Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has polarised audiences because of the controversy surrounding its release, as well as its mixed-bag narrative. The plot twist that has the relentlessly energetic Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) developing cancer has been soundly rapped. Since Ae Dil Hai Mushkil attempts to tread new ground with its handling of unrequited love, it is particularly jarring to watch Johar clumsily employ an often-rehashed trope.
But there is ample evidence to suggest that the Big C, overused as it is, can make for engaging cinema. Cancer is arguably the foundation for an entire sub-genre of movies, such as Anand, Safar and Dasvidaniya, which revolve around cheerful and stoic patients who deftly arrange for friends and family to remain happy after their death.
The changing depictions of the coping mechanisms of cancer patients reflect evolving social trends. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand, the film credited with inaugurating the cancer film genre, the titular character (Rajesh Khanna) is resigned to his condition (the unforgettable lymphosarcoma of the intestine) and attempts to eke out as much happiness he can from the remainder of his life. He makes lasting friendships with strangers and arranges for the cynical and lonely doctor Bhaskar (Amitabh Bachchan) to marry the woman he loves.
Anand’s ceaselessly cheerful exterior chips off only in private. Even his most personal expressions of grief, such as the beautifully melancholic song Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye, are restrained. Despite his compelling charm, Anand is too balanced to be relatable.
On the other hand, in Shashant Shah’s Dasvidaniya (2008), the lovable schmuck Amar (Vinay Pathak) goes about reclaiming his life after he discovers he has just a few months to live. Working off a methodical bucket list, Amar finally completes tasks on which he had procrastinated, such as travelling abroad to meet a school friend and learning to play the guitar. Unlike Anand, Amar embraces his grief openly. Although he enriches the life of people around him with parting gifts, Dasvidaniya is less about how Amar transforms the lives of others and more about his self-discovery.
The manner in which filmic cancer patients organise the lives of those they leave behind has also evolved considerably. In Dil Ek Mandir, when lung cancer patient Ram (Raaj Kumar) finds out that his surgeon Dharmesh (Rajendra Kumar) shares a past with his wife Sita (Meena Kumari), he asks Dharmesh to wed Sita in the eventuality that he dies. Ram is almost relentlessly likeable. In Safar, impoverished leukemia patient Avinash (Khanna) convinces Neela (Sharmla Tagore), the woman he loves, to marry Shekhar (Feroz Khan).
In Nikhil Advani’s Katti Batti, however, cancer patient Payal (Kangana Ranaut) hides her condition from her boyfriend (Imran Khan), rants and rages at him and pulls off some dubious shenanigans to dissuade him from marrying her. In Vipul Shah’s Waqt: The Race Against Time, when Ishwarchand (Amitabh Bachchan) discovers he has lung cancer, he chooses to conceal his impending death from his spoilt son, Aditya (Akshay Kumar). In trying to coax Aditya into shedding his dependence, Ishwar never attempts to endear himself to his son.
Since patients grappling with terminal cancer are faced with a severely shortened lifespan, they forced to re-evaluate their personal morality. In Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw, when cerebral palsy-afflicted Laila (Kalki Koechlin) confesses to her mother Shubhangini (Revathi) that she is bisexual, Shubhangini is disgusted. However, when Shubhangini’s colon cancer relapses, the duo reconciles.
Mahesh Bhatt’s Kaash features a divorced couple (Dimple Kapadia and Jackie Shroff) that reconciles to fulfill the final desires of their son Romi, who is suffering from terminal brain cancer. In Siddharth Malhotra’s We Are Family, a cloying remake of Stepmom, cervical cancer prompts Maya (Kajol) to beseech Shreya (Kareena Kapoor), her ex-husband’s girlfriend, to help raise Maya’s children after her death.
The evolution of the doctor-patient relationship can also be traced in cinematic depictions of cancer. In Safar and Dil Ek Mandir, doctors offer friendship, advice and moral support to their patients. In Anand, the eponymous character is deeply attached to his doctor, repeatedly asking for him just before he dies. In more recent films like Dasvidaniya and We Are Family, doctors maintain professional boundaries, and interactions with their patients are restricted to sombre clinics.
However, the ideal screen cancer patient is cut out of a time-honored template. Cancer patients are sweet people, brave enough to smile through their pain and accepting the inevitability of their fate even as they express a will to live. They are not alcoholics or smokers (there’s a scrupulous mention of their clean lifestyle), but victims of the caprices of fate. Consider the uncomplicated Zaheer in Munnabhai MBBS, Amar in Dasvidaniya and Romi in Kaash. Nagesh Kuknoor’s flawed but engaging Aashayein offers an exception in lung cancer patient Rahul. He is a smoker and an inveterate gambler who unceremoniously runs away from his fiancé after he discovers his condition.
Although they incorporate cancer into their narratives, Hindi films often sanitise the depiction of the disease. They seldom depict the full extent of the havoc that the disease wreaks on minds and bodies of patients. Even in the advanced stages of the disease, cancer patients simply appear with an extra ring of purple around their eyes. In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, for instance, Alizeh is bald due to the ravages of radiation and chemotherapy, but fit enough to prance in and out of hotels and pubs. Rajesh Khanna looks ridiculously healthy for a cancer patient in Anand and Safar.
Hindi films also rarely portray the trauma and spirit of a survivor. While most films detail how cancer can be curable, the filmic cancer patient is seek medical counsel at the last stage when “maaf kijiye, ab kuch nahi ho sakta”.
Sunil Dutt’s progressive Dard ka Rishta is a rare exception, portraying the efforts of medical professionals working to help patients conquer cancer. When oncosurgeon Ravi (Dutt) finds out his daughter Khushboo has leukemia, he is advised to fly his rapidly deteriorating daughter to New York City, where meets his ex-wife Anuradha. She performs a bone marrow transplant to cure Khusbhoo.
Dard ka Rishta, produced and directed by Dutt after he lost his wife Nargis to cancer, resonates with personal grief as it dissects the agony of the relatives of cancer patients. However, it papers over Khushboo’s mental upheaval and trauma as she recovers from the disease.
Aquarius, a Brazilian film screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2016, is a compelling portrait of a middle-aged woman who happens to be a breast cancer survivor. Hindi cinema’s navigations around cancer offer insightful depictions of human strength, grief and morality, but they are miles away from a film like Aquarius, which treats cancer as one of the pieces that make up the larger picture of a survivor’s personality.