Vasudha Joshi’s “Cancer Katha” presents a patient’s view of the emperor of all maladies

Illness is a funny thing. It has a way of discomfiting those around the patient. Some make sympathetic overtures, while others simply retreat with embarrassment. Vasudha Joshi experienced the entire spectrum of these responses after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008.

Her 26-minute documentary “Cancer Katha”, a PSBT production which won the Special Jury Award at the National Awards recently, is a patient’s perspective of cancer. Made in 2011, after her recovery, it looks back at the lived experience of cancer — the fears and dilemmas experienced during the course of treatment, and the various intimacies and distances it forged.

“I went through a lot of dilemmas of what sort of treatment to take because I am into naturopathy, and the whole idea of chemotherapy goes against my grain,” Vasudha says. We are shown the director in conversation with the daughter of her teacher of naturopathy, and are informed of his anger at her decision to undergo chemotherapy. “It was a difficult decision for me, but I am glad I made it; it could be useful for other people in a similar dilemma.”

A segment of the film is also devoted to Richard Leacock, a pioneer of Direct Cinema, a style of documentary filmmaking whose influence is visible in some measure in the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic of “Cancer Katha”.

Explaining how this segment came to be, Vasudha says, “My partner was supposed to go to Finland but he was too depressed to go… I wanted to be alone to make the decision about my treatment. And I also wanted him to go because not everything should come to a stop. Life has to go on… So he did go and he filmed Leacock, for a film he was working on at the time.”

In this segment, which wasn’t eventually used, Leacock talks about filming a dying person. “It became very complicated…but it was fascinating. We learnt a lot about living and a lot about dying…” he says.

These words have a particular resonance with Vasudha’s film, which, although a survivor’s story, dwells substantially on death — from the amusing opening sequence where we are told about a rumour regarding the director’s death, to the songs of the Bauls which register the triviality of life and death. As the director says, “The instincts for survival and death are often intertwined.”