Indian actress and singer Shruti Haasan has a bone to pick with public figures who speak about mental health only when it’s a significant day in an annual calendar.
It’s a disservice to all those who struggle with grave mental health issues daily believes the talent who suffers from anxiety.
“It can’t be a trump card that you use once a year. You have to keep talking about mental health. Recovery of any kind is about constantly addressing it and being aware of it. I don’t agree with people who do it for a season or on Mental Health Awareness Day alone,” said Haasan in an exclusive interview with Gulf News over Zoom.
Declaring that you are battling crippling mental health issues, but then returning to lead fabulous lives in the public eye won’t just cut it, adds Haasan.
So, the daughter of legendary actor and politician Kamal Haasan and actress Sarika Thakur wants to lead by example. During the pandemic that crippled the world over the last year, Haasan has constantly reminded her fans that dealing with anxiety takes relentless work.
“I want to remind people that I am still a work in progress. There’s no quick fix out there. It’s a constant and that’s why nobody calls someone an ex-addict but calls them a ‘recovering addict’. I am constantly findings tools and ways to deal with it [anxiety],” said Haasan.
In a recent Instagram post, Haasan revealed how she gave in to her unproductive day and submitted to doing nothing, without fretting about it. The 35-year-old actress, whose credits include South Indian-language blockbusters such as ‘Gabbar Singh’, ‘Balapu’, ‘Krack’ and the seminal gangster Bollywood film ‘D-Day’, is keen to de-stigmatise and root out the shame that’s often attached to mental health.
Haasan’s tryst with popular culture and cinema began early in her life. In 2000, she had a cameo in her father’s directorial ‘Hey Ram’ as a child artiste and she topped it off with her actual acting debut in 2009 with Bollywood film ‘Luck’. In 2011, she made her plunge in Telugu cinema with romantic comedy ‘Oh My Friend’ in 2011. She was born into a family of actors and performers.
“Families that are so insulated like our Indian families pride ourselves over the bonds we share … We take it personally when someone wants a therapist and they believe why we need them if you have a mum, aunt, or a brother who loves you unconditionally … But they are not equipped to help them with that … But if you love someone, encourage them to speak to a person who’s trained to help you,” said Haasan. Treat your anxiety and depression in the same manner that you would treat chronic stomach pain, she adds.
Embracing fear and failure
During the chat, it’s very evident that Haasan comes from a secure place as she regales us about the time when she performed at a concert in Camden, London, in 2019 with an abysmal number of her fans.
“We had 17 people who showed up and I counted! Among those 17, a few couldn’t even pronounce my name… But I challenged myself because you have to start from a place of letting go of all fear and ego … It was such a heartening experience for me to do that circle of shoes … I needed to do it for myself as an artist and I gained 17 fans at the end of the evening,” said Haasan.
Apart from singing popular tunes in her Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi films, Haasan was a part of an alternative rock band, The Extramentals, and has collaborated with Nucleya for the track ‘Out Of Your Mind’. She recently sang ‘Edge’, which was widely appreciated by the likes of Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman and Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan. But despite the laurels, it’s not often that actors are willing to wear their vulnerabilities on their sleeves, but Haasan isn’t cut from the usual cloth.
Proudly stating that only more than a dozen turned up for her concert, Haasan was refreshingly witty and forthcoming — a rarity among celebrities (a term that she detests: ‘just call us people’). But she wasn’t always this assured and confident. Haasan, who comes from a privileged background, claims that she had to work hard to reach this secure place as an actor and talent.
“I worked very hard for the majority of my career. When I was interacting with the public, I tried to cover up my insecurities and vulnerabilities. Even though I am a fairly secure person, I am also very vulnerable. So when you are vulnerable, you tend to shield yourself and build walls. But I began addressing my issues by getting into therapy about my anxiety,” said Haasan. Through therapy, Haasan learned how vulnerability can also be her biggest strength.
“We need a spine for it though … Let’s all face it that we are all vulnerable and we are all flawed. The sooner you put yourself out there, the lesser you are likely to get hurt weirdly.”
Ahead of the COVID-19 curve:
Plus, the pandemic has been a big leveler for this actress. Though she’s grateful for being alive, she’s aware that her sense of purpose is derived from the work that she does in front of the came and the songs that she writes. Due to the restrictions in filming induced by the fierce second wave of COVID-19 in India, Haasan’s new show with Amazon Prime Video and shooting for her forthcoming film with actor and idol Prabhas has been put on hold. But there was a silver lining. She scored two blockbusters with ‘Krack’ and ‘Vakeel Saab’ in 2021.
“I had two releases this year. When theatres opened for a short period, they released and both did well. I belong to that tiny sliver of actor who had two releases amid a pandemic, but it’s a crazy time … My show for Amazon has been delayed and stuck due to the pandemic. But as a musician it was creatively satisfying because I had time to sit and write, but I miss the live shows,” said Haasan, who feeds off live interactions.
She’s also working on the film ‘Salaar’ with co-star and idol Prabhas. So was Prabhas the reason why she chose to jump aboard the project? For those in the dark, her ‘Baahubali’ leading man enjoys monstrous clout in India and is known to be their resident rock star with an army of fans behind him.
“That would be a bit shallow of me, isn’t it? To just sign a film because of the actor… Having said that it always helps to have a good co-star who’s gifted. Prabhas is an amalgamation of so many good things … But neither he nor I am anything without a good story or a good director,” said Haasan.
When it comes to creative gambles, Haasan isn’t shy of taking risks. In this year’s Telugu Netflix anthology film ‘Pitta Kathalu’, she was a part of the chapter entitled ‘X-life’. Her switch to streaming platforms was seamless and without any drama.
“These platforms allow us to take more risks that fall out of the parameters of the four boxes containing cinema such as marketing and box-office,” said Haasan. But she reminds us that her iconic father had begun taking those risks in mainstream cinema, long before Over-The-Top or OTT and digital platforms mushroomed during the pandemic.
“I’m not saying this because he’s my dad, but I have closely watched him and I feel proud that he was doing this with directors from mainstream cinema a long time ago … He took risks. … And now, as an actor I can get roles that don’t fit into the traditional mold of what’s expected of a feature or mainstream film. We can now explore more.”
Even though she has experienced highs and lows in her career and her catalogue of work is a mixed bag of hits and misses, Haasan is happy to have survived in the highly competitive film industry for more than a decade. Asked if she felt as if she served time to get to the top, Haasan claimed she isn’t calculating or manipulative. She doesn’t look at her career in films or music as a stepping stone to success.
“I have enjoyed every single year here and that’s not going to change.” She isn’t armed with a five-year plan either.
“In 2018/19 I surrendered myself to the concept of control to the universe. And that helped me as an artist, as a woman, and as a human being. The pandemic just snatched the rug off all our feet, so now I plan my life daily and not plan for tomorrow … I am in the happiest phase of my life professionally and personally right now.”
Public scrutiny is a part of my life and it’s going to be a part of my children’s lives, even if they don’t choose to be artists.
People who can’t be happy with themselves can never be happy with someone else in their life.