Euthanasia on the Silver Screen

Hollywood has flirted with the theme of euthanasia for several years. Now the trend is affecting its Indian counterpart, Bollywood.

MUMBAI, India — The topic of assisted suicide is an old one for Hollywood, with Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby being one of the latest examples.

But not for Bollywood — as the prolific Indian movie industry is dubbed. That has changed with the release of Guzaarish, a big-budget romance that combines the song-and-dance elements typical of Bollywood with the not-so-typical theme of “mercy killing.”

The film sparked controversy even before its release in late November, as novelist Dayanand Raajan claimed the plot was lifted from his unpublished novel.

As well, Delhi lawyer Aditya Dewan sought a court order forcing producer Ronnie Screwvala to add a disclaimer to the film acknowledging that euthanasia is against the law in India.

Guzaarish has not done well at the box office. Costing $17 million, it grossed only $4.5 million in its initial weeks in Indian theaters, perhaps because it opened opposite Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Despite extensive dialogue in English, it has not done well in foreign markets either.

Pascoal Carvalho, a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life in Rome and a member of the Mumbai Diocesan Human Life Committee, said he could only hope the movie “would lead to an increasing consciousness of civil rights of our challenged persons.”

India’s poor die without medical care at all, he said. The movie “could have a positive impact, if attitudinal changes resulted, coupled with provision of medical care, increased accessibility of welfare benefits and affordable hospice facilities.”

But the movie’s protagonists live far from the mean streets of India’s slums, where the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa provide a very different sort of dying with dignity than that promoted by Guzaarish.

The film, by respected director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is set in an unreal world of beautiful scenery and people, including the hero, a disabled stage magician, and the nurse who falls in love with him and resists his pleas for help in committing suicide.

Bhansali said, “We are not propagating it; we are not taking sides,” but added that “euthanasia is a very important subject” that is worth taking a sensitive look at.

But Carvalho wondered: “Is our society mature enough to understand the implications of laws propagating euthanasia? They will surely lead to a culture of death whilst today our Indian society has a strong culture of life.”

Carvalho cited a report in India’ Law Herald in 2009 that concluded the country’s institutions were too corrupt to handle issues such as assisted suicide justly. “The judiciary is justified in its lack of confidence in cherished institutions like the family. There is always the danger greedy relatives might mislead a widow to grab her property. ... There will always be the danger that euthanasia will not be the affirmation of individual choice that it is supposed to represent.”

Indeed, in a 1994 survey of 200 Indian doctors by the Right to Die With Dignity Society, while 78% believed patients should be free to choose removal of all life-support systems, 70% expressed concern about abuses.

Staged Exit

While active euthanasia remains against the law in India, court rulings have permitted terminally ill patients to order removal of life support. A Supreme Court case is currently pending about living wills, which enable the patient to leave written instructions ordering such a removal in the event he becomes incapacitated.

The issue has also been brought to the fore by several individuals petitioning for assisted suicide, including Seema Sood, a once outstanding engineering student crippled for 15 years. But after receiving an operation in 2009 that promised to restore mobility, she expressed regret at ever having requested death.

The topic has attracted U.S. moviemakers again and again. The pro-euthanasia website lists 39 movies from 1939’s Dark Victory to 2010’s HBO TV movie You Don’t Know Jack, in which Al Pacino portrayed “suicide” advocate Dr. Jack (“Dr. Death”) Kevorkian. Other recent examples include Million Dollar Baby, about a woman boxer incapacitated at the peak of her career, and the 2004 Spanish drama The Sea Inside, based on the true story of a sailor who fought the Spanish courts and parliament for the “right to die.”

The list’s creator, Derek Humphrey, a longtime advocate of the legalization of assisted suicide and president of the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization, based in Junction City, Ore., said mercy killing and euthanasia make good movie drama because of the “real-life conflict between those who want to help the person die and those who oppose them.” He described the films as neutral but admits none is hostile to those seeking to help the person die, nor is he aware of any movie depictions that are remotely skeptical about the motives of those who might help death along. “They mostly are matter-of-fact in their treatment,” said Humphrey. “They say: This is life; this is death; this is the real world.”

Carvalho, of the Pontifical Academy for Life, countered, “Life is a continuum. Any assault against life leads to a cheapening of life. Abortion attacks life at the beginning. Euthanasia attacks life at the end. At birth, we accept life as God’s gift, and we hand it back to him when death comes.”

Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro-Carambula, the interim president of Human Life International, said movies can have a powerful effect on culture, especially in shaping moral values, but Hollywood’s impact lately has been, “for the most part, devastating.”

“We have seen the family and authority, especially fathers, demeaned,” he said. “We’ve seen women objectified, and we’ve seen human life devalued.”

Msgr. Barreiro said those who see movies depicting mercy killing need to know the Church’s teaching.

“Euthanasia, mercy killing and assisted suicide are always immoral and cannot receive sanction from Catholics,” he said. “To hold up mercy killing as good is an offense to the dignity of the human person. True compassion desires to ease the suffering of the one in pain and to console them.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.

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