Moving Towards Healthy Cinema

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This is an article I wrote for Change for Better, a quarterly magazine published by MKCL (Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Ltd.).

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"Did you know? Aniket's father? He has been detected with Alzheimer's disease."
"Oh no. Is it? Is it very bad? Tch tch...uhh..but what goes wrong when one has Alzheimer's. I mean what is it?"
"Remember? It's what Amitabh Bachchan had in Black."
"Oh yes, yes, yes..."

This common drawing room conversation simply explains the role movies play in our perception and understanding of health issues. Alzheimer's might be replaced with dyslexia where Black becomes Taare Zameen Par or hallucinations might become "chemical locha" and the film's name is Lage Raho Munnabhai or a more serious, A Beautiful Mind (Hollywood) or Devrai (Marathi). And of course, there are many, many more.

Whenever it comes to discussing a particular discipline in films, I can't help thinking of this one incident. I was watching one of those world-in-danger kind of a thriller with my software engineer husband. Suddenly, he burst out laughing, "Why do films even attempt to show programming code on the screen. It's so silly." I'm sure it's true. As sure as the fact that if you were to pick your field of expertise, you would say the same thing about the way it's represented in cinema. And a hearty laugh you'd be assured.

It should come as no surprise then, that health is over-simplified in our cinematic world too. Interestingly, this will be apparent to you and me, even if we aren't from the field of medicine. Our skepticism does touch the roof when we see an Aamir Khan turn a class room into an operation theater and pull out a baby with a vacuum cleaner (3 Idiots). Of course, the director-writer team must've been aware of the absolute hilarity of the situation. But, their purpose at that point was to make a point about the character's creativity and the ingenious ways in which he could use his knowledge of physics, biology and technology.

They didn't need to think twice before using exaggeration, because childbirth, after all, is a common enough medical event. Not to mention, mid-wives do convert any 8 x 10 square feet area into a delivery table. All they need is some hot water. Or do they? Or is it just another thing taught to us by our films; just another convenient mechanism to move the story forward? Yet, in this case, common sense and life experience can take over. Ultimately, we do know that feeling dizzy and falling down in the middle of a dance sequence is not the only way for a woman to find out that she's pregnant. We do smile at the missing-in-action creativity and move on.

But, what when something is not as common? What when there is already stigma and taboo associated with certain illnesses and films propagate the misconceptions further? How often have we seen mental retardation demeaned as 'mad', with little or no empathy from the filmmaker? How often has the make-up and hair-do of the mad person, aided in creating aversion and/or pity towards the character? How often have we seen contempt and mockery taking guise under the mask of humor to insult and alienate the mentally disabled? How often has our belief, that a handicap - mental or physical - points towards an emotionally and morally weak personality, been reinforced by our films? Unfortunately, most of these 'comic' moments are not with the intention of showing us the mirror, for us to see what we've made out of our society.

It’s not that cinema's role is to educate us in the nitty-gritty of all medical conditions that it refers to. But, in this area of our lives specifically, writers and directors need to be a little more responsible in sensitizing us to the plight of others. For, it wouldn't matter if a few lines of computer code aren't presented with the right syntax; it is even okay to defy laws of physics in action sequences or comedy; but when we begin deriving comedy out of others' misfortunes, without being completely aware of their situation, we are doing great injustice to our own emotional intelligence.

But, all is not lost. We can take heart in the fact that there are a lot of films that take up these issues a much more seriously than the ones that make fun of them. As in, entire characters and story-lines are dedicated to handicaps in order to invoke understanding whereas making fun of people can only be a film's part-time job.

And these films are working. They are reaching out to huge numbers. A child psychiatrist-cum-psychologist friend of mine thanks Aamir Khan for educating the common parent about dyslexia via Taare Zameen Par. No, this is not because his practice is doing much better, but because so many parents have been able to identify their child's problem and not just treat him or her as 'slow'. Ishaan Awasthi, played by the adorable Darsheel Safary, brought relief to so many children when their parents began to understand them. To others, who are not children anymore, Ishaan reminded them of their own misunderstood childhood. No amount of google searches and Wikipedia read-ups can do what that heartfelt, warm, and realistic two-hour film Taare Zameen Par did. Hopefully similar relief was brought to autistic individuals, thanks to Shah Rukh Khan in My Name is Khan.

It's high time too. We have to get past our notions of the monstrosity of electric shock treatment (ECT or Electroconvulsive Therapy). Did you know that, in more circumstances than we'd think, ECT is actually a very effective form of therapy? Sure, if a friend or member of family was advised ECT I'd 'Google' it and figure everything out. But of course, if a movie told me that ECT does not equal torture, I'd understand and accept it much more easily. It is, indeed, films that put that concept into my head, in the first place.

The good news is that we are headed in that direction. For example, Munnabhai MBBS not only showed the apathy of doctors who reminded us of some of our own not-so-pleasant experiences with doctors, but it also offered many solutions - one of the most practical ones being the 'jaadu ki jhappi' (the charisma of a knowing, appreciative hug). Don't we know that sometimes just a simple, loving touch on the forehead makes us feel better when we are running a temperature?

Moreover, the tongue-in-cheek comment on the change of attitude necessary by doctors themselves is unmissable - an example of, exaggeration in films, hitting the bull's eye. Stubborn and imposing, Dr. Asthana played by Boman Irani, along with many of his colleagues, surely reminded each one of us of the times we've spent with doctors in clinics and hospitals. I don't expect my doctors to get emotionally involved with my physical or mental plight, when I go to them with an ailment. But the blatant lack of empathy under the pretext of professionalism is something Munnabhai MBBS conveyed all too well. The heart shudders at how the economically downtrodden might be treated. It's only heartening then, when you see the contrast in lovable Munna's attitude, played by the charming Sanjay Dutt. And he is a goon, at that. When an underworld don, who's day job is to extort people can empathize with his patients, how can a doctor not? Munnabhai MBBS hits the nail with this irony. Kudos to cinema for doing what we as patient patients have been wanting to tell our doctors.

That besides, it's really encouraging that each year there is at least one film that brings a health issue to the fore and that issue is at the core of the story. In fact, I was surprised by the number of films I have seen in the past few years that seriously address one health issue or the other. Well, my career as a movie reviewer started with Lage Raho Munnabhai in September 2006. 2011 saw Soundtrack, which sensitized us to the trauma, impact and resilience needed when one loses their hearing. Nagesh Kukunoor's latest, Mod on the other hand showed the importance of love, support and understanding of near and dear ones, for managing and handling a mentally unstable, but otherwise functioning individual. Others to have joined the list in the recent past are - Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who previously brought the plight of the blind to us and educated us about Alzheimer's with Black, made Guzaarish which invokes sympathy towards a paralyzed Ethan (Hrithik Roshan). In a similar vein, the low-budget Aashayein and Dasvidaaniya take us through the thought processes of the terminally ill, a la Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand from 1974, which was in itself a rarity for its time.

While we already spoke of Lage Raho Munnabhai and My Name is Khan, there were others that introduce us to various neurological and/or mental illnesses - like schizophrenia in Karthik Calling Karthik starring Farhan Akhtar; progeria in Paa with Amitabh Bachchan; Alzheimer's again in Ajay Devgn's U Me Aur Hum where Kajol's character Piya suffers from the disease; anterograde amnesia for Ghajini played by Aamir Khan; dissociative identity disorder was magnificently acted out by Vidya Balan in an otherwise ordinary Bhool Bhulaiya by Priyadarshan. In fact, there is also Rohit Shetty's Sunday that revolved around the use of rape drug, Rohypnol.

Not only are these films only from the last five years and restricted to just Hindi, but films where illnesses were shown in part but have a significant role, aren't even included, like say a Guru where Abhishek Bachchan suffers from a stroke or one of the other main characters played by Vidya Balan is suffering from multiple sclerosis. Neither have we touched upon debatable issues like past life regression seen in Subhash Ghai's Karz which turned into Satish Kaushik's despicable Karzzzz or Farah Khan's appalling Om Shanti Om.

Add to the mix, the many films that touch upon some mental health issue or the other and we don't even think of them as such. In its charming way, the much-appreciated Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, shows how psychology is used to play simple everyday pranks which at the same time can be insightful. In fact, no less than Sigmund Freud's, theory of free association is used. Similarly, Agneepath and many such revenge sagas, do in fact demonstrate the impact of trauma during childhood. A regular movie viewer would be able to see medicine and thus health showing up in some form or the other in every other film - from loss of memory used in Don to obsessive, over-possessive lovers in Darr and Anjaam, just Shah Rukh Khan has played characters which, at the hands of an able psychiatrist, might be diagnosed with a mental illness. The heartening thing is that we have come a long way and are making inroads to representing health appropriately. And yet our filmmakers have miles to go. I don't think their work is done until we stop ridiculing those more dependent on us and recognize them, in real terms, as we superficially call them - "differently abled".

The long list of films that got it right and more interestingly, a whole list of films that I refuse to acknowledge didn't make it big commercially despite using unwell people as gimmicks to entertain - tells us that we are getting there. It tells us that our new mantra, that is meant to cure the suffering of the soul and mind and thus the body, is not a petty adage - all izz well.

- meetu, a part of the audience

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