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South Asian Sisters Bring Mental Illness Out of Closet

Washington: Two South Asian Muslim sisters have chosen to bring the taboo subject of mental illness out of the closet in their first feature film with a universal message: //"Acceptance, not rejection, helps in difficult situations."

"Hiding Divya", written and directed by Rehana Mirza, produced by Rohi Mirza Pandya, and starring Madhur Jaffrey, Pooja Kumar and Deep Katdare, will debut at international film festivals this year.

Earlier in 2006, the only Muslim sister filmmakers won an award from NBC Universal for their short film "Modern Day Arranged Marriage".

In "Hiding Divya", her first feature film as both writer and director, Rehana Mirza wanted to tackle a very layered and complex story with emotional depth, yet with some quiet humour.

"Having three very strong women as protagonists is something I very rarely get to do," Mirza told IANS.

"Hiding Divya is our project from start to finish. It is our first feature and we retained creative control throughout the process. It has high production values," added producer Rohi Mirza Pandya.

Asked how did they choose this particular theme for the film, the Mirza sisters noted: "Early in Rehana's screening writing career, one of Rohi's friends approached her about the problem of mental illness in the South Asian community.

"Her mother suffered from manic depression, constantly showed erratic behaviour, and was ostracised from the community. Then in the spring of 2005, another friend's father put a gun to his head and shot himself. We realized there was an immediate need to tell this story."

The sisters believe that "Hiding Divya" is one of those films that have "the power to change the world". With it Rohi hopes "that people seek help for their illness and that the stigma of mental illness is erased".

"We also hope that the pressure and isolation of family members whose loved ones suffer from mental illness will be eased and that they can find comfort in a taboo subject being brought to light in a humanistic and embracing way," adds Rehana.

Asked in what way is South Asians' attitude to mental illness different from the Western society and other immigrant communities in the US, Rohi replied: "It's not different, it's a universal story. We just happen to be telling a South Asian story."

But Rehana would not agree. "I particularly focused on researching all races, cultures and genders and how mental illness affects family and relationships. Across the board, mental illness is a subject matter that is swept under the rug in a family.

"Within the Asian culture in particular, however, there is an element of shame that is cultural that becomes particularly magnified when dealing with mental illness in the family. Also, the Asian culture puts emphasis on marrying the entire family, not just one person, so that becomes an interesting dynamic that can play into how mental illness affects relationships in a South Asian household.

"However, while some new issues can crop up for the South Asian culture, mental illness is a universal issue that all can understand," she added.

In fact "we all share a hidden secret that needs to be acknowledged and accepted by our loved ones. Acceptance, not rejection, helps in difficult situations", said the sisters, describing it as the universal message of "Hiding Divya".

The Mirza sisters have chosen yet another talented woman of Indian origin, Meetu Chilana, a Manhattan-based singer of pop, jazz, folk and world music to render the theme song of "Divya" with music by Samrat Chakrabarty.

Chilana has also turned the theme song into a music video, "Lost", described as "a colourful exploration of self and the melodies that haunt us: a performer, performs/ an observer, observes/ both share a secret/ seek and find".

Asked why did she choose Meetu Chilana as the singer and Samrat Chakrabarty as the director for the theme song of her film, Rehana said: "Meetu has a lovely voice and combined with Samrat's compositions, it creates a fluid mix borrowing from South Asian and American styles."

She "wanted to convey a sense of isolation, loss, and sadness through the music", said Rehana. "Also, I wanted to show a different feel about mental breakdowns - a surreal moment. Samrat has been able to do an amazing job by creating a haunting theme melody that expresses a beautiful yearning and painful reminder of the past.

"Only Meetu could do such a complex and layered composition such as Samrat's justice with her wide range in vocals. For the other moments in the film, Samrat was able to create a sense of discord and uncomfortablity in the most gorgeous of ways."


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