Doctors In Real Life Vs Reel Life: How Does Bollywood Depict Them?

How does Bollywood depict healthcare workers? Let’s find out about the ‘reel lives’ of the true heroes of COVID-19.

7 min read

The image of Hanuman flying with a mountain atop his palm is etched in the mind of every Indian. A doctor, that too of an enemy state, was responsible for this flight. According to the Ramayana, in the fierce battle between Lakshman and Meghnad (Ravan’s son), a deadly arrow downed Lakshman. He lost consciousness much to the anguish of Ram. In that critical hour, Hanuman approached the Lankan Royal Physician, Sushena, for help. The good doctor asked Hanuman to rush to Dronagiri Mountain to fetch four herbs including the Sanjeevani Booti. Hanuman, not being able to identify the herbs from the multitudinous numbers growing on the mountain, uprooted the entire mountain and brought it back.

The doctor exhibited the highest level of medical ethics which transcended considerations of the patient being a friend or foe.

Humanitarianism, in its purest form, was at display here, never mind the consequences. The Hippocrates Oath in its formal manifestation did not exist then; this treatment was its forerunner.


‘Home-Sick Doctors Amid Second Sino-Japanese War’

From the very ancient times in India, doctors (vaidyas) have contributed to the development of medicine. Charaka, the father of Indian medicine, wrote Charaka Samhita. Dridhbala, Sushruta, Nagarjuna, Vagbhata, Jivaka, and Rusa (female) are some of the doctors whose contribution was significant. Doctors have been held in high esteem throughout the ages. The respect remains intact, and in these days of the coronavirus, it has reached stratospheric levels – and rightly so.

It is therefore no surprise that Hindi films, whose themes reflect Indian society, has a large repertoire of films with the doctor as the central character.

THE Film, which leads the pack, is Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946) – an iconic film, a brave film made and acted by the legendary V Shantaram. It is a true account of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis, one of the five volunteer physicians, who was sent to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938, to provide medical assistance to the troops fighting the Japanese invasion.

The film shows that four months after having arrived, the doctors feel home-sick, and rummaging through the boxes they were carrying, find a record player and a record of the song – ‘Pardesi Re Kahe Chhoda Mora Desh’’.

Their ecstatic reaction is a sight to behold. They sit around and listen with complete attention. When the song ends, one doctor says – “Maloom hota hai hum Hindustan mein hain”. What a way to capture the human side of the profession!

The Perils of Being a Battlefront Doctor

Dr Kotnis’ job as a battlefront doctor was very stressful. There was always an acute shortage of medicines. During one battle, he performed operations for up to seventy-two hours, without getting any sleep.

In 1940, Dr Kotnis met Guo Qinglan, a nurse (played by Jayashree – Shantaram’s wife) and they got married in December 1941. They had a daughter who was named Yinhua – India (Yin) and China (Hua).

The stress as a front-line doctor finally started to take its toll on him and epilectic seizures killed him on 9 December 1942.

Mao Zedong (later Chairman Mao) mourned his death: “The army has lost a helping hand; the nation has lost a friend. Let us always bear in mind his internationalist spirit.”

His tomb is located at the Martyr's Memorial Park in Shijiazhuang in the Northern Chinese province of Hebei. Both China and India have honored him with stamps. The Chinese government continues to honor his relatives in India during every high-level official trip.


A Doctor’s Deadly Mission In Aftermath of Hiroshima & Nagasaki Bombings

Another film, where an Indian doctor, also exhibiting the ‘internationalist spirit’ but in favour of Japan, was Aman (1967). Rajendra Kumar is a UK-trained doctor who volunteers to go to Japan in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings at the end of World War II, to help find a cure for atomic-bomb survivors – and to spread the message of world peace . “Kal jo kuchh bhi Japan mein hua, woh aaj yahaan bhi toh ho sakta hai” – he tells his father.

Lord Bertrand Russell, philosopher, pacifist, nuclear disarmament advocate and Nobel Laureate appears in a cameo role, giving the doctor his blessing.

The untold suffering of the radiation victims is a stark reminder of the long-term damage caused by atomic weapons. The doctor undertakes a mission to rescue fishermen who have been exposed to nuclear radiation. He eventually dies.

The story, presenting the whole world as one family, that needs to look out for each other – the theme of unity – is so relevant in these times.


Not a Happy Commentary on Cancer Care & Treatment

A reverse brain drain took place in the film Dard ka Rishta (1982). Sunil Dutt is a doctor in New York. His wife Smita Patil, also a doctor, is doing research on leukaemia. The doctor yearns to return to India and joins as the head of surgery at Tata Memorial Hospital. His wife wants to continue her research in the US which leads to their divorce.

However, Sunil Dutt is forced to go back to the US for the treatment of his daughter (by his second marriage) who is suffering with leukaemia. By a twist of fate, his former wife treats her with bone marrow donated by Smita’s son, who, unbeknownst to Sunil Dutt, is his son too. Not a very happy commentary on the state of cancer care and treatment in India then. Have things changed now? Not sure since the well-heeled and the political fat cats still make a beeline to the US.

A Doctor’s Dilemma: Choosing the Professional Before the Personal

Then there have been some films where doctors have kept aside their personal feelings of hurt, jealousy and anger and behaved in a professional manner as behooves their profession.

In Dil Ek Mandir (1963), Rajendra Kumar – a doctor – is treating the cancer-stricken Raj Kumar – who is married to his former love interest Meena Kumari. Meena Kumari justifiably thinks that her ex-lover will not be able to give her husband proper medical treatment. But the doctor assures her that he would extend the best care possible and goes out of his way -burning the midnight oil – to prepare himself for the operation. Raj Kumar, predictably, is saved, but the doctor succumbs to his death brought about by long hours and stress.


Will Ashok Kumar, The Doctor, Prevail Upon Ashok Kumar, The Spurned Lover?

But in Aarti (1962), Meena Kumari, herself a doctor, has no such qualms about Ashok Kumar – a brain surgeon (who lost her to Pradeep Kumar) when Pradeep Kumar undergoes a brain operation. Pradeep Kumar does have his doubts, which he screamingly articulates, as do her relatives, but Meena Kumari is dead sure that Ashok Kumar, The Doctor, would prevail upon Ashok Kumar, The Spurned Lover. And that’s what happens.

Wait, we haven’t finished with Meena Kumari just yet. In Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960), she plays a nurse to Raj Kumar’s surgeon. They fall in love, he is forced to marry Nadira, but eventually everything turns out fine in the end.


Nurses & Humanitarianism

While on nurses, who can forget Waheeda Rehman’s role as a nurse in Khamoshi (1970)? Working in the psychiatric ward, she forgets the cardinal principle of keeping her professional and personal life apart. Don’t get too attached to your patients, they are told. Though she cures both Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna, by pouring love and affection into the care, she resultantly becomes emotionally deranged and gets admitted into that very room in the ward.

They train you to keep professional and personal apart for a very good reason.

While compassion and empathy are essential in order to provide good quality of care, objectivity is also needed. Her role of a nurse underlines the humane side of the profession and how sometimes the divide gets breached.

Doctors Can Learn From Patients Too

There have been films where the doctors have learnt a thing or two from the patients. Anand (1971) is one such film. Oncologist Amitabh Bachchan – straightforward, no-nonsense, humourless – meets a patient suffering from lymphosarcoma (Rajesh Khanna), who, despite his condition, has a cheerful, helpful and vibrant disposition. He lives his limited life to the fullest, spreading warmth and positivity. “Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin” is the timeless message which the patient delivers to the dour doctor and the audience. The doctor learns to look at the world differently – with empathy – looking for good in everyone and not worrying about matters not in his control.


Our Doctors, Frontline Healthcare Workers Deserve Full Support & Gratitude

In Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), the message delivered by Sanjay Dutt is that the mechanical, impersonal relationship between doctors and patients needs to include compassion and a more empathetic regimen. The ‘Jadoo ki Jhappi’ – encapsulating this very concept – became a national phenomenon.

And finally, Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1990) depicts the ostracism, bureaucratic apathy, and reprehensible insult of a doctor and his research, instead of recognition. It also tells us why brilliant doctors migrate to greener pastures.   The film is based on the life of Dr Subhash Mukhopadhyay, an Indian physician who pioneered the In-vitro fertilisation treatment . This film underlines the many trials and tribulations doctors faces in India who wish to work within the system.

Our doctors, nurses and medical staff are doing a yeoman service, much beyond the call of duty, in the current crisis.

They deserve not only our utmost debt of gratitude but all the support by way of equipment, kits, protective gear and security. By constantly putting their lives on the line, they are ensuring our safety. With one foot in the grave, another on the hospital floor getting trampled under the rush of patients, eye forever on the ball, and mind alert despite sleep deprivation, these frontline warriors deserve our folded hands.

Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, coined in 1965, has over the years expanded to Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigvaan, Jai Anusandhan. The time has come to expand it even further.

(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS Officer and presently runs a Tax and Legal Advisory. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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