off-centre Movies

How Hindi cinema taught a medical reporter to see doctors without their halos

A poster of Placebo

A poster of Placebo  

After Munna Bhai, the doctor has largely been a negative character in the Hindi film

The documentary Placebo (2014) was made in search of answers to an act of impulsive violence that its executor could not explain. Sahil Kumar, an MBBS student at All India Institute of Medical Sciences punched his right hand through a window pane, damaging his nerves so badly that he needed two surgeries and eventually had to learn how to write with his left hand. What brought on this moment? Sahil’s brother Abhay Kumar entered his hostel, initially for a period of three months, to understand what drove his high-achieving brother to this act of savage self-harm. Three months became a couple of years, during which no one at AIIMS realised they had an outsider among them. The film explores this numbness, this unseeing that the hallowed corridors of a prestigious medical school produces.

“In Julius Caesar, Brutus’ wife Portia commits suicide and Brutus says that everybody dies some day or the other. She died today. As I’ve gotten into this career, I have become more and more stoic. I feel less afraid of death... I feel a kind of indifference,” says Sethi, a student Kumar follows in the film. At one point, Sahil says that he felt “all the sadness of the world had crept up and filled into him” when he smashed his fist.

Does medical education deaden students? Does the near impossibility of getting into medical school produce disdain for those who are not medical students? Does this mix of detachment and triumphalism thicken into that waxy mask many doctors in India wear?

The companion piece to Placebo is the 2003 film Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.. Here too, the title character is a trespasser in a medical school, who has cheated his way in. In the first classroom scene, the dean tells the students that a patient should mean nothing more than a sick body to them. In response, Munna asks: “When a patient is dying in the casualty ward, is it necessary to fill a form?”

If cinema is a lens to society, these two films tell you a couple of things — why doctors evoke such dislike, and why they appear dehumanised and alienated, out of love with the work they have spent so many years training for. The terrific success of Munna Bhai suggested that it acknowledged a long-held public sentiment. After Munna Bhai, the doctor has largely been a negative character in the Hindi film: In Andhadhun, the doctor is a mild-mannered organ trafficker; in smaller films like Rahasya, Waiting and Ankur Arora Murder Case, doctors are murderers, racketeers, adulterers and megalomaniacs.

A still from Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.

A still from Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.  

But even earlier, the Hindi film doctor was alienated and disillusioned, sometimes corrupt and unfeeling. Perhaps Bollywood’s most famous doctor is Amitabh Bachchan’s Dr. Bhaskar Banerjee in Anand. He spends his evenings drinking and writing. He is bored of his rich, hypochondriac patients. Bachchan played another leading role as doctor in Bemisal. His friend, played by Vinod Mehta, is a money-minded gynaecologist who performs abortions without permission and adequate care. When a patient dies and a criminal case looms, Bachchan’s character (a paediatrician) takes the blame and goes to jail because he owes his friend’s family a childhood debt. Already, one image of the doctor is a corrupt, criminal professional.

In Ek Doctor Ki Maut, based on the life of Dr. Subhash Mukhopadhyay, who pioneered IVF treatment in India in the 1970s, we see what happens to the good, research-obsessed doctor caught in a petty establishment. In the movie, a doctor (played by Pankaj Kapur) invents a vaccine for leprosy, working without institutional support, storing a test tube in his home refrigerator. But the government and his medical colleagues discredit his work, and later, American doctors are credited with the discovery of a leprosy vaccine. The real-life Dr. Mukhopadhyay killed himself when his research was labelled fraudulent.

We see the uncomplicated doctor as hero between the 40s and 60s, in Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani where V. Shantaram plays a real-life doctor who served Indian soldiers injured in China during WWII; and Dil Ek Mandir, where a surgeon played by Rajendra Kumar saves his former girlfriend’s husband. In both, the doctor dies, but these are heroic deaths.

In a sense, Amitabh Bachchan’s career draws the arc of the Hindi film doctor — from the disillusioned Dr. Banerjee in Anand to the guilt-ridden Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in Bemisal to the Bhaskor Banerjee in Piku who only trusts a homeopath to understand the problems of the body. It is interesting that Hindi cinema has read the relationship between doctors and society so astutely.

I remember being undercover at a maternity ward in a government hospital, and seeing medical students bark at birthing mothers even though there were only two deliveries taking place. They snapped at the families of patients. “All of you are called Najma bibi. Which Najma bibi?”

Reporting on HIV, I have seen activists worry about how best to approach doctors about drug shortages so that they don’t lose their temper. Interviewing doctors about drug shortages, I’ve heard them complain that HIV patients write too many emails.

We are probably too awed by doctors as a society, too dependent on them in our individual crises, to perceive them as they are — products of a flawed, monstrous system. Strangely, it was Hindi cinema that gave me the perspective to report what I saw before me.

Like every one of us, I know outstanding doctors too.

The Kolkata-based independent journalist writes on public health, politics and film.

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Printable version | Mar 26, 2020 11:20:16 AM |

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