22 days to shoot. As for challenges, it was hard to do everything grass-roots and keep everything going on schedule.
Neha Srivastava ’14 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.