In between watching Indian cinema and the occasional American television show, I enjoy overdosing on East Asian dramas. For those unfamiliar with the format, East Asian dramas are television miniseries of between (usually) 12 and 24 episodes. Relentlessly melodramatic and featuring a who’s who of the latest boybands, dramas are a massively guilty pleasure of mine. While my personal viewing tastes veer towards the Japanese cop dramas - from which I’ve learned some excellent vocabulary words - there are some tropes that cut across the entire spectrum... and into Bollywood.
I’m referring to, of course, “drama disease.” Drama disease a vaguely specified but always fatal ailment whose progression of symptoms are timed perfectly to get the audience into tears. It’s an entirely different creature from the fictional medicine of House, which revels in the specificity of the human body. Nope, drama disease is an entirely different creature. Savvy viewers know that any grasping at the stomach or even a simple cough towards the beginning of the film could signal a grizzly end for a beloved character.
That’s not to say that one is better than the other - both serve their purposes. The illness as metaphor has a long tradition in fiction and just because it may not be ‘realistic’ doesn’t on it’s own negate the trope. So, while I haven’t seen Guzaarish yet, my experience in Sanjay Leela Bhansali movies leads me to believe that we’ll be getting a good dose of drama disease in it. So, here are some other examples of drama disease in action!
Get out your tissues!
And spoilers abound for the diseases but not for the endings and I always try to keep plot points vague. Also note that I’m not including films where the character’s own drinking and drugs habits lead to their death. This is by no means an exhaustive list - please do comment with your own choices!
1 & 2. Anand Seghal’s “cancer” in Anand (1971) and Mili’s “cancer” in Mili (1975)
A two-fer from Hritshikesh Mukherjee, the master of middle class cinema. When you are looking for a film about a magical sick person who teaches those in good health how to appreciate life, begin with Anand. Anand (Rajesh Khanna) does just that to his dear friend Dr. Bhaskar Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan). This is the one that set the mold and Rajesh Khanna plays the perfect drama disease patient. Even better, the story is told all in flashback, so everything has that nice patina of bittersweet feeling... because you know Anand is going to die.
And then you can move on to cute and full of life, Mili (Jaya Bhaduri) wins over the cold and usually drunken Shekhar just in time for her third act cancer to reveal itself. By turns sweet and sad, bring an extra hankie to this one. You’ll need it.
3. Aman Mathur’s “heart condition” in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)
When the vivacious Aman Mathur (Shahrukh Khan) befriends the dour Naina Kapur (Preity Zinta), he immediately gets to work teaching her to love life. Aman’s ominous grabbing of his chest towards the interval signals that the man with the figuratively large heart has been cursed with a weak one in his chest. His dil fought until the end but...
Good natured goonda Munna Bhai (Sanjay Dutt) is shocked (shocked!) at the lack of compassion that patients of all sorts receive in the teaching hospital he is “studying at” (i.e. scamming). When mild-manned Zaheer (Jimmy Shergill) shows up with a terminal case of “stomach cancer” even though he’s never smoked or drank or touched lady-parts (ironic!), Munna jumps on the case and shows Zaheer a good time and treats him to an item song from Mumaith Khan before he dies...
5. Amritha’s “brain cancer” Amrithadhare (2005)
(I’m including this Sandalwood film because it has a friendly appearance from the Big B - who apparently excels at these sorts of films - and because it was a sweet film.)
Amritha (the divine Miss Ramya) and Puru (Dhyan) are a married couple who live each day like it’s the first day of their marriage. They have the perfect life and compliment each other like yin and yang. Puru decides to build his Amritha a dream house to complete their perfect life (and perhaps start a perfect family) but mysterious fainting spells signal that something is not all right in Amritha’s brain pan. As is usual in cases like this, the disease is kept secret from the patient and Puru suffers from the burden of knowledge as he squeezes every last ounce of joy out of Amritha’s last days while trying to maintain a brave face...
[Memo to Bollywood - never remake this because you will just mess it up. See also - We Are Family]
6. Amar’s “stomach cancer” in Dasvidaniya (2008)
Terminal cancer patient Amar (Vinay Pathak) takes his diagnosis and a clarion call to finally start living life. He makes a bucket list - or a Bucket List - although unlike Zaheer in Munnabhai MBBS, he doesn’t get visited by Mumaith Khan.
7. Roshan’s “cancer” AND Duke Chawla’s “paralysis” in Vaada Raha (2009)
Bobby Deol tugs on the old heartstrings as a doctor who becomes paralyzed (oh no!) but is inspired by the lively shenanigans of a young boy named Roshan to overcome his paralysis to help cure kids from cancer... not knowing that Roshan himself has cancer and he’s a ticking timebomb!
But it seems 2010 is set to be the year to beat in terms of drama disease with fateful lung cancer and other ailments in Aashayein, fateful and important cancer in We Are Family, and now more important and MORE meaningful paralysis in Guzaarish!
I can't wait! (And I'm being serious - I love a good cry.)