Can the health issues be better communicated through films in India? An Overview

In this interesting column, Dr Sanghamitra Pati and Dr Kartik Sharma throw light on the deep impact of cinema on healthcare communication in India and its relevance in current context

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                      About Authors:

A physician turned public health researcher, Dr Sanghamitra Pati is presently serving as the Director of Regional Medical Research Centre at Bhubaneswar, Odisha under the aegis of ICMR (Indian Council of medical Research). Her special interest include portrayal of health and illness in popular media and medical humanities.


Dr Kartik Sharma works at the Population & Community Development Association (PDA), Bangkok in the area of public health & dental service delivery. Previously he has worked with Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai and Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), New Delhi as a researcher in health economics and financing.


The power of cinema not only influences our knowledge but also the beliefs of different quarters of the society.

The cinema paints a picture, for our perceptive and understanding through acquired knowledge on the silver screen. For example, the urban life style portrayed in Yash Raj Films or understanding the struggles of everyday life’s of the poor through films by Mr Satyajit Ray and Mr Shyam Benegal. And more controversially entertaining but clichéd south Indian portrayal in films such as Chennai Express.

Health and healthcare and its understanding have similarly been shaped in many instances through Cinema. By influencing our lifestyle choices that effect our over all health and wellbeing. The portrayal of disease conditions by certain well made films for instance, ‘Black’ by Mr Sanjay Leela Bhansali, dwelled on a rarely discussed health condition of ‘Alzheimer’s’ in geriatric patients. And put it, in the fore front of mainstream discussion and thought process of it’s audience.

This essential power of cinema, lies in making one think and absorb instances at a personal level. This goes in the favour of better health communication through films. It will be no exaggeration to state, no research publication has been able to achieve the impact, ‘Taare Zameen Par’ has had on understanding dyslexia and holistically empowering patients, care givers, parents, teachers and the society at large. To deal with situations where children need special attention. The sensitivity to address and approach this health condition at the mass level, has been a special achievement of the film.

“Certain light hearted films on health such as ‘Vicky Donor’ and ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’ have well executed the concept of edutainment. The former having successfully eliminated stigma attached to sperm donation and eliminated the taboo around the issue”

Udta Punjab is another such example, of a mainstream feature film with popular stars. Systematically handling a political topic of drug abuse in Punjab’s youth. The film successfully started a debate on substance abuse problem within Punjab, on National Television as well as schools and colleges. The film certainly had an affect on the mind set of the people, so much so, that the local government took out advertisements with local hero’s to highlight, the strengths of Punjab. Films certainly enjoy this power of sparking a discussion and letting it snow ball in the society, which can eventually knock at the political system to take notice of these issues. Another documentary film which shook up the political system and the audience was ‘Nero’s Guest’ a brilliant journalistic story telling of Mr P. Sainath’s quest of bringing farmer mental health issues and suicides to the forefront of media reporting and policy making.

Certain light hearted films on health such as ‘Vicky Donor’ and ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’ have well executed the concept of edutainment. The former having successfully eliminated stigma attached to sperm donation and eliminated the taboo around the issue. It can be only imagined how a well made film can remove stigma for diseases such as TB. While Munna Bhai speaks about the human element of the doctor patient relationship and stresses of a healthcare system albeit cinematically. Films can very efficiently, without intimidation and creating fear transmit right messages to the public for instance as done by ‘My Brother Nikhil’ which is based on facts and the struggle of an aids patient in Goa. And the patient’s acceptance by his parents and society.

‘Margarita with a Straw’ successfully communicated care givers and patients perspective. In which the central character suffers from ‘Cerebral Palsy’ but is showcased with aspirations and grit, similar to any girl from today’s day and age. Such positive and human portrayals in cinema without debate provide strength to patients and care givers to not tire in their pursuits.

“Messages with mass appeal that are simple to understand for the uninspired common Indian whose health is equally an important national good lies unaddressed”

Cinema on the other hand should be seen as a double edged sword whose influence can be both positive and negative. For example, smoking in films by film actor ’s has definitely influenced a justification to many initiating into smoking. Film scenes depicting intense situations with characters taking to smoking or drinking in ‘reel’ life, has been found to have a profound effect on people’s response to similar situations in real life. As quoted in an American super hero feature film, with power comes responsibility.

Films and Indian cinema are no different than Spiderman, binding the highly fragmented society in its web with the choice of communicating positive or negative health and social messages. Traditional forms of health communication in the present day and age is limited to research publications, conferences and at most to newspaper articles. Though their peculation and more so absorption lies limited to academicians and the intellectual.

Messages with mass appeal that are simple to understand for the uninspired common Indian whose health is equally an important national good lies unaddressed. This is where cinema, seen as a messiah for forgetting everyday burdens and miseries of life can fill the gap in health communication. And help patients and care givers find inspiration to lead a healthy life of dignity and strength in the comfort of their homes and cinema halls.