Flashback : Chitkar
A Scream Of Anguish

Deepa Gahlot

Mental health is a major topic of discussion these days, so here's looking back at Latesh Shah's play CHITKAR, starring Sujata Mehta in her most memorable role. The play is not online, but the 2018 film based on it, with the same director and cast, is available on the net.

When playwright-director Latesh Shah's play CHITKAR, based on a true story, was first staged in 1983, Sujata Mehta's performance as a 'mad' woman was the talk of the Gujarati theatre circuit. Despite its dark subject, the play was appreciated by audiences; it was reportedly shut down after a long run in India and abroad, because its intensity had started affecting the actors.

The story makes a sincere plea for sympathizing with and accepting the mentally ill. Dr Suman Kanakia (Deepak Gheewala) runs a mental nursing home in a small town in Gujarat, assisted by a dedicated deputy, Dr Markand Shah (Hiten Kumar). Under the guise of giving separate uniforms to the patients, a doctor explains the various kinds of mental disorders that society labels 'mad.' When relatives of patients exhaust every form of non-medical treatments, they bring them to this hospital, but even the benevolent Dr Kanakia, draws the line at admitting violent patients.

Into the calm environs of the hospital, Ratna Solanki (Sujata Mehta) blows in like a typhoon, brought there after she has murdered her husband and child and attacked her mother-in-law. Against Dr Kanakia's wishes, Markand insists on taking on Ratna as a patient, even though she displays violent behavior soon after admission, by beating up a cleaning woman. He diagnoses her as paranoid schizophrenic with a split personality disorder—a tough case to handle at a time when electric shocks and confinement in bare cells were standard forms of treating the 'insane'.

Over a period of time, under Markand's gentle treatment, Ratna starts showing improvement. Markand learns that Ratna had lost her mental balance after severe ill-treatment and torture by her mother-in-law. The test of Ratna's cure is, however, her integration into 'norma' society, and to enable that, Markand marries her, renames her Sonal and brings her home to live with his parents (Chhaya Vora-Mehul Savani).

Gaining the love of her husband and affection of her in-laws Ratna/Sonal's condition stabilizes, and Markand writes a thesis about her treatment, to present at a conference. His mother accidentally discovers Ratna's true identity and in his absence starts mistreating her, and cuts off communication with her husband or anybody else outside the home. By the time Markand returns, Ratna's mental balance has deteriorated again.

Sujata Mehta gave the role all she had, but seen today, her performance is way over the top. If CHITKAR were to be staged now, it would work only if the melodrama were considerably reduced, and current understanding of mental health issues incorporated. Still, it has something important to say, and is worth revisiting.

(Deepa Gahlot is a journalist, columnist, author and curator. Some of her writings are on deepagahlot.com)

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