Orphaned by two tragedies that claimed the lives of both their parents within the span of a month, Dinesh Das Sabu and his four siblings had no choice but to support each other during their childhood years in Albuquerque.
“We grew up like boxcar children,” Sabu, now an independent filmmaker, commented in his autobiographical documentary “Unbroken Glass” (2016).
On Friday, Jan. 27, members of Vassar’s South Asian Student Alliance (SASA) and Vassar Campus Entertainment (ViCE) Film hosted a screening of the film in the Sanders Classroom Spitzer Auditorium for the campus community. Finishing off the event was a question-and-answer session with Sabu, who was also in attendance.
In an email, SASA Vice President Samanvaya Sharma ’18 spoke positively of the event. “It was a very moving documentary to watch,” reported Sharma. “After the screening, [Sabu] boldly answered both questions about his personal life and about the technicalities of making a meaningful film under a budget. We greatly appreciated his courage in coming out and being so vulnerable to our audience tonight. We hope that many more people watch the film…and that we continue to bring such fascinating people to campus.”
Sabu’s ciné-verité project, which chronicles the demystification of his schizophrenic mother’s past, faced moderate fanfare following its premiere at the 2016 Seattle South Asian Film Festival last October.
For his work as a director and co-producer, the Indian-American documentarian won a Jury Award-Special Mention for Documentary Feature at the festival and garnered critical praise; the critic Nick Allen of the notoriously scathing RogerEbert.com deemed Unbroken a “promising directorial review” (RogerEbert.com, “Preview of the 2016 Kartemquin Fall Festival,” 10.31.2016).
Sabu’s success extends beyond his 2016 directorial debut on mental health. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 2006, he became a finalist for the Prize for Emerging Artists in 2011 and, in 2014, won a fellowship from Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab. However, “Unbroken Glass” was by far the most personal project of his career.
“As this very personal journal continued, it got bigger than just my family. The idea of making a documentary…seemed very natural, like something we should do, a conversation we need to be having in our community,” Sabu commented at the 2014 Eye on India convention in Chicago (YouTube, “Unbroken Glass Part One,” 8.19.2014).
Spanning across five years, three states and two countries, the film revolves around the theme of mental illness and how it is misunderstood within the South Asian diaspora in a time when exploring mental health is less taboo than it used to be.
Increasingly, intersectional advocacy groups have begun challenging mental illness shaming in ethnic communities as more become aware of how such a stigmatization transcends all social and ethnic groups.
Using a South Asian enclave in Harrow, North West London as a sample group, Rethink Mental Illness, an English-based interest group that champions the rights of the mentally ill, cited six major factors that contribute to the maltreatment of mental health problems in the South Asian community: Shame, misconception, not wanting to ostracize ill family members, social pressure to conform, prejudice and the possibility of damaging arranged marriage prospects (Time-to-Change.org, “Attitudes towards mental health problems in the South Asian community in Harrow, North West London”).
Speaking on arranged marriages as well as the claustrophobic cultural pressure that can surround them and other conventions, Priya Misra ’17 said in an interview, “My father’s family is Indian and had a difficult time accepting my mother, who’s from Australia, because their marriage was the first non-arranged one in his family.”
The study goes on to highlight the universality of mental disorders, pointing out that one in every four people will be affected by mental illness at some point of their lives.
“There is a deep-rooted misunderstanding of mental health problems passed through generations,” reads the study’s conclusion, drawing parallels between similar types of mental health shaming in various ethnic communities. “People with mental health problems must battle to get the right professional support and treatment while also struggling with ingrained attitudes that promote stigma, discrimination, isolation and [shame].”
Like in much of the West and in particular racial enclaves in Western countries, India’s acceptance of the mentally ill has come gradually. In 2010, the country celebrated its first National Mental Health Awareness Day.
“General physicians were not aware of mental illness. Initially they would say, ‘Do some yoga and meditation,’” said Rukmini Pillai, a New Delhi housewife turned government lobbyist whose daughter suffers from mental illness, in an interview with National Public Radio. She continued, “They would say, ‘You must not have given proper food diet to your child, that’s why she became ill,’”
“Unbroken Glass” challenges not only racial norms, but also stereotypes about the mentally ill present in the entertainment media. Despite the fact that the real life people on which they are based are statistically more likely to be victims, mentally ill fictional characters are portrayed as perpetrators of violence more often than those who aren’t.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, popular media has the tendency to reduce mentally ill characters into reductive social oddities. Films like “Me, Myself & Irene” and television shows like “Monk,” which falsely subscribes the symptoms of sophomoric silliness to dissociative identity disorder and anal retentiveness to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, respectively, wield the power to alter how society views the mentally ill.
Perhaps the most disquieting fact of all is that, according to a report by the US News & World Report, studies indicate media as a primary informational source on issues of mental illness for the public in spite of its pitfalls (U.S. News and World Report, “How Mental Illness is Misrepresented in the Media,” 4.16.2015).
“Unbroken Glass” is scheduled to air on PBS this May.