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As B&W Bollywood shows a nice picture of Indian public health history



India – like the world – has changed a lot since independence. Most of us today have no idea about the state we were in in 1947, or not at all. The rise of harmful propaganda ("nothing happened in India during 60 years of freedom") further weakened our already poor understanding. It will take us some time, as a nation, to learn better ways of thinking about history, but meanwhile watching old movies can be a good way to understand the past, especially our extremely difficult reference line before independence. Public health is a fascinating example of this film exercise.

Today, our films have many references to cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Great stars played characters with such rare ailments as progeria and Asperger's syndrome. However, in 1939, a mainstream hero (K.L.Saigal) appeared in the mainstream hit, suffering from the unthinkable disease for any of the main characters of Bollywood: TB (TB). The plot of this movie Dushman (Hindi for "enemy") is a love story in which TB is an enemy. This message was placed in the film as part of the government's mandate for film studios to conduct social propaganda. The Governor of India and the Governor of Mumbai even participated in the projection of the film. TB is still the main Indian killer, but it's just not the kind of Indians that the middle class wants Bollywood to present.

In addition to tuberculosis awareness, Dushman it is also probably India's first screen representation of germ awareness. The idea of ​​invisible microbes causes many deadly diseases, and that we must always keep a safe distance from them, is now ubiquitous. It wasn't like a hundred years ago. In India and other countries, this concept appeared in public consciousness only after continuous health education through films and other forms of mass communication.

In one striking scene in Dushman, the hero (Mohan) sits depressed in the restaurant, learning about his diagnosis. Then he hears two men at the next table discuss how they now have to eat only in clean restaurants to protect themselves from them bimariyon ke keede, "Poor bugs." Mohan is embarrassed that he has visited such a public place despite his illness. Then he notices a woman feeding a child with a glass of water. The hero slowly gets up, calls the waiter and asks where the glass he used has ended. It was shown that all used glasses were dropped onto the counter. In a dramatic gesture he pushes all the glasses on the floor, throws some money into the hands of a confused manager and leaves.

Tuberculosis was and is a powerful enemy, but the most important public health enemy in the early and mid-twentieth century in India, accounting for almost a quarter of all deaths each year, was malaria. Observers used terrible superlatives to describe it, such as India's "deadliest" and "most devastating" disease. The British-Indian government was under enormous pressure to reduce malaria and mortality, and like all governments, chose the easiest and most lucrative solution: pharmaceuticals (instead of stopping mosquito damage). A special production and distribution policy has ensured that quinine, an anti-malarial drug, has been delivered to the remotest corners of India.

In a timeless classic Ahhut Kanya (1936), the heroine's father owns a small department store in which he distributes quinine supplied by the government. We see that many villagers buy medicine for a relative with a fever. In the film, the supply of quinine drives a local Ayurvedic doctor who is losing business. This antagonism between practitioners of supposedly Western and non-Western / alternative medical systems is waiting to be solved even today.

Decades immediately preceding and gaining independence were not the best times Vaid or a hakimwhen the star of the Indian allopathic doctor grew. Perhaps the most comprehensive film about medicine at the time was Bengali / Hindi Doctor (1941). It is an epic story of trials and tribulations of the doctors and fathers duo. The film presents a range of major health problems in India: cholera, death of infants and mothers, poor public hygiene and the most absent public healthcare infrastructure. In conjunction with interesting social insights such as doctor's home help, expressing dissatisfaction with activities related to the "polluting" section at a medical university.

More importantly Doctor perhaps he set the trend of characterizing the Indian allopathic physician as a selfless (and often male) creature working for the nation and its people. This quixotic portrait reached its peak during the time of the Nehruwian people, when scientific miracles became the new temples of India. For almost a decade, the selfless doctors of actor Rajendra Kumar ruled the hearts and Chirag Kahaan Roshni Kahaan (1959) Dil Ek Mandir (1963) and Man (1967), among others. The highlight Dil Ek Mandir presents the construction of a large hospital reminiscent of the then medical megalithic temple AIIMS in Delhi, built in 1956.

In this way, the films tell us a lot about the medicine and society of their era – but they only tell part of the story. For some obvious reasons, movies also do not describe the social and political causes of ill health. One Dushman the reviewer explained this film shortcoming in the Mumbai Chronicle in June 1939 in words that are still relevant today:

A film seriously dealing with tuberculosis would have to sink deeply into the social injustice of the current economic order – the real "Dushman" of the nation. He would have realistic shots of urban slums, working conditions in factories, he would have close-ups of (ridiculously) malnourished children who are such an easy victim of T. B germs. No, I don't think that New Theaters[którywyprodukował[whichproduced[którywyprodukował[whichproducedDushman]- or any of the existing studios in India – will produce such a film. Even if they are produced, it is likely that censors will forbid it.

Kiran Kumbhar is currently studying the history of science at Harvard University, focusing on the history of medicine in modern India. He is also a doctor and a graduate of health policy.


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