Bollywood is engaging audiences with rare illnesses, but is it a healthy trend, asks anuj kumar

Every other year, we hear a refrain that Bollywood is changing. The latest hurrah is for the industry's dalliance with rare illnesses.

In the last couple of years we have had a flurry of films where the central character has a little-known illness. Once it was plague and tuberculosis, today it is progeria and Asperger's syndrome. It is no longer about a vague mental condition; directors are ostensibly working on details of the disorders. The age-old prescription — characters despite knowing that they are ill would be determined to bring happiness to other people's lives without a shred of self-pity — is no longer advocated or is administered in newer ways.

The latest spurt started with Taare Zameen Par, where the protagonist was dyslexic. The film scored at the box office and it sparked a sort of trend, for Bollywood loves to replicate success.

U Me Aur Hum, Ghajini, Paa and now My Name is Khan all brought to light little-known ailments. If Kajol had Alzheimer's in U Me Aur Hum, Aamir Khan had anterograde amnesia in Ghajini. Amitabh Bachchan played a progeriac in Paa, and now Shah Rukh Khan is winning accolades for bringing Asperger's Syndrome to light. It is no longer a ploy to dispense with a character actor, as the biggest of stars are finding it creatively challenging in these times of content drought.

The trend, however, is not all that new. Much before the media put Aamir Khan on a podium for trying an off-beat subject; Revathy had quietly pushed the cause of HIV in Phir Milenge, where Salman Khan and Shilpa Shetty shed their glamorous tag without shouting from the roof tops. But recent box office success stories are inspiring more and more script writers to weave a plot around an ailment. If all goes well, Hrithik Roshan, who tasted success by essaying a character with a developmental disorder in Koi Mil Gaya, is now set to play a paraplegic in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Guzarish.

Bhansali had earlier woven the plight of a person with Alzheimer's into Black, but the film sparked a debate on the portrayal of the symptoms. Though films such as Krazzy 4 used schizophrenics to evoke a few cheap laughs, directors and script writers have more or less been using disorders as the emotional hook. Be it Rajesh Khanna in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand (remember lymphosarcoma of the intestine!) or Khushboo playing a kid with blood cancer in Sunil Dutt's Dard Ka Rishta, we have shed copious tears for the ailing protagonist for decades. The question is, does it help in spreading awareness?

“Earlier, whenever the director had to show a person die, he had the character diagnosed with cancer. As cancer is curable now, I guess they have moved to HIV/AIDS. They never tried a plot where a person comes out of cancer, happy. It had such a bad impact on the patients that they feared watching such films,” says Harmala Gupta of Cansupport.

Veteran journalist and author Derek Bose says we were essentially applauding the performances in films such as Anand, Mili and Sadma. “It had nothing to do with awareness, as nobody cared to explain the ailment beyond the customary technical jargon. It is just one of the devices to extract tears. Hollywood has churned out many films on debilitating illnesses without any impact on the ground reality.”

Bose, who specialises in Bollywood, feels it is an also an issue of ethics. “Journalists are expected to observe restraint when they cover medical issues…why not filmmakers? Taare Zameen Par was all right because Amol Gupte (who wrote the story) conducted workshops with dyslexic kids. Do others undertake such time-consuming research methods, I doubt.”

Symptoms are missing

Noted psychologist Dr. Aruna Broota agrees, “The symptoms are rarely up to the mark, and the cure is sudden, mostly achieved by unconditional love or prayers! Only hysterical blindness or memory loss can be cured by affection, but nobody cares to explain. Perhaps that is the reason that our society still believes in black magic and astrologers. The Khamoshi kind of love between a nurse and a patient can happen in real life, but it can't cure the illness as it was shown in the film. Things are changing but I feel Aamir Khan should have shown a psychologist as part of the therapeutic process in at least one scene in Taare Zameen Par.”

Clinical psychologist Dhirendra Kumar, however, feels differently. “The depiction is increasingly becoming closer to reality and detailed. From the promos, I could very well make out that Shah Rukh plays a character with autism spectrum disorder. Such people have a problem in making eye contact. And even if in the name of entertainment, certain facts are ignored, I don't mind because such films are contributing towards sensitising the audience about illnesses which they tend to ignore. Dyslexia and Asperger's Syndrome very much exist in our society, but people are not aware of their symptoms. After Taare Zameen Par, parents and teachers became open to diversity,” Dr. Kumar says.

In a sense he is right, because after Paa, the Bihar Government reached out to Ikramul Khan and Ali Hossain — brothers from a poor family in Dumri village of Bihar's Chhapra district, who were suffering from the same genetic disorder which Bachchan portrayed on screen.

Bose might find it a glamourised presentation of progeria, but the fact is the film did bring the rare disorder into national media focus. Director R. Balki and producer Abhishek Bachchan agree that Paa was a commercial project. “One does like hearing such stories. We watched several clippings of people with progeria before deciding on the look of Mr. Bachchan, but it is not an educational film on progeria,” says Balki.

Similarly, Karan Johar says he did ample research on Asperger's Syndrome, but the disorder made its way into the script only because it was important for Shah Rukh's character not to be neuro-typical. Otherwise, he wouldn't have embarked on a mission to meet the U.S. President. “He sees things in black and white. Anyone else would have had so many different points of view, but his mission is very simple.”

But this debate is not that simple!

Made to Disorder

Some films where an ailment played a crucial part

Bandini – Tuberculosis

Raat Aur Din – Multiple personality disorder

Safar – Cancer

Majboor – Brain tumour

Arth – Schizophrenia

Filhaal

Kal Ho Naa Ho

My Brother Nikhil – AIDS

15 Park Avenue – Schizophrenia and epilepsy