Sadak to Sadak 2: Mahesh Bhatt’s Films Continue to Portray Mental Health in Problematic Light

In the climactic scene of the 1991 film, Sadak, the heroine Pooja (Pooja Bhatt) jumps from the roof of a burning three-storey building and lands right into the arms of her lover, Ravi (Sanjay Dutt). Ravi, who kills several people (including a cop) in the film, barely gets any jail sentence, and the film ends with the couple living happily. This cockamamie script, which somehow made Sadak one of the top ten grossing films of 1991, hardly deserves a cult status, let alone a resurrection in 2020.

However, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt clearly thought otherwise. So here we are with Sadak 2, starring Alia Bhatt, and Aditya Roy Kapur, along with Sanjay Dutt, who is reprising the role of Ravi, from the 1991 film. Sadak 2recently premiered on Disney+Hotstar and has since then amassed one of the lowest ratings on IMDB and has been panned by almost all film critics, and rightfully so. As a sequel, Sadak 2 has a few thematic similarities with its predecessor.

In the 1991 film, for instance, a young couple, Pooja and Ravi, hits the road to get away from the villain, a eunuch brothel owner named Maharani, who wants to force Pooja into prostitution. In the new film, Aarya (Alia) and Vishal (Aditya Roy Kapur) also embark on a road trip to Kailash Parvat along with Ravi (Dutt), so that they can escape from the evil Guruji Gyaan Prakash, who, we are told, had something to do with the death of Aarya’s mom. Both the journeys — of Pooja and Ravi, as well as Aarya and Vishal — are punctuated by betrayals, struggles, and uncertainties. But, the similarities end here. Except for the premise, and Sanjay Dutt, the two films share little in common. While the older film is rooted in realities, despite being pulpy, the new one appears absolutely synthetic. Vishal (Aditya Roy Kapur), for example, steps out after doing time in prison, with a pet owl, and a guitar as if he weren’t in jail but at Hogwarts.

In the older film, like many of Mahesh Bhatt movies, we witness a larger commentary on society, as we witness a nexus between corrupt cop and peddlers of prostitution, and how that impacts women from low-income families. We have a formidable villain in brothel owner Maharani, brilliantly portrayed by Sadashiv Amrapurkar. The film not only shows us that Maharani is evil but also depicts that she is a victim of circumstances. In Sadak 2, however, the story of a corrupt godman is a touch and go, and the main villain is hardly the big reveal that the script wants him to be.

While there were many absurdities in the 1991 Sadak, the film did stay true to its own internal logic. Ravi, who lost his sister (Soni Razdan) after she was forced into prostitution by Maharani, jumps at the opportunity to ‘save’ Pooja when he finds her heading towards the same circumstances.

Dutt’s Ravi in the older film was not only a well-written character but also someone who depicts the struggles of dealing with mental health issues with intricacy and nuance. A taxi driver, Ravi turns into a chronic insomniac and has panic attacks, and acute anxiety after witnessing the suicide of his sister. The guilt of not being able to save her gnaws at his heart for 7 years. It is a very delicate portrayal of someone dealing with grief and persistent depression, for which Dutt also received critical acclaim.

In the new film i.e. Sadak 2, we find Dutt grieving again. This time for the death of his wife, Pooja. But, here he talks to his dead wife, and his ghost wife is very capable of carrying out conversations. In fact, I won’t be surprised if someone told me that the ghost of Pooja (voiced by Pooja Bhatt) has more dialogues than Aditya Roy Kapur in the film. Ravi sniffs Pooja’s saris, argues with her, and is so resigned and purposeless after her death, that he tries to take his own life but fails. The film opens with Dutt sitting in what seems like a hospital’s psychiatric ward, where the doctor talks in metaphors and asks him to get admitted to the mental hospital.

A mental hospital, in fact, seems to be the answer to all mental health issues in these two films, and clearly no one in Mahesh Bhatt’s world has ever heard of counselors or psychologists before. Alia Bhatt’s character, Aarya, who her family members are trying to prove mentally unstable also stumbles out of the same mental hospital the first time Ravi sees Aarya.

Both Sadak and Sadak 2 make mental health issues seem so extreme. While the treatment of grief and guilt of the death of a sister in Sadak is apparently treated by shock treatment in the film, Sadak 2 tells you that when grieving for a loved one if you have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide, then the only way to ‘get better’ is to get committed to a mental institution.

These kinds of narrative not only further stigmatizes mental health problems but is especially problematic in the current day’s scenario, with a mangled public discourse on mental health already ongoing post-Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, in which, a member of the Bhatt clan, aka Mukesh Bhatt, has already made a sizable contribution by comparing Rajput’s mental health to that of actress Parveen Babi, who suffered from schizophrenia. It is astounding to see that even after 30 years, so little has changed in the way mental health is portrayed in a film made by Mahesh Bhatt, and what has changed, has actually become worse. What makes things worse is that Bhatt is, in fact, counted as one of the thinkers of Bollywood, who had in the past also made films that have received critical acclaim like Arth, Zakhm, and Saaransh.

A hate storm arrived on Sadak 2 upon its release because of already ongoing controversy about Mahesh Bhatt’s alleged closeness with Rhea Chakravorty, who is currently being investigated by the CBI in connection to Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. But, to assume that it has in any way contributed to the failure of this ludicrous film would be presumptuous indeed. It is so terribly made — with some really bad performances by Alia Bhatt, and Sanjay Dutt– that I doubt it would have survived even if it didn’t land amid a controversy.

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