The brouhaha over Bollywood film Animal is a reminder that watching violence and mental health are linked.

Animal. One word, multiple connotations. In Savage Garden’s 1999 track The Animal Song, it was marked by a “careless and free” life – embracing innocent, natural instincts without feeling pressured by societal expectations. In the world of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s “Animal”, the protagonist also acts instinctively, but the title is more fittingly a metaphor for the monstrous, brash and worst side of humans. At its heart, the film may seek empathy for its ‘hero’, a man with a complex relationship with his father, a man on a quest for vengeance. But there’s unabashed display of violence, recklessness, callousness, toxic masculinity and misogyny, all in the name of entertainment. It’s a problematic mix. As a matter of fact, watching violence can affect mental health – a repercussion that can often get eclipsed in the glow of box office numbers.

Sometimes we don’t even realise the extent of damage it can sub-consciously do for children and adults. Congress MP Ranjeet Ranjan was reportedly disturbed enough to bring up the discussion during a Rajya Sabha session. She said, “Cinema is a mirror of society. First, there were films like Kabir Singh and Pushpa, and now there is Animal. My daughter went to watch the film with her college friends, and walked out midway through because she couldn’t stop crying.”

Cinema can move you like that – for the better or worse.

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The link between watching violence and mental health

Globally, many studies and analysis have been conducted to assess the impact that violence in media – films, television, video games, and more – can have on people.

According to a 2017 analysis in the publication Pediatrics, a group of researchers from Iowa State University, noted that violent media exposure can cause increased aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiologic arousal, hostile appraisals, aggressive behaviour, and desensitization to violence. It can also hamper their social behaviour and dial down empathy – two very important attributes in a human that loves and cares.

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“Media has a strong impact and influence on the minds of those who consume violent content. It affects the ways in which people think, how they feel and respond as well as influences and shapes their values and beliefs,” renowned clinical psychologist Dr Kamna Chhibber tells Health Shots.

The expert says people look towards celebrities and high-achieving individuals as role models. So, their behaviour or way of being on and off screen affects their fans. When a Shahid Kapoor slaps his girlfriend on screen in Kabir Singh or a Ranbir Kapoor asks the love of his life to lick his shoes, it may be seen as normalisation of behaviour that is, at best described abnormal.

“People don’t usually understand this strong influence and impact of media and how it can impinge on their ways of thinking and behaving or make them desensitized to issues such as aggression and violence. This leads to them unconsciously absorbing these influences,” she adds.

Watching tv
Staying up till late to watch TV can be a reason for hypersomnia. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Young women watching violent movie
Be cautious about watching violence on screen. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Cinema can shape up minds

The concern multiplies in a country where crimes against women are on a rise. As per the annual National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, crimes against women went up by 4 percent in 2022 compared to 2021.

We are a society with impressionable minds, aren’t we? Yet, such polarizing content in cinema has been finding its way way too often on screens in the recent past. From Hindi films to movies in Tamil and Malayalam, there are storylines glorifying hyperviolence in the name of heroism. These easily become talking points, just as Animal has.

Indian film historian SMM Ausaja tells me that with the rise of forums pertaining to feminism and equality, the content they oppose has more exposure. This may be prompting filmmakers to pick up narratives that may be deemed controversial. “It helps generate a buzz, even if it’s negative and that helps at the box office. Sadly, there is commerce even in content pitches these days. Or else how do we justify the ‘heroism’ depicted these days in films like Animal and Kabir Singh? Such content was there in films even earlier, but it never got linked to heroism the way it is being done now.”

Collective social responsibility to prevent negative effects of entertainment

This is why and where the onus of regulating content first falls upon filmmakers, and then the censor board. The Indian censor board is at the receiving end of social media angst for green signaling a movie, (even with an adult certification) like Animal, where one woman is constantly instructed what to do, while another becomes a victim to marital rape.

Dr Chhibber says, “It is important that those who create content for media are conscious and aware of these influences, so that active measures can be taken to also provide the right message which is entrenched in values, ethics and morals.”

That apart, the audience needs to be smarter about not exposing their children to violent content that may leave indelible imprints on their mind or shape the way they behave as grown-ups. The ‘A’ certification is for a reason.

While media literacy can go a long way in ensuring that people can distinguish between fact and fiction, people should be aware enough to choose to look at things portrayed as mere portrayals and not as truth. It has been an evergreen debate – whether cinema inspires reality or reality inspires cinema.

In the midst of all this, an old video featuring actor-filmmaker Aamir Khan has resurfaced online. His words balance out what needs to be said about violence in cinema and its psychological effects. He says, “There are a few emotions that are very easy to provoke the audience with. These emotions are violence and sex… it harms the society very much.”

Enough said!

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