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Bollywood's disease

No finger on the pulse

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When Bollywood portrays disease, the results can be laughably inaccurate - or they can fuel fear and prejudice. TOI-Crest does a post-mortem.

In a remarkable scene from Gangs of Wasseypur, Manoj Bajpai points a gun at a doctor and insists he remove the two bullets lodged in his son's body. Even before the stunned doctor can react, the electricity goes off. But Bajpayi's repeats his threats to the doctor. This finally drives the exasperated surgeon to ask, "How can I treat him in the dark? Do I have a tubelight attached to my backside?"

For decades, Bollywood's attitude towards medical research has been a bit like Bajpayi's. Emotions tend to overrule scientific protocol, prompting doctors present in the audience to ask rhetorical questions like, "How can item girls perform in a cancer ward?" and "What doctor operates without a mask and cap?"

In many films, mothers have knocked on the door of operation theatres with flowers (Amar Akbar Anthony), chappatis have cured madness (Yaarana) and a pair of batteries have made an ailing armyman rise up from the death bed and march straight into a moment of patriotic fervour (Clerk). Though such miracles are fewer now, the odd occasion when babies are delivered with vacuum cleaners (3 Idiots) and cancer patients dance vigorously (Kal Ho Na Ho) still manage to knock people off their seats.
Recently, for instance, filmmaker Abhigyan Jha, who recalls an entire Hollywood crew rolling on the aisles after watching Amitabh Bachchan's character yelling at Rani Mukerji's in Black, did not know what to make of Priyanka Chopra's performance as the autistic Jhilmil in Barfi. The character's mannerisms, according to him, seemed to come across as mental retardation at times. "If Priyanka Chopra was autistic in Barfi, then Anurag Basu is Martin Scorsese, " says Jha.

Parents of kids with developmental issues and even experts in the field admit that they came away unconvinced. Archana Rodrigues, principal of a school for inclusive education in Dombivli that has many autistic kids, found the fact that Jhilmil could say the hero's name but could not verbally communicate that she wants to go to the toilet, hard to digest. "It's the first thing that kids learn, " she says. Besides, typically, kids with autism display a particular pattern of repetitive behaviour - hand-clapping or body-rocking or head shaking. "But the character seemed to combine all the elements at the same time. It lacked solid research, " says Rodrigues, who felt SRK's depiction of the Asperger's Syndrome in My Name is Khan was much more convincing.

Not that Hollywood always gets it right. The 1988 film Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman portrays an autistic man who has been shunted away in an institution, did much to encourage more humane treatment of autistics. But it also showed Hoffman's character blessed with a brain capable of performing trigonometric calculations that would make a NASA geek blush.

Very few films have been able to capture the impact of an illness as much as Taare Zameen Par, which provided an all-round perspective of dyslexia, and Karthik Calling Karthik, which dealt with schizophrenia, feel experts. Even the depiction of cancer, Bollywood's most consistent promise of melodrama, often leaves specialists with a sour aftertaste. Pankaj Chaturvedi, oral cancer surgeon at Tata Memorial Hospital, cites the film Dasvidaniya in which Vinay Pathak's character embarks on a journey to fulfill his bucket list on learning that he has stomach cancer. "He has got three months to live but displays none of the symptoms of stomach cancer such as aches or pains in that period, " Chaturvedi says. "Besides, a stomach cancer patient is never so flabby. He is usually very thin and frail," adds Chaturvedi.

Though certain concessions in the name of 'creative liberty' are understandable, it is when movies send the wrong message that doctors are upset. "Cancer still is a death sentence in Bollywood movies, " says Arshad Ghulam Mohammed of the Association of Medical Consultants, adding that the atmosphere created around it is that of the end of the world. "Sarangis start playing the moment a patient realises that he has cancer, " says Mohammed, and such imagery makes it difficult for doctors like him to convince patients that there's hope.

Medical procedures, too, are very often oversimplified for effect. For instance, in a scene from the 1995 Mithun-starrer Diya Aur Toofan that is quite the YouTube rage, the doctor, in a bid to bring his dead friend (Mithun) back to life, cuts open the corpse's head and stores his brain in an oven-like device called "deep freeze". It contains around ten ice cubes. This brain is then conveniently withdrawn and transferred into the heroine's (Madhu) head when she suffers a fall that damages her brain. Soon after she regains consciousness, she realises that she has started behaving like the original brain owner, her dead lover.

More recently, of course, infertility experts chose to forgive Vicky Donor, a film which was brilliant in many ways for making sperm donation look like a lucrative business option. "Donors are not paid very well. They are only reimbursed for conveyance, " says a fertility expert from Delhi. Though these are harmless liberties, sometimes a depiction may offend sensibilities. Psychiatrist Harish Shetty, who thought the mentally ill were shown in poor taste in the film Kyunki, even filed a complaint with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that consulted with the Human Rights Commission to conclude that it wasn't demeaning.

Doctors and healthcare professionals have, however, learnt to laugh at scenes such as the one where a doctor emerges directly from the operation theatre to meet the patient's relatives. "Nobody can step out straight. There are at least three rooms separating the theatre from the waiting room, " says Hemant Thacker, consultant (general medicine) at Jaslok Hospital. Though the onscreen character of the doctor has evolved from being just a mere figure in white whose job was to emerge from hospital rooms and point his stethoscope skywards, the portrayal of nurses, Thacker feels, still leaves much to be desired. "They are still largely portrayed as unqualified."

Thacker also finds gunshot victims who find enough breath to recount their regrets and wishes while dying hilarious. "The gap, in real life, would be hardly a couple of minutes, " says Thacker, who prefers the Hollywood handling of the death scene, where the actor looks around and dies without speaking. Fortunately, though, there is a visible effort toward medical authenticity. Thacker says he receives a number of phone calls from filmmakers and celebrities before they embark on a health-related subject. "People now know better than to examine a patient with the stethoscope's earphones outside the ear."

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