Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Lymphosarcoma of the Heart

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Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Lymphosarcoma of the Heart

Illustration: Palak Bansal/ Arré

 

L

ymphosarcoma of the intestine.

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The disease that claimed Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand. A grand illness, like the name of a viceroy, Rajesh Khanna’s character says in the film, refusing to give in to solemnity. As a child, I bandied it about to describe emotionally dense situations like breakups with friends – Lymphosarcoma of the heart. I didn’t know then that I would turn to Anand again and again: for nostalgia, for succour, and sometimes, even for instruction.

Obscure medical terms were part of our family dinner-table conversations. My father was a general practitioner. One of his clinics was on the ground floor and a small section of our drawing room doubled up as a makeshift emergency room. Pained wailings routinely played out like tunes from an ominous soundtrack. Death and its sister, Illness, were permanent guests at our house. In this atmosphere, conversations about mortality and its imminence ignited my curiosity at a very young age: I was fascinated by “Maut Tu Ek Kavita Hai”.

Dr Bhaskar Bannerjee, played by a very young and handsome Amitabh Bachchan, resembled my father in more ways than one. He was a strange mix of idealism and cynicism too. In a very perceptive scene from the film, where Bhaskar is introduced to Anand, he is appalled by the latter’s ability to ridicule his own fatal condition. Anand puts Bhaskar’s rage in perspective. “You are not angry with me, but with yourself because you can’t cure me…” This skilful exchange is etched in my mind because it explores the defence mechanism of a jaded physician. It offers a point of convergence between Bhaskar’s seething persona which pervades the opening of the film and Anand’s over-the-top buoyancy, suspended between denial and acceptance. It went some distance in helping me understand my father.

In the opening of the film, Bhaskar acknowledges that when he met Anand, he was disappointed with the medical profession and admits to being emotionally volatile. “Jis jung ke liye main maidaan mein utra tha, us jung ke haathiyar mere paas nahi the,” he says. “Jin dino main Anand se mila, meri dimaagi haalat acchi nahi thi.” He was equipped to handle diseases but was not equipped to deal with pervasive poverty and misery he saw around him. “Jinke paas khane ko kuch nahi, unhe vitamin deneka kya faayda?” The counterweight to Bhaskar’s disillusionment is his friend Dr Kulkarni, who panders to his rich hypochondriac patients with placebo medications. Kulkarni diverts these funds toward treating genuinely needy patients. I saw some of this social consciousness at close quarters.

My father treated patients living in deplorable conditions. For a very long time, his fee was a minimal ₹25 since most of them came from the surrounding slums. His contemporaries, meanwhile, charged a lot more. When I found out about this disparity, I called him out on his poor business acumen. He responded by asking me to accompany him on one of his “medical visits” to these slums. After returning, he slipped a VHS tape into our VCR. That’s when I first saw Anand.

Did I erroneously believe that I was the optimist when I was Bhaskar all along? Was I destined to inherit depression as a family heirloom?

My first viewing of the film failed to evoke any sympathy for Anand’s terminal illness. Instead, I found his optimism terminally annoying. My father represented the dark, yet noble side of Bhaskar, while Anand occupied a radiant yet narcissistic persona. But just the way Anand storms into Bhaskar’s life and leaves an enduring impression, his character trudged up my mindscape with repeat viewings. “Maine Tere Liye Hi Saat Rang ke Sapne…” was the first song I learned to “perform” at intimate family gatherings. It became a ritual of sorts.

Then followed songless days when fun was always measured and laughter suppressed. Joy started revolting my father. A dedicated diarist, he had mastered the art of inhabiting and escaping into his morose inner life. The look of contentment on his face became steadily sporadic. His scepticism was beginning to consume him.

In Anand, Bhaskar almost tells a jubilant old woman distributing sweets to mark the birth of a grandson, “Ek mara nahi ki dusra marne ke liye paida ho gaya.” (Why celebrate his birth when his death looms large?) Much the same way, my father’s cynicism was becoming pervasive. He was perhaps trying to convey his miserable emotional state, which I was too young to comprehend. It was only years later, after watching the film several times and at different emotional milestones, and after witnessing my father’s slow descent into this vortex of depression, that I began to empathise with his pessimism.

But as a young girl, this bleakness was distancing. I was no longer “daddy’s girl”. As a child, I hungered for light-heartedness at home, which became increasingly elusive. To some extent, Anand filled this joie-de-vivre-shaped void in my life. I pined for the easy friendship and camaraderie between Bhaskar and Anand, but was forced to go into my shell. The familial comfort and the sense of lightness in relationships in Anand and in so many of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films – Gol Maal, Bawarchi, Kissi Se Na Kehna, and above all, Chupke Chupke – offered me considerable solace. These were people who laughed, ate, and lived with their entire being, be it the paternal Ramu Kaka and his khichdi, or the stream of friends that drop by unexpected. The tea-drinking scenes still exude an earnest sense of togetherness. The interiority that takes over in Mukherjee’s films has always warmed my heart.

When adolescence hit, it was difficult to fathom if I was an introvert or an extrovert. The shadow of my father’s depression left me emotionally incoherent. I myself was diagnosed with depression. Did I erroneously believe that I was the optimist when I was Bhaskar all along? Was I destined to inherit depression as a family heirloom?

After battling the dark demon, I realised that there was no shame in being Bhaskar. He had allowed Anand to transform him, to trigger his evolution. By the end of the film, the petulant Bhaskar is able to feel the grief of Anand’s death, break down, and direct the course of his desolation by turning his pain into prose. I consider this amazing insight into grief instrumental in making me unafraid of nuance. I did not have to be a worrier or a warrior. There’s a time to embrace the unrest of the mind and a time to go to war. Both could be achieved with flair. So tenacious was my commitment to hope.

My father, however, was unable to find the hope that I did. The man feted for saving so many lives, eventually succumbed to his mental illness. He could not rescue himself.

Paradoxes make for exquisite anguish but also exquisite stories. “Kya udaasi khubsurat nahi hoti?” asks Anand at one point in the film. It’s a question for the ages, but it helped me wrap my head around the irony of melancholy. But most importantly, it continues to teach me that life, in all its sadness and misery and hopelessness, is still worth embracing. Just the way Bhaskar comes to learn it.

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