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Breathing uneasy in Bollywood

There was a time when tuberculosis was the national disease of Hindi cinema. The cough was the chief symptom of ill-health

Still from ‘Aah’ (1953)
Still from ‘Aah’ (1953)

Did you know what is truly strange about Devdas? Stranger even than two striking women falling for a weak man? That a man who drank himself to death did not suffer from cirrhosis of the liver, but of tuberculosis. I realized this recently, when social media swelled with images of the smog in Delhi, and I thought of how characters in Bollywood have suffered from breathing problems for years. Tuberculosis. Asthma. The wracking cough. Somebody is always coughing in Hindi films of a certain vintage, isn’t it?

Things have moved along now. Disease in Hindi cinema is invariably something rare and incurable today. In Hichki, for instance, Rani Mukerji suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. In Paa (2009), Amitabh Bachchan has progeria. In My Name Is Khan (2010), the disease is Asperger’s; in Black (2005), Alzheimer’s. These are unusual conditions, which affect the few.

But for years in the past, decades in fact, Hindi cinema’s main health complaints have been common diseases, typically pulmonary in nature. Take Devdas, for instance. It has been made five times in mainstream Hindi cinema alone. In 1935, with singer K.L. Saigal in the title role, it was tuberculosis. In 1955, eight years after independence when Dilip Kumar played Devdas, the disease was still tuberculosis. Most interestingly, when Sanjay Leela Bhansali made Devdas in 2002, he upgraded a number of things. Shah Rukh Khan’s Devdas goes to study law in London against previous versions of the film where Devdas studied in Kolkata. Yet as the closing strains of the rousing (and striking) dance number Chhalak Chhalak play out, Devdas coughs up blood. The physical diagnosis remains the same—tuberculosis, with a wracking, back-bending cough. Even in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D (2009), where matters are advanced altogether to a happy ending, Abhay Deol’s physical breakdown is conveyed through the extended coughing sequence that develops across the song Yeh Duniya Badi Gol. Given how lovingly Kashyap maintained the story architecture of Devdas, it is likely his Dev D also contracted a bad case of TB.

Still from‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ (2016)

According to the World Health Organization, India leads the global burden in tuberculosis. Socio-economic factors such as poverty, malnutrition, overcrowding and pollution are risk factors for TB. The connection between ambient air pollution and TB has long been established, recent research indicates that outdoor pollution also has an association with TB.

Until the 1970s, TB was Bollywood’s national disease. It is a presence in several classics, including Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), where maaji actually left her family and boys because she had TB, such was the dread brought on by the disease. In Raj Kapoor’s Aah (1953), the wealthy protagonist played by Raj Kapoor is sent to work in the villages, contracts TB and expects to die. TB fits right in with the story in films like Hum Log (1951) and Bandini (1963), commentaries on the state of the post-colonial nation. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam (1973), the story of owners versus workers in a factory, Raza Murad’s poet coughs blood. This is Hindi cinema’s code for the incurable version of the disease. In Parichay (1972), the disowned son played by Sanjeev Kumar is wracked by poverty and TB.

After years, TB made a re-appearance in Lootera (2013), set in the period of the Zamindari Abolition Act and its implementation. Sonakshi Sinha contracts TB when the family falls on hard times and has to move to the city. Earlier in the film, we see that she is asthmatic. The subtext suggests asthma worsens to TB, the air and stresses of our cities (and our urban modernity) are killing us.

Still from ‘Pink’ (2016)

A number of recent films feature asthma. In Dabanng (2010), Salman Khan’s mother, played by Dimple Kapadia, is an asthmatic who is killed when the villain puts her bronchial pump out of reach. In Khakee (2004), Amitabh Bachchan suffers an asthma attack in a climactic face-off with Ajay Devgn, the bad man, and gets clobbered.

More than anything else, the principal indicator of illness (and misfortune) in Hindi cinema is the cough. Take, for instance, the successful but unmemorable Prem Nagar (1974), where Rajesh Khanna is an alcoholic who drinks himself to near death. The symptom of his critical illness? Hysterical fits of coughing. Character actors of a certain age—the baojis (fathers) and maas (mothers)—spent the majority of their screen time coughing. 3 Idiots makes an affectionate reference to this stereotype. The protagonists visit Sharman Joshi’s home, and the voice-over says it was straight out of a 1950s black and white film: there was a paralysed father, an unwed sister and a coughing mother.

Fevers, aches, shakes, throwing up—none of these bodily dysfunctions has received a fraction of the screen-time that coughing has. In fact, India’s vast catalogue of tropical diseases—malaria, kala azar, cholera, chicken pox—has barely registered on the Hindi screen (barring the cameo in the beloved Sardi Khansi Na Malaria Hua song from Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, released in 1992).

Only polio has a bit of a presence: Mehmood’s Kunwara Baap (1974) is a polio-awareness movie, said to be influenced by the fact that one of his children developed polio. In Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973), the child born of Shashi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore’s premarital encounter gets polio. But the most astute depiction of illness is in Lagaan (2001) where Kachra, the “untouchable", is affected by polio and bowls wily spin. The social commentary is spot-on here: a Dalit who is impoverished and likely works as a manual scavenger (kachra) is more vulnerable to a disease like polio.

What about AIDS, the big disease of the 1990s and 2000s? Only A handful of films have touched it, like My Brother Nikhil and Phir Milenge, which starred Salman Khan as an AIDS patient, and Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi. But big-budget projects have eschewed it.

There is, however, a separate genre in Hindi cinema that film scholar M. Madhava Prasad calls the rare disease film. The plots of these films centre on unusual diseases (or ones that were new to audiences at the time) which have no cures or elusive cures. The genre began, Prasad notes, with Anand and Mili—two 1970s films featuring cancer. This was followed by Dard Ka Rishta by Sunil Dutt in the 1980s, made soon after his wife Nargis Dutt died of cancer. Now, Prasad says, cancer is more common in the populace, and a predictable plot point in Hindi cinema. We see this in films over the past 15 years, like Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Katti Batti, Cheeni Kum and the forthcoming Kaalakaandi.

Over time, Bollywood’s interest has turned to rarer diseases: progeria, Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia and Alzheimer’s. Prasad calls them “international". I call them boutique diseases; exceptional pathologies that mark out the sufferers as special. There are also films that look at mental health over the past five years: schizophrenia in Karthik Calling Karthik (2010), and bipolar disorder in Hasee Toh Phasee (2014). These are diseases that focus on the individual, and blur out the social. This is true even of a marvelous film like Anand. Prasad notes that the mainstream successes of the 1970s offered critiques of the Establishment. But Anand was content in its cosy world of middle-class friendship.

TB and asthma are the opposite of rare. Large numbers of people are susceptible to them, like polio. Their representation suggests a relationship with wider socio-economic realities—of poverty, of reckless urbanization, of an imposed modernity and its unease with the old way of life. TB has receded from popular Hindi films though it remains a serious public health concern. In fact, it has become more complex, more resistant to drugs now. In 2014, actor Amitabh Bachchan said that he had suffered a painful bout of TB himself.

As with everything in post-liberalization Bollywood, there is class involved here. The interest in wider social realities has moved to an infatuation with the rich and the high-end. We see this in the clothes, the locations (Prague, Berlin, Sydney), the work profiles (photographer, designer, chefs), and arguably, even in the diseases. When did this begin? Arguably from the 1990s, a decade which saw films about affluent people (Hum Aapke Hain Kaun), and NRIs (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai) setting new parameters of blockbuster success. It was as if the opening up of the economy had immediately made people wealthier, and improved public health outcomes.

Yet, two recent films return to the old anxiety about breathing problems. Both set in Delhi. In Pink (2016), Amitabh Bachchan is seen often in a chunky mask. In the background, you hear him breathing heavy and long, as if you are listening to a stethoscope. It evoked quite nicely that sense I get in Delhi—of struggling to survive, struggling to draw a breath. Then there is Titli (2014), where the men in the family cough and clear their throat before a grimy mirror when they brush their teeth. At the end of the film, the protagonist Titli coughs and heaves and throws up, as if his system is rejecting all the fumes and filth of Delhi. When I saw the match at Feroz Shah Kotla in December where the Sri Lankan cricket team wore pollution masks, and an Indian player was caught on camera throwing up, it felt like the premonition of these two films had come to life. But equally, it felt like Hindi cinema—or at least a certain kind of Hindi film-maker—was still listening. Still prescient.

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