'Black' to 'Bojack Horseman': The Media Portrayal Of Alzheimer's Disease
On Alzheimer's Day 2022, let's look back at how the disease has been depicted in media.
Every year, this day (21 September) is observed as World Alzheimer's Day, in order to generate awareness about this serious aliment. The theme for this year's World Alzheimer's Month (September 2022) is "Know dementia, Know Alzheimer's".
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, characterized by a progressive degeneration of cognitive abilities. This year's theme has been decided in order to highlight the importance of a timely diagnosis.
At a time when awareness around such memory disorders is shockingly low, media portrayals play a crucial role. But more often than not, victims of the disease end up being depicted in a negative light.
Assistant Professor, Dweepobotee Brahma writes in Brookings, "Of all the geriatric diseases, India is perhaps most underprepared to tackle the burden of degenerative diseases like dementia. This is due to a lack of awareness compounded by a dearth of specialists."
According to the Dementia India Report 2010 of the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI), there were around 3.7 million Indians with dementia in 2010 with the number projected to rise to 7.6 million by 2030.
And yet, people battling the disease as well as their care-givers are hardly ever accurately represented in the media we consume. Bollywood especially fails in its depiction of memory disorders. Mainstream portrayals lack nuance and often resort to harmful tropes like treating mental derangement as a punchline or a vicious trait that leads to villainy.
A.R. Murugadoss' 2008 blockbuster Ghajini stars Aamir Khan as Sanjay Singhania, a shy business tycoon who turns into a bloodthirsty maniac after being made to watch the murder of Kalpana (played by Asin), the love of his life. The emotional trauma as well as physical assault (which rendered him incapable to save Kalpana) subjected him to developing anterograde amnesia or short-term memory loss.
Rohit Shetty's Golmaal 3 stars actor-comedian Johnny Lever as Pappi Bhai, a character who experiences sporadic episodes of short-term memory loss. While the entire Golmaal franchise banks upon ridiculing characters with disabilities like speech impediments, this installment also reduces memory loss to a comedic plot point.
While both Golmaal 3 and Ghajini were wildly popular, they did little for sensitively portraying people who live with memory disorders. While Aamir Khan's Sanjay was reduced to an aggressive and mercurial man, Johnny Lever's Pappi Bhai entirely trivialized memory loss and its grave consequences.
The film resorts to one of the most inaccurate and banal tropes — The strength of Ajay's love for Piya overpowers her illness and reverses her disorder. This not only diminishes the gravity of Alzheimer's but is also outright impossible.
While Bollywood still has miles to go in terms of sensitive representation, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black (2005) can be considered a film that depicted Alzheimer's somewhat accurately. Starring Amitabh Bachchan as a volatile alcoholic mentor to Rani Mukerji's disabled learner, his character is diagnosed with Alzheimer's towards the end of the film.
Even though the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s is not fleshed out, one can argue that the film intends to focus on Rani Mukerji's trajectory. Regardless, the early disorientation and following symptoms are depicted in a realistic manner. The scene where his disorder has escalated so much that he needs to be shackled to the bed, also throws light on the frequent mistreatment and dehumanization of dementia patients in mental health facilities.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg's Bojack Horseman has frequently been hailed for the hard-hitting portrayal of several mental disorders. The eleventh episode of its fourth season titled Time's Arrow delves into the heartbreaking backstory of Bojack's cold and ruthless mother, Beatrice Horseman.
Directed by Aaron Long, the episode not only succeeds in humanizing a character who's largely been disliked but also does a commendable job in portraying the progression of her Alzheimer's. In an interview with Vulture, writer Kate Purdy says, "We did do research about (dementia), and also drawing from personal experiences with our family members. We talked a lot about our own experiences in the room, and we talked about our own memories and compared how our memories work."
The show has often been lauded for its attention to detail and, needless to say, this episode, entirely from the point of view of Beatrice, did not disappoint. From blurring out faces of inconsequential people to having background props disappear in the middle of the episode, this episode is a masterclass on how media portrayals of memory disorders should look like.
We had a lot of conversations about how to represent the mind of someone who’s going through dementia and is having painful memories, and what the combination of those things looks like visually.Lisa Hanawalt - Animator, Bojack Horseman
Caregiving is another aspect of Alzheimer's that is often largely under-represented in media. One show that has gone above and beyond in its emblematic portrayal of early onset Alzheimer's is Dan Fogelman's Emmy award-winning series This Is Us.
One of the key reasons behind its accurate depiction of memory disorders, the show didn’t attempt to compress an illness as complex as Alzheimer’s into a few scenes or episodes. The show's matriarch Rebecca Pearson (masterfully played by Mandy Moore) starts misplacing things in the middle of Season 4, sowing the seeds of her aliment. Throughout the course of the next two seasons, we watch (and weep) as Rebecca's illness gradually progresses and she struggles to remain her vivacious self.
It's refreshing to see a show center a character with Alzheimer's and not only give her agency, but also have her defend it. Till her eventual demise, her family respects her wishes about how her life will operate after she is incapable of taking her decisions.
“I can’t imagine how confusing, how isolating, being diagnosed with dementia and cognitive decline, what that must be, and yet, how empowering it must be to then recognize, ‘I have the presence of mind and ability to think about my future, not just for myself but for my family, to eliminate any family politics and messiness that might arise from an impossible situation like this,'” says Moore in conversation with Seth and Lauren Rogen — co-founders of HFC, an organization that advocates for families impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer's is a grave illness and the majority of its media depictions are falling far behind. Ill-informed films give way to ill-informed audiences, and that leads to a vicious cycle when it comes to disorders where awareness is the key.
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