How Films Influence Our Notions of Death and the After-world

I think it was in 1993 or 1994 that I had a birthday party screening the one and only 1988 cult classic “Beetlejuice.” (A 7 year old’s birthday party with Beetlejuice, and that too in Turkey, weird family I know…). As an adult, I still love this film, and not only because of its unique premise, but also how the usually ghastly topic of death is portrayed in such a humorous way. Until then in cinema, we had not considered that the dead could be a sweet couple from the suburbs, or that the after-world could be a waiting room not too different than a dentist’s. There are very few films that have actually tackled death in this satirical way, and maybe this is also why the film obtained such cult status over the years.

Bhoot World Mein Teen Cheezo ki Kami HaiThe 2008 Hindi film Boothnath starring Amitabh Bachchan followed a similar path, albeit with less humor. It was successful in normalizing death and the dead however, just as Beetlejuice had done. In Boothnaath, the dead was a grouchy but good-hearted old man (based on Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost in fact), and the after-world was basically an Indian government office.

There have been a few other Indian films that have helped disseminate some of the stigma attached to death, for example the 2013 Telugu horror comedy Prema Katha Chitram and the 2012 Bengali film Hemlock Society. Rather than using satire to display a fantasized and ironically ‘normal’ death, these films mocked suicide by suggesting suicide, thereby bringing attention to high suicide rates among youth in India.

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It’s rather sad that this humorous and satirical take on death and what await us afterward, cannot become more mainstream in cinema. There is a plethora of films and TV shows releasing daily that remind us of the horror that we normally associate with death– serial killers, revengeful murders, painful accidents, and after it’s over, zombies, vampires, ghosts and demons to haunt us and give us sleepless nights. If you notice, death is the main thread in all horror products. I don’t think we even realize the extent to which the big screen influences how we think of death. If only more cinema could take death as lightly as it often does life, and remove some of the stigmas and subconscious fears usually associated with it.

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Hemlock Society Review

I finally found the opportunity to see this very intriguing Bengali film. I learned about the film a year ago and the concept immediately caught my attention because it’s so different.

Hemlock Society is a Bengali dark comedy starring Koel Mallick and Parambrata Chatterjee. The film is about Meghna who wants to commit suicide. Ananda sees Meghna purchasing sleeping pills late at night at a pharmacy and understands her intention. He follows her and convinces her that she cannot die by taking the sleeping pills because they are manufactured in a way to avoid death. He offers Meghna a three day workshop in which she can learn everything she needs to know about committing suicide successfully. He asks her to delay death for now and inform him of her decision the next day. Meghna thinks he’s joking but agrees to sleep on the matter. The next morning, Ananda comes again. Meghna realizes that he was not joking at all and decides to go to the three day suicide workshop with him. The rest of the film is about what happens at the workshop and what Meghna decides at the end of it.

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The idea for this film was inspired by a real organization in California, US, called the Hemlock Society. Taken directly from wikipedia, this organization “provided information to dying persons and supported legislation permitting physician assisted suicide.” Although the original organization no longer exists, there are still chapters of the organization that continue these missions to varying degrees.

Isn’t this just the most unique and strangely curious topic you have heard for a film recently? It certainly is for me and that’s why I was so excited to see it. I don’t want to dwell too much into the story because it will spoil it for you. I was pleased with the film to a large extent although I think I increased my expectations a little too much. I was a bit disappointed with the ending, I really wanted to see the romantic angle between Ananda and Meghna. But I also understand why the writer chose to end it the way he did. I also felt that parts of the film could have been more grabbing and exciting.

I was very impressed with the lead actors Parambrata and Koel who performed very well. I was also impressed with the scenes of the suicide workshop in which the students attend various classes for suicide techniques. And in case you are wondering, despite being about suicide, the film thankfully does not encourage suicide. Just the contrary, it shows precisely why suicide should not be an option by bringing the individual face to face with the reality of death. The film also offers some valuable information on the common misconceptions about suicide.

I recommend Hemlock Society. It is an interesting film and truly a dark comedy. Those who don’t mind thinking about death, suicide and depression — which can be at times represented in a very real and even disturbing way in this film– will appreciate the concept and the method of story telling utilized in Hemlock Society.

If you saw Hemlock Society and liked it, you may also like the Telugu film Prema Katha Chitram (review here) which is a horror comedy with a suicide topic. Hemlock Society released in 2012 and Prema Katha Chitram in 2013.

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