Parvathy Thiruvothu is in a great place with her career. After back-to-back successes with and in 2019, she is now preparing for her directorial debut. The National Award winning Mollywood star, who earlier forayed into Bollywood with in 2017, has had scriptwriting and studies to keep her occupied during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the ongoing national lockdown has not been easy on her. Although she is relieved that her loved ones are fine, she explains that she has swung on “a pendulum of calm to absolutely anxious” in this time due to the political climate in the country and her own personal challenges.
In this freewheeling conversation, the actor speaks at length for the first time about her long-time battle with depression. She also discusses her home state Kerala’s response to COVID-19 and lessons from Virus, which is based on the true story of Kerala’s handling of a Nipah outbreak in 2018. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
What have you learnt about yourself during this lockdown?
I have learnt that I have incredible mind power. (Laughs) I apply that at my workplace most of the time, but the way I have treated characters that I have played is so much better than how I generally used to treat myself. (Laughs) So, this period has been a deep dive into how I am dealing with my deep-seated depression. I’ve had regular bouts of it that I have been taking care of, without medication at this point, with all the help I can get from online therapy and also being connected to my closest friends.
I’m used to taking time off after 2-3 films, but a choice to lock myself in is different from when it’s mandatory – it suddenly feels stifling. That feeling lasted for about a week of the lockdown. Now I’ve been focusing on my work. Currently I’m writing for my directorial venture and another project with a friend from the industry. It has been very rewarding, but being self-employed is difficult because it requires self-motivation. So, each day I realise a new facet of my mental strength.
What did you mean by saying: I treat my characters better than myself?
My research, pre-production work and under-production work are usually quite meticulous. That’s the period when the focus on Parvathy takes a backseat. Once the routine of getting up at 4 and shooting till 11 at night for about 45-50 days is over, you are suddenly accountable for a full-focus shift back to yourself. You need to do certain housekeeping for your mind and body, and of late I have found that when creating a character I utilise everything in my power for a great output, but with my own mental or physical health, I have not been that meticulous.
I am unlearning the mindset that working on yourself is vain. When it’s something outside of yourself there is so much more value attached to it. What you put out there is visible and tangible. Somehow, you tend to overlook the progress you make within and the importance of it.
You are not using the word depression casually as people often do. You’re using it to mean clinical depression?
I only use it to mean clinical depression. Sadness and depression are different. I am still learning what all it entails but I understand what it feels and looks like when somebody says they have anxiety and panic attacks, because I struggle with it myself. I have been clinically diagnosed in the last 5 years.
How come you’re being open about it? That’s unusual in India because of prevailing prejudices and ignorance.
I have been open about it from a very young age. Whenever I felt emotionally low, I used to open up and talk about it with school and college friends. Unfortunately, some people I was close with used to say, “Oh my god, you’re addicted to self-pity. Snap out of it.” That was an issue because for a long time I did try that, you know. For years I thought I was making a big deal out of it, maybe I should just snap out of it. Then I realised I was repressing things, that I end up imploding sooner or later. No one would know what to do with me. So, I learnt to be honest with myself. I sought medical help. I figured ways to write down my feelings and tell people.
As an actress I’m used to people having an opinion on me – I stopped giving a damn a long time ago. And while I do suffer from depression, I’m proud of myself. I’m everything I am today, right now speaking to you in this moment, because of how I’ve survived. And continue to. At some point I switched to the mentality of a survivor rather than someone who is suffering every day. Sometimes it’s every waking minute, and I have to literally say out loud: no no, you’re not giving up. It has been an important journey to constantly unlearn the mentality of victimhood and to remind myself with every tool possible that I have the strength to overcome.
Some people do not like to talk about it. That is okay too, as long as they know there is help when they need it. I talk about it a lot but then I go quiet too. And it boils down to one point, Anna – I have benefited a lot from my loved ones making every effort to understand me, but I never expected that from others. First, it’s none of their concern. Second, they don’t owe me understanding. I owe myself understanding. I’d make the effort to let my closest people know what I’m going through, and if they had shamed me then that would have been another fight to win, yeah.
Who or what helped you realise that it’s okay to seek help, to not see it as self-pity?
A family member I am close to once reached out for help and said, “I don’t think I can do it on my own. I am unable to sleep, I am unable to take care of my mind, I am going out of control. Please take me to a doctor.” I was at that juncture when I was “snapping out of it”. The process of taking him to the doctor, seeing his courage, helped me see that I had been in denial and that I too needed proper care.
Initially it was very difficult to go see a therapist – I was afraid of being judged by a stranger. Another struggle was that I was surrounded by a few people who didn’t know what to do with me unless I was in a state of crisis. I held on to my crisis as an identity for a long time. It was difficult to manoeuvre my way out of that. I am no longer in touch with many people who eventually didn’t know what to do with me because suddenly I seemed more confident, open about my issues, dealing with it on my own.
Also, my panic attacks had started physically manifesting as illnesses, pain or breathlessness. It is typical of me that anything coming in the way of my craft will be immediately taken care of, so my initial reason for seeking help was that I wanted to focus better on work. Now though, I have reached a point where I consistently work on bettering myself. Period.
It’s been a long, really curvy road. I don’t know where it began to be honest, I’m just thinking about it right now when you’re asking me. And now this interview has become about mental health – very interesting.
I wasn’t expecting it either.
How does one distinguish between sadness versus knowing a problem requires a psychiatrist?
I cannot speak for everyone, but I can tell you how it was for me. When my panic attacks first led to breathlessness, I was taken to hospital and nothing was found to be wrong with my body. The doctor said, this is an anxiety attack. The first time – and this was funny – I was at work, and my director and the rest of the team were like, “Wait a second, are you stressed at work? You seem fine.” I was like, “I thought I was fine too, I don’t know what’s happened.” I really didn’t know what was wrong. It was just years of repressed issues that I had okayed without being okay. Eventually the inability to physically perform, the fatigue, the darkness that would engulf me resulting in not wanting to get out of bed, the fact that despite being a stress eater, I even stopped craving that relief, all this told me something was really wrong. If anyone probed, even with the best of intentions, I used to spiral back into panic.
It took several sessions of therapy and me giving up on it too – because I was too scared, I thought they don’t know me, I can’t even relate to what they’re trying to help me with – before I realised that was just scraping the surface. It took a lot of courage to keep going back.
I realised I needed help when it became a norm to not lift my head off the pillow, not want to take care of myself. At the same time, if a loved one was in need I’d be up and helping them, but coming back to myself would immediately paralyse me. That happened a couple of times. I thought I’ll just be given medication to help me sleep, and I did take medication for a little while. That period turned my entire life, physical well-being and my body’s functioning completely topsy-turvy. So, I wanted something better. Ever since I went to therapy and I was clinically diagnosed, I have been on this path of trying different ways to just stay, not leave. To stay in with myself has been the biggest struggle. Yeah.
Is it the sensitivity that has come from your own mental health concerns that caused you to issue an apology, a clarification, for using the word bipolar in an interview?
Yeah, it was. I was genuinely apologetic. Bipolar by definition alludes to absolute opposites, but that is not the meaning attached to the word in general parlance these days – the word has become synonymous with the mental health condition. So when somebody who I assume has experience with being bipolar called it out for me, I thought it was important for me to correct myself because I would have wanted that if I was on the other end and felt someone was stigmatising or slighting a condition. Yeah.
People often use words like “schizophrenic” and “Alzheimer’s” casually. Is it lack of sensitivity that we need to personally experience something or see a loved one suffering to become conscious of insensitive language, or is this understandable?
It takes a lot of sensitising in terms of either going through it yourself or someone close to you going through it. For example, I was sensitive to any facet of feminism and aware that I will always be a feminist, because I had personal experiences, but when I met further marginalised people speaking up about their struggles, it took listening to them intently for me to realise that you cannot equate your experience with theirs. You have to listen and understand that they are in pain and it’s not a pain that you have endured. It doesn’t cancel out your journey, but it’s important to know more about how uniquely terrifying each person’s struggle is.
When it comes to language, we are trying to change words that are used to speak about feminists as well, words that used to be treated as a joke.
Words like feminazi?
Ya, like feminazi, and we would be told, “you’re not a good sport, you should just laugh at it.” It took me a long time to stop encouraging those terms, and to not laugh at sexist jokes even when the majority in the room would. Not participating would be my silent yet powerful way of saying I don’t think that was cool.
When did you first speak about your mental health in public? How did you get to a place where you could do that without worrying that people are judging you?
This is the first time I have spoken at such length. Ever since we formed the Women In Cinema Collective (), fear took a good long vacation because everything was at risk. Well, everything is still at risk, so it gave me that sense of there’s no time like now to just be completely who I am. I started alluding to the episodes I have in certain interviews, when the context asked for it. But in my closest circles, since I’ve never been shamed, it’s still easy for me on a day-to-day basis to speak about my emotions. So that gives me confidence too, to be speaking like this to you. Yeah.
The Government of your home state, Kerala, as far as I can recall, was the first to speak about mental health during the lockdown, domestic violence and alcoholism. Was this surprising or expected?
It was completely expected. There was a lot of faith in our administration and our Health Minister, Shailaja Teacher (K.K. Shailaja), especially because of how she handled both waves of the Nipah virus – the first where I actually was in Calicut, the epicentre of the outbreak (in 2018), and the second was in Ernakulam (in 2019) when the movie Virus was about to release. The way hundreds of people were quarantined promptly (during the second wave) and there were no deaths, shows the focus and the immediate jumping into action that our Government has prioritised when it comes to health crises. I personally thought the first wave of Nipah would end up in a massive epidemic or a pandemic. So, the way they’re hitting it out of the park with COVID-19 is completely expected. Anybody who is pro or against, even the Opposition, would commend their handling of this situation despite the glaring lack of support from the Centre. I am proud of them and support them 100 per cent in this matter. Yeah.
People of Kerala seem to have confidence in K.K. Shailaja and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s handling of the pandemic. This public confidence is missing from the rest of India. Is this a correct assessment?
It is. I’m certain there are glitches here and there, but there’s an earnestness with which the Kerala Government has taken care of the situation, they are constantly at it, they hold regular press conferences. There is also a difference between the language of Kerala’s communication and the communication from other states. Kerala’s ministers and healthcare representatives are not just giving constant updates, they are also invested in boosting our morale. When they come on screen they always say: we will get over this, we are together in this. As a people, we can sense their confidence. This confidence is reflecting in the undeterred spirit of our nurses and doctors as well. The state government’s handling of COVID-19 has everything to do with it. That is definitely missing in how the Centre is handling this crisis.
In the middle of the pandemic came news that Kerala is the only big state in India with an infant mortality rate in single digits. But Kerala is not perfect. How do we guard against pedestalisation of the state because of all the great things it is doing?
It is critical for people to hold the Government accountable at all times. Like I am supporting what the Kerala Government is doing with COVID-19, but through WCC we have constantly sought answers regarding systems in the film fraternity. As citizens, we seek answers to why there is so much domestic violence and alcoholism in Kerala and what the government will do to solve these problems. We will not forget these things once we are done beating COVID-19. That’s something Kerala is always consistent with: the criticism never dies down. And it shouldn’t.
It is important to commend a government when we are benefiting, but whether you support or oppose the party in power, constantly see what area of society needs more work and keep at it. In Kerala, I know people who support the Government but are the most critical. This is missing in the rest of India. It’s difficult for me to have a conversation with a Central Government supporter with whom there cannot be any criticism. That’s a totalitarian leadership and behaviour of followers. Yeah.
Your film Virus shows the Centre pressuring the Kerala Government to view the 2018 Nipah outbreak as an act of bio-warfare but the state insists on investigating further. Seeing how COVID-19 has been communalised in India, what can we learn from that scene in the film?
was vital to show the handling of such a situation, when we already have a certain blatant warfare towards this minority community. When the Tablighi Jamaat scandal came out, there were big debates happening in internal circles, but at no point did anyone I know (in Kerala) focus on a faith or its failings. This is not to say that Kerala is immune to such communalisation or that it is devoid of Islamophobia and the caste system, but that as of now these social ills are kept in check because we can see what’s happening outside – since our social fabric remains fragile, we must continue to stay alert.
In popular culture you will notice in recent films a more sensitive portrayal of different communities and more inclusion. Malayala thanima (typical Malayali tradition) does not mean Thrissurile oru mana (an upper caste family home in Thrissur) and a main character is the head of that tharavadu (old household), that’s it. For years we had only one narrative while representing Keralatham (the idea of Kerala) or Malayala thanima. Now we get every aspect of different communities and their stories being told as a regular story, not an exceptional story. The ordinariness of each minority is shown in our popular culture a little more, and that has had a lasting impression on people. I hope this continues.
I’m not blind to the extreme cases of biases I witness in my circles despite all this, but this is what’s keeping us afloat, and that scene in Virus had to be there for us to take a page out of it now. It would be really cool for people to watch Virus at this time.
Why is it important for people to see Virus during this pandemic?
Virus gives an insight that no other film on a pandemic can give because it happened for real. The basic medical facts we have shown in the film are real, and it is an affirmation that things can get better if handled correctly. In Calicut, most people who got the Nipah virus got it because they tried helping someone who was already infected, but then it also took the entire population coming together in a systematic way to stop the spread. It shows the power of community spirit. That is the point of Virus, that is a message that needs to be driven into people, and there’s nothing like cinema to drive a point home.
This interview was first published on Firstpost on May 27, 2020:
A Malayalam translation of this interview was published in the July issue of Grihshobha magazine: