Documentary shows how theatre helped Pune’s migrant community to speak up on mental health

On October 11, Pune-based Swatantra Theatre will mark World Mental Health Day by releasing a documentary titled, Suno Suno, on the process used to enable migrant communities living in slums to talk about their emotional health.

The Woman called Rani (name changed) was born in a village near Gujarat, and came to live at a slum in Pune after she got married at age 17. She was working long, back-breaking hours as a house help when she lost her child in the sixth month of pregnancy. “I rested for a few days, but how long could I just sit around at home? Soon, I was back at work as a domestic help,” she says. It is a painful memory, but Rani opened up to a team of researchers who used community theatre to understand the nature of resilience in the migrant community of India. On October 11, Pune-based Swatantra Theatre will mark World Mental Health Day by releasing a documentary titled, Suno Suno, on the process used to enable migrant communities living in slums to talk about their emotional health.

“Most people living in slums suffer from a range of mental health problems that remain undiagnosed. There is anxiety among young men about unemployment; there are older men, who cannot get out of alcoholism though it is eating up their earnings; women, whose husbands have left them; and children, for whom the future resembles the depressive gloom they see around them,” says Abhijeet Choudhary, director of Swatantra Theatre. “They think this is life and there is no need to talk about it,” he adds.

The study was conducted by De Montfort University, Leicester, Excavate Theatre London, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and Institute of Health Management, Pachod, between 2017 and 2019.

To understand the mind of a migrant community needed more than a questionnaire. Theatre artistes in the group began to regularly visit Birajdar Basti in Hadapsar to conduct street plays on issues important to the community, ranging from cleanliness and child education to the rights of women in society.

“It is not as if people start sharing their personal stories in 20 or 30 days. We worked consistently for three months to gain their trust,” says Choudhary.

Over several months, people began to talk about their inner lives. An elderly woman shared that she moved out of her home as she couldn’t get along with her daughter-in-law but found that, in a slum, you cannot go far. Now, she lives next door to her son and his wife — a stranger to her family. Researchers collected 35 to 40 stories from which they created four short plays of 15 minutes each.

“We asked people from the community to participate and play roles in the play. The production, titled Suno Suno, was a huge success, with more than 300 people attending shows both days we staged it. The story had come from their lives and they related to its every twist and turn,” says Choudhary.

The documentary comes at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has brought uncertainties faced by migrant workers into sharper focus. Long lines of people walking hundreds of kilometres back home after jobs dried up in big cities is one of the lasting images of lockdown in India.

“When we were working on the study, slum residents said they would be called migrants in Pune but back in their villages, they were ‘the people who live in Pune’. Every day, they have to find their identity between two shifting perspectives,” he says.

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