Cinema and portrayal of death

Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna in 'Anand' Hindi movieAug 21, 2011 (Calcutta Tube  IBNS): What drives people to struggle with the most inevitable reality of life – death? What makes others accept death happily and cheerfully as a passing phase in the cycle of life? How has mainstream cinema treated these parallel tracks to focus on this issue?

Will to Live, an American-Indian film released recently, talks about a desperate father’s courageous search for a rare herbal cure for cancer to save his son’s life. The father journeys from America to India nd into the Himalayas, making friends who empathise with his condition and extend help to him.

[ReviewAZON asin=”B000OUY34U” display=”inlinepost”]Looking back at mainstream Hindi films, the first unforgettable treatise that involves impending death as a way of celebrating life even though one is afflicted with a terminal illness is Anand (1971) directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Anand is a cult film that consolidated Rajesh Khanna’s phenomenal stardom. It is also remembered for its feather-light flourishes of humour, bonhomie, a touch of romance tinged heavily though with melodrama, as it runs along several tracks, involving a deep friendship between Anand and his young doctor Bhaskar Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan), his self-constructed ‘family’ relationship with doctor friend Kulkarni (Ramesh Deo) and his wife, the elderly nurse who mothers him and Bhaskar’s wife. The grave and silent Bhaskar watches Anand draw the last drop of life’s juices while there is still time. For him, it is a learning experience.

Karan Johar produced  a lavishly mounted, loud, glitzy but rather watered down poor imitation of Anand in the name and style of Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) starring Shahrukh Khan and directed by Nikhil Advani.

[ReviewAZON asin=”B001QEZRRU” display=”inlinepost”]The tremendous box office success of Anand with a memorable music track by Salil Choudhury and lyrics by Gulzar pushed Mukherjee to create another film haunted by the dark shadow of death- Mili. 

Jaya Bachchan in Mili (1975) was fleshed out along the same lines as Anand. There was a marked difference though. A young man (Amitabh Bachchan)  comes to live in the same housing complex as Mili. Her bubbling personality irritates him as he is a depressed introvert who shuns all social relationships haunted by a boyhood tragedy that has made him an alcoholic. The two eventually fall in love. He marries Mili and takes her abroad in search of a cure. Mili’s father (Ashok Kumar) stands on the terrace of the complex to watch the aircraft fly away, wondering with a sense of resignation about whether Mili will return or not. Though this was a better made film, Mili failed to set the box office on fire the way Anand did.

Sunil Dutt in Dard Ka Rishta (1982) plays Dr. Sharma who lives in New York and is a widower with a daughter (Khushboo). He marries again. His second wife (Smita Patil) is involved in research on leukemia. The marriage falls apart when Sharma decides to return to India with his daughter to take over as head of the leukemia department at the Tata Cancer Hospital in Mumbai. In a strange twist of fate, his daughter falls sick and is diagnosed as suffering from leukemia. How he struggles to save his sick daughter and how ultimately she survives and so does the marriage is a touching tale of courage and determination. Dutt’s film was possibly inspired by wife Nargis’ death by cancer. It was a good film without melodrama and with a lovely musical score but could not touch the hearts of the Indian audience the way Anand had.

Death looms in the background in Paa (2009) directed by R. Balakrishnan (Balki) as Auro, a 13-year-old boy afflicted by Progeria, goes through life. His single mother, a gynaecologist and widowed grandmother try to live as happily as they can, under the shadow of death threatening to throw their lives asunder. When the boy – essayed by Bachchan in an incredibly brilliant performance –learns that he does have a father but his parents were never married, he uses his impending death to emotionally blackmail them to come together. The confused parents are forced to take the ritual seven rounds around his hospital bed even as he is dying. Though this is slightly stretched in logic and full of melodrama, it is a wonderful celebration of death by a child who wants life for his parents to go on after his ends.

[ReviewAZON asin=”B004IM2M70″ display=”inlinepost”]Guzaarish (2010) a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film tackles the issue of willful suicide through mercy killing for the first time in Hindi cinema. Ethan Mascarenhas (Rithik Roshan), a talented magician becomes a wheelchair-bound paraplegic from a spinal injury resulting from an accident manipulated by a rival magician during a perormance. He finds new meaning in life by becoming a successful radio jockey who peppers his programme with a lot of spice, humour and satire, attracting a large crowd of fascinated fans who cannot imagine he is bound to a wheelchair for 14 years. Life gets by alongside a deep bonding with his beautiful nurse Sofia (Aishwarya Rai). On the 14th anniversary of the accident, Ethan decides to file an appeal to the court for euthanasia. Sofia is devastated but Ethan is determined despite insistent pleadings of his doctor friend. Even his mother backs him in his last wish. Ironically, the FM Station he works for is called Radio Zindagi. When the judge rejects the appeal, Ethan turns to his millions of listeners to back him through his new programme Project Euthanasia.

Death is a grim reality in these films, hard-hitting and sharp. It is not a metaphor, nor does it symbolise any larger philosophy to be inspired by. It has nothing to do with religious beliefs or philosophy of rebirth. If  death is facing you, challenging you to fight it, or accept it with grace and in good humour so be it.Death through these films reinforces what noted author Arthur Koestler wrote many years ago before he took his own life: “If the word death was absent from our vocabulary, our great works of literature would have remained unwritten, pyramids and cathedrals would not exist, nor works of religious art-and all art of religious or magic origin.”

– Shoma A. Chatterji / Trans World Features (TWF)

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