There are many myths about mental health, but the one Sid Mallya wants to debunk is personal. “Just because someone is born with a silver spoon, or is a celebrity who appears to have everything, doesn’t mean they are not suffering inside,” Mallya says. “We sadly make assumptions about people based on what we see on the outside….’your life is great, what do you have to be depressed about?’ but when you take away all the glitz and glamor, they are still human beings. Everybody struggles in their own way. We just don’t know what is going on inside.”
Mallya says he knows this feeling all too well. As the first-born son of Indian business tycoon Vijay Mallya and his first wife Sameera Tyabjee, Sid Mallya would appear to have everything one could want: wealth, celebrity, love, looks, and fame. But within, Mallya was struggling, unable to explain the feelings of sadness and emptiness he regularly experienced. It took a breakdown in 2016 – soon after his father fled India after facing fraud charges – for the younger Mallya to seek help from a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with clinical obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
“Just because someone is born with a silver spoon, or is a celebrity who appears to have everything, doesn’t mean they are not suffering inside”
Mallya says he was relieved to finally have a name to describe his inexplicable inner struggle.
“I didn’t realize at the time how OCD could manifest itself in so many different ways,” says Mallya, who was first treated with antidepressants and now has found more natural ways, such as meditation and therapy, to manage his condition. Two years into his recovery, Mallya says he decided to help others by sharing his own journey as a way to raise awareness and normalize mental illness. In 2019, he launched an educational series on Instagram, ConSIDer This, which has 623,000 followers. He says his life’s mission is to eliminate the deep-rooted stigma attached to mental health.
According to the WHO, half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14, with depression being one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. However, most cases are undetected or untreated in large part due to the stigma and societal pressure.
Mallya says that for him, like many others, conditioning begins at a very early age when children are taught to bury their feelings, and male children are told “Boys don’t cry.” An only child of a Hindu father and a Muslim mother who divorced when he was six, Mallya grew up in a boarding school in a quiet town in the UK, splitting his holidays between two families, one in San Francisco, and another in Mumbai.
“Luckily I got to travel as a result of it, but that also caused a lot of sort of instability growing up,” he says. “I didn’t quite realize the effects of that instability at the time. It manifested itself much later on in my life.”
Mallya didn’t excel in school but loved sports and enjoyed boarding school because, he says, it gave him the stabili – ty, structure, and a family life he craved but never had. When he graduated from school, Mallya went to Wellington College, finished his A levels and went on to study business management at Queen Mary University in London because “I was expected to go into the family business, which [in retrospect] was a complete waste of time.”
Mallya says he didn’t quite realize it then, but he was not cut out for business. Given a choice between the three verticals in the family business — United Spirits, which made alcohol; United Breweries, which made Kingfisher beer; or Kingfisher Airlines, a newly launched airline business — Sid Mallya finally chose United Spirits.
After cutting his teeth as a brand manager at Guinness in the UK, Mallya moved to India and was thrust headlong into the family business. At first, Mallya says, he loved it all – among other things running the Royal Challengers cricket team in Bangalore and attending Indian Premier League cricket matches, hanging out with movers and shakers of India and living a lifestyle of the rich and famous.
But Mallya says he underestimated the psychological impact of moving from the UK where he had lived a quiet life, to the hustle and bustle of celebrity-obsessed India, where he found himself in the public eye and under more scrutiny than he had ever been.
“Of course, I visited [India] three or four times a year, but to actually pack up shop and move from the UK to India is a huge cultural shift,” he says.
Mallya was even more unprepared for lack of personal space and privacy in Indian society, and unaccustomed to the culture of “judgment,” and the salacious obsession with stars and high society.
“I WAS NOT CUT OUT FOR BOLLYWOOD, THE WAY I SOUND, I’M VERY BRITISH. I DON’T SPEAK HINDI.”
“Obviously because of the surname and the family, I was suddenly in the public eye,” Mallya says. “All of that public attention mixed in with being somewhere where I didn’t really feel comfortable, and not having my friends around took a mental toll on me.”
After about a year and a half in the family business, Mallya eventually came clean to his dad.
“I said, I’m not happy doing this. I want to pursue a career in acting,” he says. With Dad’s blessing, Mallya moved to Los Angeles to study acting. Two years later he got professionally trained at a performing arts, drama, and acting school in the UK.
Acting and performing arts helps him, says Mallya.
“You bury, bury, bury, bury, bury [your feelings]. And then when I went to drama school, which is all about opening up and acting out your emotions, for the first time I was being opened up completely,” he says. “A lot of what I had inside was coming to the surface and obviously I was being trained to be more in tune with everything.”
After he graduated, Mallya decided not to go back to India for a potential career in filmdom.
“I was not cut out for Bollywood,” he says. “The way I sound, I’m very British. I don’t speak Hindi. And people want to see people they can relate to. I don’t think I would have given them that. So I don’t think I would have actually been very good at Bollywood.”
But deep inside, Mallya says, there was another reason for not pursuing opportunities in films.
“Looking back, there was probably a fair [part] of Bollywood and staying in India where I would have felt like I was [being] judged,” he says. “And I think that probably put me off it. I felt like, at least if I come to America, there’s no judgment.”
Mallya says he didn’t think he had the right sensibilities for Hollywood either and chose instead to do smaller films.
“I Felt Like, at Least if I Come to America, There’s No Judgment.”
His debut film was at the Sundance film festival, a 2016 English-language sex comedy called Brahman Naman, directed by Qaushiq Mukherhee. In it, he played a Casanova – in stark contrast to the four main characters, who are nerds and who don’t know how to win girls. The film was released on Netflix world – wide in July 2016.
Mallya has not lived in India since India since 2012 (eight years ago). Though the son of a former liquor czar, Mallya says he gave up drinking alcohol two years ago after learning that alcohol exacerbates his anxiety.
In an interview with Seema, Mallya opened up about his struggles, particularly those with mental illness.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Tell us about your childhood. I was born in Los Angeles. We moved to the UK when I was about nine months old and grew up in England in the coun – tryside 45 minutes outside of London. I’m an only child [of a Hindy father and a Muslim mother]. My parents split when I was about six or seven, and my dad remarried and had another family. I went to boarding school when I was 10, just one month before my 11th birthday and had to split the holidays between the two [families]. Luckily, I got to travel as a result of it, but I didn’t quite realize the effects of that instability at the time. It obviously manifested itself much later on in my life.
As a child what were your interests?
As an only child my best friend was my imagination. Growing up I’d always used to put on little plays. I liked entertaining. I was a C grade student. I’m not sure the teachers knew how to get the best out of me. I was more interested in playing around, going outdoors, playing sports. I finished school and went to Welling – ton College to do my A levels and my business management at Queen Mary University in London because I was expected to go into the family business. [In retrospect] I think studying business was a complete waste of time. If I could go back, I would perhaps do something else. Even when I went to India…, when I was running a team in the IPL cricket league, I was at my happiest when I was around people.… I didn’t realize then that I thrive when I’m in an environment where I can be expressive, open, and can connect with people. But put me behind a desk and it’s almost like putting a wild animal in a cage. I get very restless and don’t quite enjoy it.
Given that your parents were divorced and you were far away from them, it could’ve been difficult for you at boarding school. But you say actually had a good time?
I had the best time. I think boarding school … could go either way. Some will tell you it was the best time of their life. [Others] will tell you it was the worst time of their life…, that it actual – ly traumatized them for life. I loved it. I really, really enjoyed it. It taught me things for life that are just invaluable. In school, you’re on a schedule. You get your wake-up call at seven and everything’s on a schedule. You finish classes, sports and then you have supervised homework. Then dinner and it’s bedtime. So you are on the go — from 7am to 9pm. It taught me great discipline.
You said boarding school taught you many lessons?
Independence. My first day at university, there were many 18 year old kids in the dorm room crying. It hit me that this is the first time a lot of these kids have never been away from home. In Indian families, people never leave home. They live with families for life. I’ve lived on my own and I don’t have any family with me in Los Angeles. And I’m okay with that. So it definitely taught me independence.
While at university, you thought you were destined to follow in your father’s footsteps and take over the family business? Did you proceed in that direction?
I went to university [to study] business because it was expected. At the time, our family business was in three major areas. We had United Spirits, [which sold] alcohol, United Breweries, which [makes] Kingfisher beer. And then the airline at that time, which had started, Kingfisher Airlines. So I was sort of given a choice. It was like, which route do you want to go? And depending on which one you choose, go and work for another com – pany in that field. So you get experience outside the family business. So … if I was going to go into the airline…, [I would] go to work for Airbus in Toulouse, if it was beer, it would have been with Heineken. And if it was spirits, it would have been with Diageo in the UK. I chose the spirits route and spent a year working in the UK as an assistant brand manager at Guin – ness. It was a lot of fun. It taught me a lot. Then I moved to India.
How was your move to India?
I moved to India and was thrown into the business. I was running Royal Challengers [the cricket team] in Bangalore, which I loved. But then I also had to get used to [India]. I fully underestimated the impact it was going to have psycho – logically on me from literally moving countries. I mean, I had gone to India, of course. I visited three, four times a year, but to actually pack up shop and move from the UK to India is a huge cultural shift. Then of course, when I got to India, I found myself in the public eye and under more scrutiny than I’d ever been used to because I’d lived a pretty quiet life in the UK.
How did you cope?
Because of the surname and the family, I was in the public eye. That mixed in with being somewhere I didn’t really feel comfortable and not having my friends [around] took a mental toll on me. I did it for about a year and a half. And eventually I said to my dad, I’m not happy doing this. I want to pursue a career in acting. I have to give him a lot of credit. A lot of Indian parents would have said, get on with it, and refused [permission] because many Indian families tend to tell their kids what to do. And he said, You know what? If you don’t love what you’re doing, find what you do love, and do it.
Didn’t he try to talk you out of it? Did he express disappointment?
Fortunately no, and that [was a] blessing. I’m sure he was disappointed. I’m sure there was a part of him that really hurt, but to bite the bullet and not give me any trouble or talk me out of it.… I do have to give a lot of credit where it’s due, because I know that a lot of Indian parents in similar situations would not have gone along.
By then, had you already started acting or did you have to learn it?
No, I hadn’t actually done any [acting]. I’d been doing a lot of on-camera interviews in India but not acting. I came to the US to take acting classes. I was attending an acting studio, learning all the basics. Then, after about two years [I decided to] get professionally trained. And that’s when I started going to the UK to learn professional acting.
And after you graduated, did you go back to India?
No. I came straight back to LA. I’ve not lived in India. I haven’t been into India since 2012 – eight years ago.
You mentioned that you didn’t enjoy being in India. After acting school, did you try to go back there to try your hand at Bollywood?
I don’t even speak Hindi. So, Bollywood was never for me. I did my debut film out here at Sundance…. because I didn’t feel like I would have the right sensibilities for Hollywood either. They are so good at what they do in Bollywood and they hit a certain audience. I just don’t think I would have been able to do justice to what they do in that specific niche.
So where then did you feel at home?
It was a drama school. I was 28. And I had an end-of-term assessment. And my teacher, Ana, said to me “when you’re having fun and you’re free, you glow [and] when you’re being told what to do, you just shut off.” And I was like, it’s amazing that it’s taken someone to tell me this at 28. And none of my teachers growing up could have seen that. I think that’s where I finally found that freedom where I could just be me.
When did you realize you were struggling with mental health issues?
Around 2016. But now, if I look back, I was probably struggling long before that. In fact, I have this new series, ConSIDer This Lite, I did the first episode in July. [It] talks about how you can actually be depressed without realizing it. And I think that was definitely my case. I was in drama school at the end of 2016. And mid-2016… all the stuff around my dad, his legal troubles started to happen. That was a very public trial…. There was no real escape from it. Obviously he is my dad. That affects you. [At the time] I was playing this role for my end-of-year performance as a heroin addict. So I took all the angst going on in my everyday life and used it in [the performance of ] this character.
You enjoyed playing the role?
It was great. But then of course the character finishes, the shoot finishes. But the real-life experience that you’ve used to fuel this character is still there. So then what do I do? Where’s my outlet now? I started speaking to the counselor at drama school.
I finished drama school and I remember then I got this void in my life because [now] drama’s gone and I don’t have this distraction anymore. And this was probably about September, October, 2016. And I’d get up in the mornings and I would just feel empty and low. I couldn’t understand why. I had just graduated from the world’s best drama school. I’m in London, I’ve got my friends, I’ve got my family here. Why do I feel like this? And the not knowing makes you beat yourself up even more. And you go even further down into the rabbit hole.
What made you seek help?
I went to a friend’s [destination wedding] … in 2016. Bear in mind, I’m 28. I go to an Indian wedding, which is a three-day affair. [There is] great food, great alcohol. It’s on the beach. My friends are there, and the whole ecosystem was set up for people to have fun the entire three days, but I just felt crushed inside and just didn’t want to be there. And then I [said], all right, something is quite clearly wrong. I remember I got back to England and I sat on my staircase and just broke down one day crying and crying and crying. At that point I was, like, all right, this isn’t normal. There’s something going on here. And that’s when I decided to seek help.
You mean professional help?
I went to a psychiatrist, who evaluated me with clinical [obsessive compulsive disorder]. And my first instinct was, thanks for that. I didn’t quite realize at the time how OCD could manifest itself in so many different ways. They put me on antidepressants, a very low dosage. I took them for about three, two months. Then I had to come here for a wedding to LA in November. It was beautiful. It was in a place just outside Los Angeles, near Santa Barbara. And I remember just feeling a lot better without the pills. So then I thought, all right, maybe I’ll give these a break. You don’t want to be on pills for too long, but I think they did help me. But then I found more natural ways.
And how has the road to recovery been?
I moved back to LA, and then since then, it’s been really serious meditation, working with my therapist. And it’s been something I’ve done for two-and-a-half, three years, but really it has been a journey. And then it really got me thinking that I need to get my own house in order before worrying about others. Last year was really when it clicked. And I was, like, I can now use the work that I’ve been doing for myself the last three years to help others.
Yoga and meditation have been natural forms of therapy you mean?
Yes, and no one has an issue with that. But going to a therapist [does]. People might laugh at me, but what is the difference going to a therapist or to a yoga instructor? Nothing. It’s for mental wellbeing. If you hear the word yoga and ask people, what are words that come to mind? They say, love. They say joy. They say peace. They say mindfulness. But when you ask someone, what are the first things that come to mind when you hear the words mental health? They say anxiety, depression, craziness. And that’s the problem.
Are you close to your dad? Did you tell him about this?
I don’t think I told him or anyone specifically at first. I was focused on taking care of myself and getting better. I think he found out, but we don’t really talk about this sort of stuff. Again, because I think that generation does not understand it, and probably a part of me that felt like I don’t owe anyone any explanation.
What about your mom? Are you close to her? Do you see her?
Because I was in boarding school [I don’t] have the same relationship with parents that a lot of kids have. I am able to be in Los Angeles and live comfortably away from home and not worry about it… When I told [my mother] that I was taking her to a therapist, her first reaction was confusion. And it is no fault of hers, because she grew up in a generation where this wasn’t done. I didn’t tell her about my antidepressants until last year when I put up an Instagram post on World Mental Health Day. That was the first time she found out that I was taking it. I probably should have told her before putting that picture up. I just think that I needed the support of my parents to do what I needed to do to take care of my health.
What’s your ultimate goal? Do you plan to act in a major role or make movies?
This might sound like such a cliché, but I want to make the world a better place. I could quit. I could move to India. I could move to Africa and donate my time to helping, live my life in service, or I could be in this industry and create content that can exponentially help more people who view it deal with their own mental health issues. So my ConSIDer This series is a platform to help make the world a better place and to help people.
My motto in life is make one person feel better. If you can make one person smile a day, it’s been a good day. I just take something very basic and share it with people. Like my mental health videos. The 10-minute videos of my initial series have been viewed a few million times. And that is something that I’ve shot on an iPhone and put out on my Instagram account. To know that you can have the reach to help people is a feeling like none other. And I think also through art, you can help so many people, you can inspire people.
You’re doing ConSIDer This Lite, which has been successful, but I am guessing there is a documentary or a feature length movie in you?
Yeah there actually is. I’ve ever been approached to do a documentary on my dad’s career. Something to look at. I have three TV shows starting to be pitched. The Friends-like sitcom set in modern-day Bombay. Another is about an international Indian business family. The third one… I’m sure we can speak about eventually.
ESCAPE FROM ALCOHOL
You’ve given up alcohol. That’s kind of ironic and how were you able to do that?
Yes, my grandfather is probably rolling in his grave…laughing…. But seriously, you don’t have to be an alcoholic for alcohol to have a negative effect on your life. That’s what I realized. When I was in India, I was drinking three or four nights a week and I was claiming, it’s ok ‘cause I’m young and I like to party. The truth is… I hated being there at the party. I was drinking as an escape. Well, when you’re using it for an escape to sort of numb what you’re going through, then, you know, you’re not using it correctly…. I wasn’t, like, a big alcoholic but I tried to drink less.
So you just stopped?
I found out that whether I’d have one drink or 10, the next morning I’d wake up with morbid levels of anxiety. I didn’t realize that it was linked to my OCD. And it got to a point where I would wake up in the morning and I was, like, this just isn’t a way to live… This fear you have about the next day, this anxiety. I knew there were a lot of psychological issues going on and I told myself, you need to first figure [those] out before you start drinking again. That’s when I decided to quit two years ago. On the first anniversary [of that], I put up an Instagram post saying that it’s been one year since I stopped drinking because it gave me a lot of anxiety. Thousands of young people messaged me. Again, it comes down to something that I thought was doing to help me ended up helping thousands of people