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My Problem With Cancer As A Plot Device In 'Ae Dil Hai Mushkil'

Would Ranbir’s character change Anushka’s diaper once she became incontinent? Would he sit by her side as she faded?

31/10/2016 3:19 PM IST | Updated 04/11/2016 8:40 AM IST
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Spoiler alert—we don't see Anushka Sharma die at the end of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil but it's pretty much implied that she does not live happily ever after. We are told from the get-go in the flashback-laced film that she looks "sick." I'm assuming that is foreshadowing of her diagnosis, but what do I know, I'm just an audience member right?

Watching an Indian film that fits into Bollywood conventions (see how I didn't label the film "Bollywood") and leaving your brain at the cinema hall entrance door is a given. Seeing spoilt rich kids living lavish lifestyles, travelling around the world, getting into any club, DJing any party and of course, making it big on a global scale as a singer—these are easy things to do for any Indian right?

Despite all the cancer breakthroughs, miracles and developments within the allopathic and traditional medicine fields, our films continue to be stuck in 1971 with Rajesh Khanna in 'Anand'.

I can't say it's impossible. I actually do know quite a few people in India who do live their lives exactly like this. I follow their Instagram accounts that prove just that (why they follow me in return, lord knows!). So let's discuss something I do know—cancer.

The disease has been my closest friend and enemy for the last decade. But unlike Karan Johar's take on the disease (even if it's tagged only onto the last 20 minutes of the film), life and living with cancer does go on even after the film ends. While the film talks about friendships, relationships and love, it sadly stops where those things matter the most.

As I meet and talk with patient after patient, whether as a patient myself, as a caregiver or now as a patient advocate—one thing is clear, life actually starts where this story ends.

As healthy individuals, we aren't actively planning for our death. We also aren't actively thinking about the impact of our decisions and choices for the long-term unless we've seen examples of it in our cultures and traditions. Marriage, sex, children, divorce—these are being explored and as society develops and evolves, our films seem to mirror that, and perhaps even giving these issues a progressive push.

Yet despite all the cancer breakthroughs, miracles and developments within the allopathic and traditional medicine fields, our films continue to be stuck in 1971 with Rajesh Khanna in Anand.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil even pays homage to another cancer hero, Aman Mathur (aka Shah Rukh Khan) when the lead pair sing "Kal Ho Na Ho." For those who know my story as recounted in Holy Cancer: How A Cow Saved My Life, they will know how much that song actually means to me, why and how it actually helped me get my voice back.

But Aman, like Anand, dies. Because it is expected that once you have cancer you will die. I'm going to reveal something to people that they may not know. We all will die. People with cancer may have found out the way in which they will die or perhaps even the timeframe in which they may die but life has no guarantees.

I am living proof that you can live with the disease and also live beyond it. To put it in "Bollywood" terms, cancer is like an ex-girlfriend, you know she exists but you try not to actively think about her. But I'm not the only one. There are countless survivors everywhere in this country. And that's just the people who count cancer as an ex!

Anushka's character had to be "dying" in order for Ranbir to understand their friendship but it also fits into a very scary pattern that these movies inadvertently create—guilt.

Add to that the tens of thousands of patients who are taking treatment but have long-term success as they do so. Do we end their movies once they are diagnosed because cancer will kill them...eventually? Does romance die the minute their hair is gone? Do we know that in 2016 not all cancer patients actually lose their hair?

I like Ranbir Kapoor. I like Anushka Sharma. I like Karan Johar. But as I sat there watching a scene which Ranbir is professing his love for his cancer-stricken friend all I could think was, he's got a f***ing private jet awaiting him and this woman is "the love of his life"—why aren't they arguing about this en route to the best hospital in the world or meeting some alternative therapist and getting a second, third or fourth opinion?

A person who has a real friendship with you and genuine love for you is someone that advocates for you. I don't blame the film—it's trying to say and do a lot—but my problem is that to rush an operatic climax, it lost complete sight of this most important journey.

I'm not married. I've had great romances and amazing friendships but I've also had horrible break-ups and blood ties that no longer bind. In each and every case, I was a part of it. I made it better and I made it worse. I've been good to many but I've been awful to many as well. That's because I'm human and I will continue to make mistakes till the day I die. That is my journey.

Not letting the audience see a real test of friendship was a failure in this film.

You don't need to shave your head to offer me support. You can make me a snack, share an article you might have read, visit, call—be honest. You can tell me that you aren't comfortable with my disease or better, you can say that you can't help me but that you are sending good wishes. Whatever you choose to do or not do, be there. And if you aren't there, you aren't there.

As I watched Ranbir professing his love for his cancer-stricken friend all I could think was, he's got a f***ing private jet... why aren't they en route to the world's best hospital?

Like so many other films that frustrate me, I was particularly disappointed with Ae Dil Hai Mushkil because the real heroism was left on the side (or perhaps the editing floor). Showing a chemotherapy session or vomiting in the course of a song montage is an utter trivialization. Life is a lot more complicated—and paradoxically, more simple—than the movie world. Ask any surviving cancer patient who they remember from that part of their journey, and it will be fellow patients, doctors, nurses, therapists, NGO foundations—strangers who become family, people who they perhaps may never have met and perhaps never have impacted but did.

When you are dying, you either fight it or accept it. The patient should be the one to decide (provided they have full knowledge of their disease which, sadly, is often not the case in India) and family, friends and caregivers should support them. But whichever path you choose, it's a journey. And each day the outcome will be not what you expect and each day, the people in your life will also change because expectations constantly change just like cancer.

I understand that Anushka's character had to be "dying" in order for Ranbir to understand their friendship but it also fits into a very scary pattern that these movies inadvertently create—guilt. If you are sick and dying, the other person should feel guilty enough to accept whatever you say.

I understand that many relationships are built on a level of give and take but have no two doubts about it—there is no guilt in cancer. It's a non-contagious disease and no one knows what will happen tomorrow. Like I said, life has no guarantees. Trust me, when you are actually sick, it's not the people who are there because they feel guilty that are going to help you. They may provide support but it's the ones who are there because they want to be there, no obligation, no agenda, just genuine, selfless love—that's who you remember.

Too bad we still think cancer is what we give characters when we want to make a point, and not when we want to show strength, courage, resilience, love and selflessness.

Perhaps that's why Karan Johan ended the film where he did. We didn't need to see where things might go. Would Ranbir's character be okay with walking Anushka to the bathroom when she is weak and help her shower? Would he want to change her diaper once she became incontinent? Would he sit by her side every day as she faded? Would he sit patiently if she was crying in pain? These are the marks of a true caregiver. It's possible none of these would have happened but it's also likely someone would be hired to do these things or Anushka's character would end up in a hospice or hospital for her remaining days.

Seeing that friendship would be life affirming. Too bad we still think cancer is what we give characters when we want to make a point, and not when we want to show strength, courage, resilience, love and selflessness.

The one thing Ae Dil Hai Mushkil did right was that the disease only took up 20 minutes of the movie's life. In reality too, this disease rarely takes up more percentage of our time in our lives. Yet ask anybody who has had cancer, or knows someone with cancer or has lost someone to cancer—those 20 minutes can take up a whole movie! It's about time Indian cinema caught up and stopped shaving heads and instead saved lives.

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