By Jean Jacob
I recently came across a top 10 list of Hollywood films about palliative care. Despite being a palliative care physician and a movie lover, there was only one movie on the list that I had even heard about. This is hardly surprising considering no one would make a summer blockbuster on such dark subject matter. I figured that if we don’t support these movies, no one else will either. So I made a note to watch one film from the list every weekend. It also got me thinking about Indian films that depict palliative care issues like living with life-limiting illnesses, end of life conversations, and the dying process.
I asked my colleagues in the department of palliative care at MNJ Institute of Oncology in Hyderabad to name their favorite Indian films that realistically portray the issues we deal with at work every day. There weren’t many we could think of. Either there aren’t enough films being made about quality of life and death in India or we aren’t watching those kinds of films. One of my colleagues said she spends all day dealing with death and dying and she wanted an escape from all that when she watched a movie. Doesn’t watching a light comedy seem more appealing? Probably. But there are some arguments for watching movies about palliative care too.
Movies are considered as cultural artifacts. The type of movies we make and the type of movies we watch says a lot about us as a society. They are a mirror to our collective psyche. Films also influence the conversations we have in our homes and across the country. When Deepika Padukone said in an interview that she suffered from depression, the whole country started talking about mental health. If Salman Khan took off his shirt and shouted “Mujhe palliative care chahiye!” (I want palliative care) it would echo louder and for longer in the hearts and minds of the aam janta than all our awareness campaigns and advocacy efforts put together. If we want to encourage conversations about the futility of life-prolonging treatments or the ethics of mercy killing, then watching (and getting others to watch) movies that depict those conversations is one way to do it.
I decided to make a list of top 10 Indian films about palliative care. But then I realized two things. Firstly, we couldn’t come up with ten or eight or even six Indian movies about terminal illness or dying with dignity or the grieving family. Secondly, the movies we could name were all in Hindi, and it wasn’t fair to call such a list as Indian. So I present to you this list of Top 5 Bollywood films about palliative care (Spoiler alert!)
- Anand (1971): Directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and starring Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. Rajesh Khanna’s portrayal of a terminally ill cancer patient who didn’t wish to spend his last days confined to a hospital bed was nuanced and ahead of its time. With his constant desire to be happy and make others happy, even in the face of impending death, the character of Anand asked us all questions about quality of life and facing our own mortality. Amitabh Bachchan as the young oncologist coming to terms with the limitations of chemotherapy was also relatable.
- Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003): Directed by Rajkumar Hirani and starring Sanjay Dutt as a criminal who joined a medical college because it was his father’s dream that his son become a doctor, this film won the national award for best popular film. Sanjay Dutt’s character, loosely based on Patch Adams, foregoes the paternalistic model of doctor-patient relationships in favor of the “jadoo ki jhappi” model which embodies the idea of compassionate care. The way he communicated with a comatose patient named Anand who the other doctors ignore, talking to him as if they were having a normal conversation, is a great example of how we should treat patients with delirium. When Zaheer, a terminally ill cancer patient, felt depressed, they arranged dancing girls to cheer him up. If that isn’t treating psychosocial symptoms and improving quality of life, then what is?!
- Guzaarish (2010): Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, this film starred Hrithik Roshan as a quadriplegic former magician who petitioned the court for euthanasia as his health deteriorated and he faced the prospect of being admitted into an ICU for futile treatments. The court rejected the plea, but a home nurse (played by Aishwarya Rai) agreed to assist him in his suicide. They held a farewell party where all his friends and family got together to hug him one last time and the movie ended with a shot of a laughing Hrithik Roshan, implying that his wish for a dignified death would be fulfilled. The theme of the movie is relevant today as a new Euthanasia bill is being drafted in India and the country is debating the ethical dilemmas involved.
- Piku (2015): Directed by Shoojit Sircar and starring Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone. Amitabh Bachchan won a national award for best actor for his portrayal of an eccentric elderly man with chronic constipation who irritated his relatives with his idiosyncrasies. The film depicted how a father’s poorly controlled physical symptoms could impact his relations with his daughter and also how frustrating this daily routine of caring and supporting could be for the daughter. In the end, the long-standing constipation problem got solved with some dietary and life style modifications and when the character of Amitabh Bachchan passed away in his sleep, his daughter remarked that he always wanted a peaceful death.
- Waiting (2015): Directed by Anu Menon and starring Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin. The two main leads of this film form an unlikely pair, two souls caught in limbo between living and grieving a loss. They spend their days and nights waiting outside an ICU where their comatose spouses are admitted and connected to ventilators. The character played by Shah doesn’t want to let go of his wife of many years and the character played by Koechlin doesn’t know whether her husband of a few weeks would have wanted a risky brain surgery that may leave him paralyzed. The film talks about patient autonomy and medical decision-making and also about how difficult it can be to let go.
So this was our list of top 5 Bollywood films about palliative care, presented in chronological order. Do you agree with it? If you know of other Hindi films that deal with this subject or films in any regional language that depict palliative care issues, please mention it in the comments below or write to us directly so that we can prepare a truly Indian list of films about palliative care!
(The writer is a palliative care physician working in Hyderabad. He wants to acknowledge the inputs he received while making this list from Dr. Gayatri Palat and others in the palliative care department at MNJ Institute of Oncology. Write to him at email@example.com)