11/08/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

It's High Time Bollywood Acknowledged Cancer Survivors

Louis-Paul St-Onge via Getty Images

There are classics. There are superhits. And then there is Anand (1971). The Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, which needs no introduction, is a unique movie about Life -- what else will a movie that starts with 'Dedicated to the city of Bombay' be about? -- but with Death as the pervasive theme. The wondrous fragrance of cinematic beauty which drifted out of it still lingers and gratifies us despite the four tumultuous decades in between: four decades in which Bollywood, that magnificent 'factory' where Anand took birth, underwent a tremendous evolution; and four decades in which knowledge about cancer, the only dark aspect in that blissful movie, saw yet greater metamorphoses.

Is cancer dark even today? Perhaps. But then, the highly commendable and persevering efforts of researchers and doctors throughout the last half century have greatly lightened its hue. During the time of Anand, for example, combination chemotherapy (the mainstay of cancer treatment now) was just in its early stages, and the revolutionary discovery of targeted molecular therapy was yet to be made. With efficacious management protocols not in existence for most cancers (at least in India), Anand urged people to look at the inevitable fatality of the disease in positive light rather than getting awfully depressed. It is a movie as much about mental health as about cancer, one could say. In a very endearing and emotional way, it taught patients and their kin to be positive and merry while still being realistic about their ailment. It was certainly a highly relevant film for its time.

"Perhaps our greatest triumph has been in converting cancer from an almost-certain 'death sentence' in the past to a frequently treatable (though still not always 'curable') disease today."

Today, however, cancer is much more amenable to treatment. The story of cancer over the last few decades is, as fabulously chronicled by Siddhartha Mukherjee in the book The Emperor of All Maladies, one of exceptional endurance and achievements. Perhaps our greatest triumph has been in converting cancer from an almost-certain 'death sentence' in the past to a frequently treatable (though still not always 'curable') disease today. Along with the scientists and doctors who made it possible, the other big part of this story have been cancer patients and survivors.

A cancer survivor indeed is an extraordinary kind of human being, surviving through multiple tremendously agonizing events: the initial scare of possible diagnosis, the subsequent pain of certain diagnosis, the trauma of hospital visits and therapy conversations, the physical exhaustion from intense treatment regimens, the constant dangling of the 'relapse sword', and, well, the gargantuan mental toll of all that. It is this fighting spirit of patients and survivors that primarily fuels doctors' diligence. They are awe-inspiring individuals, and, going back to the Anand conversation, one of Bollywood's biggest failures has been its near-total ignorance of their existence.

Pune's Dr Suman Deodhar-Athavale is one such cancer survivor. An iconoclast right since the beginning, she studied medicine and did a post-graduate degree in obstetrics in the highly gender-unequal India of the 1950s. Daughter of cricketing legend Prof DB Deodhar, she was also a star badminton player in the '40s, '50s and '60s. In 2004, at the very elderly age of 74, she was sassily defying both convention and ordinary human physiology: a widowed woman living by herself, driving to the local gymkhana to play bridge, swimming regularly, cooking food on her own, and, well, having an eventful showdown with breast cancer. For a person with her character, however, even a major surgery and intense cycles of debilitating chemotherapy were not going to rob the spirit of life. She braved all of that in style, and emerged smiling and victorious.


Dr Suman, in the thick of health, at her grand-daughter's wedding last December

Dr Suman is 85 now. She still lives independently. She and her doctors, like countless others in India and the world, successfully tamed cancer. One wonders which Bollywood movie on the disease even remotely portrays the inspiring reality of people like her. Bollywood, unfortunately, is still in the Anand mode. Despite the great technical and cultural strides of the last 44 years, mainstream Hindi cinema has sadly not yet eschewed the 'fatality outlook' around cancer. More recent films like Waqt: The Race Against Time (2005), Dasvidaniyan (2008) and Aashayein (2010) all showed lead or important characters ultimately surrendering to cancer without even putting up a decent fight. While the ailment certainly still kills people, it is disheartening to see that not a single mainstream movie has shown the other side of the story: that people also kill cancer. Actress Manisha Koirala, herself a survivor, voiced exactly the same lamentation in an interview some years back.

"While the ailment certainly still kills people, it is disheartening to see that not a single mainstream movie has shown the other side of the story: that people also kill cancer."

Bollywood filmmakers generally are quick to showcase the changing trends in Indian society and culture, so their failure to do that with respect to cancer survival can perhaps be seen as a sign of India's broader negligent attitude towards public health issues. Healthcare personnel, on the other hand, seriously yearn for some film like 'Anand Returns': one where the protagonist is shown optimistically braving a cancer diagnosis, courageously undergoing excruciating chemo phases, feeling drained and depressed but still hanging on to life, and then ultimately 'returning' from the near-death abyss of cancer - tired but triumphant. Only such a gallant movie character will, finally, be able to acknowledge and honor the existence of thousands of cancer survivors in our country who cringe on seeing the immature and incorrect depiction of cancer on the big screen.

Here's the bad news though: no public health-related discussion in India is complete without a footnote on corruption and mismanagement. While Indians are surely surviving cancer like never before, many are also unnecessarily dying like never before despite the presence of treatments. A Lancet paper just last year said "The poor prospects for cancer survival in India indicate an underdeveloped and fragmented public health system... because (government) expenditure on health was (only) 1·1% of the GDP..." Yes we are seeing great advancements in survival rates, but those are, for now, only reaching India's privileged. The rest sadly still succumb - not because their bodies and willpower fail them, but because our governments and health systems fail them. For these unfortunate individuals, as revealed by a recent investigation of Delhi hospitals, the Anand of 1971 still rings true.

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