Changing portrayal of doctors in Bollywood films: 1940 – 2020; time for introspection.

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Satyendra Tyagi, MD

Introduction

changing portrayal of doctors in Bollywood films in the last eighty years to see if it has been influenced by the ongoing changes in

The Indian film industry is one of the largest cinema hubs in the world. Indian cinema, popularly referred to as Bollywood, is renowned not just for its glitz and drama but also for being socially relevant. This has been reflected over time in its thematic selection of screenplay and depiction of characters; be it the caste system (Achoot Kanya, 1936), widow remarriage (Prem Rog, 1982), rape (Damini, 1993), pre- marital pregnancy (Kya Kehna,2000) or homosexuality and HIV (My brother

Nikhil,2005).

public opinion.

The portrayal of doctor in Bollywood

cinema began with the released of Doctor (1941. In the film the hero is played by the

famous singer Pankaj Mullik, who believes

firmly in the ideals of humanism and equality and spends his entire life in service

of the downtrodden in a village during an

epidemic of cholera. Several years later Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1947) showcased

the young doctor experiment on himself to

find a treatment for the plague while in China. In both films the doctor is portrayed as being of flawless character, high morals and ethics. Even though the medical profession was a mere sub plot, the portrayal of the doctor as rich and aristocratic reflected the prevalent trend of the times. The profession‟s high standards and

dedication to society are clearly and truly

reflected in these early films.
Two films from the early 1960s, Anuradha

(1960) and Dil Apna aur Preet Parai (1960)

show the profession as a form of social service. In Anuradha, Balraj Sahni is idealistic and totally devoted to his patients

while ignoring his family. Dil Apna aur

Preet Parai bucked this trend but only slightly. Woven into the story is an extramarital affair between the doctor and the nurse. Such was the reputation of the medical profession in Bollywood that even when the doctor is morally wrong he is

sympathized with while his wife, though

wronged, is despised by the audience.

Traditionally, the medical profession has been considered very noble in India. With doctors now included in the consumer protection act, they are subject to greater social scrutiny1. The profession has moved from paternalistic to being subservient to its patients. With this, the social perception of the medical profession too has changed over time. Bollywood, ever so sensitive to social changes, has portrayed these over the last eight decades through its characterization of

doctors in films.

A little over 9600 films were released between 1940 and 20192 of these around 70 had medical themes of some importance to the story and thirty two had doctors play a character important to the script either as the main protagonist or in a role significant to the storyline. Twenty releases where the doctor‟s portrayal had significant social relevance or the character was important to the script were noted, viewed, chronologically listed and analyzed for the way the medical profession or professionals were portrayed. This review analyses the

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By the seventies Bollywood had progressed

to bolder and more outspoken scripts while portraying the medical profession. Anand (1971) and Tere Mere Sapne (1971) were two path breaking films conveying a very

different public perception of doctors. The

awareness of unethical practices within the healthcare system was boldly projected in Tere Mere Sapne. Dev Anand as the suave, ambitious surgeon is as comfortable in the Mumbai Page 3 life as he is in the unethical referral system. The greed to mint money blinds him to such an extent that he fails to

recognize that Mumtaz, his wife is pregnant

with their first child. Anand reinforces the prototype image of the medical professional;

strict, over-indulgent and ever grumpy. The

doctor (Bachchan) treats life with utmost seriousness even as he hides his extremely

compassionate nature. The kind doctor is

initially repelled and even angered by his

patient‟s (Rajesh Khanna) carefree outlook

to his fatal illness. The famous dialogue by the terminally ill patient, “Babu moshai, zindag badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin”, (Sir, life should be big not long) became iconic as a telling statement of how doctors were perceived as being more concerned

with the length of life rather than its quality.

Till the eighties, Bollywood continued to

project the profession as mild mannered,

gentle and self-sacrificing. Silsila (1981) was a bold attempt that showed Amitabh Bachchan two timing with his doctor friend‟s (Sanjeev Kumar) wife (Rekha).

Sanjeev Kumar, though aware of the

relationship, chooses the path of least resistance and ignores the illicit relationship. The Films stood testimony to doctors being non-confrontationist even when provoked to the extreme

Bollywood would not be true to its role as a

social mirror had it turned a blind eye to the

emerging unethical practices or negligence in the healthcare system. In Bemisal (1982),

Vinod Mehra plays the rich unethical doctor

performing illegal abortions. It is the benevolent portrayal of Amitabh Bachchan‟s character that balances the derogatory depiction of the profession. Meri Jung

(1983) is a powerful courtroom drama that

has a doctor‟s case as center stage. While the film may be technically flawed by medical standards, what is important is that for the first time, well before the implementation Consumer Protection Act, a Bollywood film had malpractice and negligence at the core of its plot.

The most telling commentary on the medical

profession came as Ek Doctor ki Maut (1990) with Pankaj Kapoor as Dr. Roy.

Even as his research is acknowledged by a

famous foreign University, the bureaucracy transfers him at the behest of his more

influential colleagues. The film shows Dr.

Roy as a timid government servant subservient to the bureaucracy. Professional jealousies and inherent insecurities are blatantly evident when the medical fraternity unites to discredit the Phase 1 results of Dr. Roy,s work. Ek Doctor Ki Maut might mean the death of one doctor, but it referred to the entire medical community.

highlights the general

Kyun Ki (2005)

attitude of our society towards the mentally ill. Worse still, it shows the doctor, Jackie

Shroff, strangle the lobotomized hero as an

act of empathy. It raises a pertinent question of whether the public actually believes that doctors practice euthanasia. The extremely

popular Munna Bhai MBBS (2010) was a story of competence versus compassion. Its social impact was more by way of its ‘Jadu ki Jhappi’ or ‘the magical embrace’. Bollywood was asking the stereotypical doctor to notice that the society today values compassion and a smile (Sanjay Dutt)

more than rigid standard operating procedures (Bomman Irani) where competence and success alone matter. The

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(Anuradha) to self-serving (Tere Mere

Sapne) to being outright corrupt (Gabbar is Back). Even the individual characterization has been consistently morphed, from the social worker (Dr Kotnis) to the tolerant

(Silsila) and ostercised (Ek Doctor ki Maut)

to the ill-tempered psychopath (Kabir Singh). There have been exceptions (Udta Punjab) to show that all is not lost yet. Do these exceptions prove the law or are they too few to summarise that the public perception reflected through cinema has not changed.

The debate continues on the extent to which Bollywood mirrors society and influences it.

Pandit Nehru, India‟s first Prime Minister

had stated that “the impact of films was greater than the influence of newspapers and books all put together”3. His statement was

symbolic of independent India‟s recognition

of the vital importance of cinema. On the flip side is what actor Nasiruddin Shah said, “Films have lost their social impact these days and are merely entertainment mediums now”4. Do the 2000 odd movies released each year in India and watched by almost a billion viewers in different languages5 reflect the changing perception and standing

of the profession accurately? Does

Bollywood exaggerate what are mere aberrations? Is cinema just for fictional tales and mindless entertainment, or is it a reality check both for the society and the medical profession?

References

Ambesh P. Violence against doctors in the

Indian subcontinent: A rising bane. Indian

Heart. J. 2016;68:747-50

Available at http://www.bollywoodmdb.com/films

movie was not about what the doctors were „perceived‟ to be, but what the society „expects‟ of them.

The decade from 2011 to 2020 was one of unbelievable negative portrayal of the

medical profession by Bollywood. However, two films that served as the saving grace for the profession were Vicky Donor (2012) and Udta Punjab (2015). Vicky Donor was a light romantic comedy based on sperm donation with Anu Kapur as a wily, gold hearted doctor with no malice. Udta Punjab

Kareena Kapoor playing Florence

had
Nightingale who rehabilitates addicts as she

fight for reforms.

Ankur Arora Murder Case (2013) openly took up an urgent and

disturbing issue of death on the operation

table due to medical negligence. It moralizes that a good doctor is not

necessarily a good person. Gabbar is Back

(2015) is a vigilante film based on an extremely derogatory story of doctors keeping „alive‟ a dead child on ventilator just to inflate the bills. The crime thriller Andhadhun (2018) characterized the only doctor in the film involved in the unethical practice of selling kidneys for extreme profit. Another crime thriller the same year,

One Day Justice Delivered (2019) has the

doctor couple bribed to kill an eyewitness in

a terror case in a way that would look

natural. The portrayal of Shahid Kapoor as the doctor in Kabir Singh (2019) with severe anger management problems, pathologically aggressive, alcoholic and a drug addict is

extreme. Were these films reflecting the

truth about changing ethics or were they just playing to the gallery for a great „Box Office‟ collection.

Discussion

The changing portrayal of doctors in

Bollywood cinema has seen a marked

change over the decades. It has been depicted from being self-sacrificing

1.

2.

3. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Speeches Vol. 3 (1953-
1957)

4. Available in India Today,5 May 2017

5. Available at http://www.business-standard.co

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