Metroplus

Of hope and healing

Chithra Jeyaram at work in Silchar  

“Mr. Sharma was 24 and Mrs. Sharma 13 when they got married in 1968. Both of them travelled roughly 200 km from Umrangshu… to Cachar Cancer Hospital & Research Centre (Silchar) at 4 p.m. for palliative care as Mrs. Sharma has metastatic breast cancer… Her two loves besides Mr. Sharma are old Bollywood music and gardening. She grows all kinds of flowers. When the Sharmas were younger, they sang duets. He is unable to sing now because of lung disease but she has the most gorgeous voice…Look at the way he looks at her. If this aint’ love what is…”

This is the story of the elderly couple in the photograph, as narrated by U.S.-based documentary filmmaker Chithra Jeyaram on her Facebook page. Mrs. Sharma’s story is among the many that Chithra is recording of patients for her project, 1001 Breast Cancer Nights. The project got a fresh surge of life in November 2014, when Dr. Ravi Kannan asked Chithra, the founder and creative director of Real Talkies, to come to Cachar.

Chithra’s just back after six weeks in Assam, spent filming the stories of hope, courage and healing at the Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, which was set up by a group of people who sold raffle tickets to bring a state-of-the-art cancer hospital to the Barak Valley.

The project, funded by Benevolent Media, a Creative Arts Fellowship from American Indian Institute of Indian Studies and a National Mediamaker fellowship from Bay Area Video Coalition, has seen Chithra make two trips to India, her home country, in the past few years. “The statistics are shocking. Half of the women in India diagnosed with breast cancer die. I believe awareness will change the numbers,” she says.

In Silchar, Chithra travelled with the patients to their homes and to their treatment rooms, to record proceedings from the perspectives of both patient and healthcare provider. “It was a unique position to be in. We got a near-360-degree perspective of the treatment cycle. We knew what the patient thought, what her worries were, and we knew what the doctor thought. I wish this helps either side be more empathetic to the other,” she says.

She’s so far recorded the stories of six people with cancer, and more than 10 survivors, one of whom has been cancer-free for 20 years. At the Cachar hospital, Chithra worked closely with its director, Dr. Ravi Kannan, who used to be with the Cancer Institute, Adyar. “The thought that goes into treatment is amazing. They know that families are displaced and employment opportunities lost during treatment. The hospital asks the accompanying spouse if he wants to pick up a temporary job during treatment. It makes such a difference. The outpatient ward is always open. Patients come in from afar, sometimes travelling 12 hours. It is cruel to turn them back, and so the doctors never leave before seeing the last patient,” she narrates. There’s a place for people to rest for the night, before they begin their long journey back, and a counsellor makes sense of their fears and passes it on to the doctor, and treatment modalities to the patient.

Chithra chose this hospital because it offered her “unrestricted, unfettered access” to all aspects of care, and she had the final say, editorially. And so, she was able to go behind the scenes and capture the happy moments in the midst of the hopelessness. “Mrs. Sharma, for instance, does not conform to the image of a Stage IV cancer patient. She laughs, she sings, she raises flowers… she’s full of life. People must be shown that side too,” she believes.

The filmmaker posts regularly on her social media pages ( >on Twitter and >on Facebook) to record the progress of the project. She speaks of visionaries and selfless workers such as Mihir Kar Purakayastha (one of the founders of the hospital), Dr. KP, who at 86, is the only medical oncologist there, and Debbu, who’s the one person everyone calls out to at the outpatient department.

“Finally, it’s about the people,” says Chithra, who’s also won The Lancet Prize for Global Health Film 2015. As part of it, she’s creating four 90-second educational videos about breast cancer, targeted at men, again to be shot in Assam. “These can be dubbed, subtitled... they can serve as a prototype to pass on messages about other diseases too.”

Chithra hopes the project will help provide varied angles to better understand service delivery to those with breast cancer. “We need more focus on telemedicine. For example, why must someone spend so money, time and energy to travel just for a chemo session?” she asks.

And no, she’s not going to be recording 1001 stories, because it is named so. “Tell me,” says Chithra: “What was the core of the Arabian Nights? It was about Scheherazade trying to save herself, night after night, by narrating an incomplete story. Likewise, this project will hopefully start a discourse on saving more women from dying due to cancer,” says Chithra.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 20, 2020 11:21:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/documentary-filmmaker-chithra-jeyaram-on-her-project-1001-breast-cancer-nights/article8257593.ece

Next Story