When the Hindi film Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani was made in 1946, India-China friendship was central to it. Human beings keep trying to narrativise natural catastrophes, constantly make meaning, and the meaning is usually associated with the dominant ideology
The Coronavirus crisis underway may be too frightening for us to invoke cinema to talk about it, but cinema mythologises illness and reveals, when interrogated, dominant attitudes towards sickness and infection. In her essay ‘Illness as Metaphor’, Susan Sontag deals specifically with tuberculosis (in the past) and cancer (in the present), what they mean to people in the light of the narratives constructed around them. She notes that no one conceals a severe cardiac problem from a patient but cancer is hidden from sight. “Cardiac disease implies a weakness, trouble, failure that is mechanical; there is no disgrace, nothing of the taboo that once surrounded people afflicted with TB and still surrounds those who have cancer.”
Rather than examine the new epidemic it may be preferable to look at a few films first. To consider just a handful, let us first take V. Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946) about an Indian doctor who went to China to help the Communists against the Japanese army, to help the wounded when there was a scarcity of doctors and the film is more about professional dedication rather than illness. The Wikipedia entry for Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis notes that he married a Chinese girl, developed epilepsy because of the strain he underwent and later succumbed to it. In the film, Dr. Kotnis fights plague and, when he is unable to find a cure, he injects himself with the contents of a patient’s pustules in an effort to find antibodies, and eventually dies of plague after doing yeoman service to the Chinese. Regardless of the bald facts of the actual case, it would be deeply poetic for someone martyred to the cause he or she is serving. The cause in 1946 was Indo-Chinese friendship which went sour in 1962.
When Dr. Kotnis went to China travel was slow and infection could only travel at the speed of a steamer, by which time the virus would be out-of-date; but in the global age, air travel by so many passengers means that people on opposite sides of the planet can catch an infection from each other, in a matter of hours. Then there are also the stories around bio-weaponry that no one really understands and the issue of diseases crossing over the species barrier, animals infecting human beings. COVID 19, it is generally rumored, originated in bats, treated as a delicacy by the Chinese people and that is how the Coronavirus began its spread. Films about infection and sickness also give the lie to Western rhetoric that every life is equally valuable and that was confirmed when Trump offered money to a German pharma company for exclusive use of a vaccine, when the whole world was under threat of infection.
In the film Outbreak (1995), an African disease resembling Ebola is carried by a monkey to the US where it begins to infect a huge number of people in a small town in California. In accordance with the above mythologies around unknown diseases, the virus – appropriately from darkest Africa – is sought to be preserved by the military, to be used selectively as a biological weapon. The military doctor played by Dustin Hoffman does his best to find the antibody, but he is consistently thwarted by his villainous superior (Donald Sutherland) and the protagonist’s wife herself contacts the disease. After overcoming the villain’s plan of bombing the town to destroy the virus and incinerate its inhabitants, the town is saved from the disease in the nick of time when the original monkey is caught and the antibody found. What I found interesting in the film’s conclusion was that even as everyone is celebrating the happy outcome, no one seems to care that the disease is still raging in Africa.
Contagion (2011) is a more recent film in which the virus is caused by an amalgam of genetic material from bats and pigs and could be a bioweapon to be used by terrorists on Thanksgiving weekend. In this film, a married woman has sex with her former lover, and she and her son fall sick and die, leaving her husband (Matt Damon) only to deal with his own teenage daughter. Having to deal with a stepson would be inconvenient for the story and he is sacrificed. Hollywood treats marital vows as sacrosanct and one can see in the adulteress’ death by the virus a dire warning to all those who choose to stray. At the end of this film, the infection is shown to spread in an Asian rainforest, far away from Western civilization. There is asymmetry in the film’s concerns and Asia is ‘elsewhere’.
We see that when films try to make narratives around infection and disease, they tend to promote ideologies and political viewpoints. Regardless of the fact that most new infections have unknown causes and their progress cannot be charted ‘meaningfully’, the tendency is to try and find comfort in such ‘meaning’, like upholding a moral viewpoint of holding the citizens of one country more deserving of being saved.
It is difficult to construct such immediate meaning out of the Coronavirus, which is infecting those accustomed to air travel first. The slums, which suffer the most and usually earliest are relatively safe for now. It is an infection which is beginning at the top although it could work its way downward as time goes on. A factor that is difficult to make sense of is that it began in China but, while it rages in Italy and frightening western Europe, China seems to be back on its feet. The question that naturally occurs to oneself is, if China was able deal with the disease and its spread, why are the more advanced countries panicking and succumbing? Another factor difficult to explain is the disproportion between number of cases and number of deaths depending on the country we are talking about, although that could change. In China about 4 per cent of those infected died while in Italy it is nearly 10 per cent. Of course, some countries were affected much later and casualties could mount, but the disproportion is still striking. Coronavirus is highly contagious but it is not as lethal as some earlier diseases; given this factor are not the containment measures likely to be brutal on poor people less affected by the infection?
The last paragraph was to demonstrate how difficult it is to make meaning out of a catastrophe like the Coronavirus pandemic if all its facts were taken into consideration. But human beings keep trying to narrativize natural catastrophes, constantly make meaning, and the meaning is usually associated with the dominant ideology. It is too early to speculate on the narratives that will be constructed around the Coronavirus pandemic but the fact that it originated in China but affected the developed countries most severely will certainly be taken into account. Perhaps there will be a conspiracy film from Hollywood suggesting that China deliberately did it to counter the economic war Trump is trying to wage against it because, if it is doing anything most definitely, it is turning the world economy upside down.
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