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.

2012 Bengali film "Hemlock Society"

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.

Also read, Suicide in Indian Films.


Piku: Watch It Again


When I first saw Piku, I enjoyed it but recently I’ve had a new-found love for it. The more I watch the film, the more things I realize in it that bring forth the exquisite story telling capability of the filmmaker. What’s valuable in this film, is what happens between the lines, the small nuances, the deep messages found in grouchy daily remarks of a Bengali father and daughter household.

I’m sure you’ve seen Piku already, it’s grabbed most of the awards and even won Deepika the best actress award. But I’m urging you to see the film again, calmly, slowly, paying attention to the words and expressions. You will discover far more than you saw at the first instance.

Take the moment when Piku makes a sour face and a sound of disgust at the dinner table while her father is describing how Elvis Presley died of constipation. Watch that moment again and see that she didn’t make the sour face to her father’s comment but rather because of the sour yogurt she had tasted in that moment. I love how the characters in this film are not sorry for who they are and how they live. So they discuss bowel movements every day, at home, at the office, even at dinner. Although Piku is always complaining about her father’s non-stop tantrums about bowel movements, or more precisely, lack thereof, one also sees the immensely strong bond between them. Piku and Bhaskor da– Deepika and Amitabh Bachchan have truly identified with one another as father and daughter in these characters.

I love how family is portrayed in this film. The meaning of family is not that everyone will always get along and everything will always be perfect. The meaning of family is that the fights and disagreements will happen, but family members will not give up on each other and will continue to support one another. Piku gets tired of her father’s tantrums but she is not willing to live a life separate from her father. And Piku’s aunt and father, despite being clearly cross with one another, they are always together and always discussing different issues. She even follows them to Calcutta, much to Bhoskar da’s disappointment! And we also get to see Bengali culture in the film, a Bengali word here or there, foods and some sights of Calcutta.

One other message in this film is how family members hurt one another unintentionally. Like how Piku was hurt when her father talked about virginity with a potential prospect at aunt’s wedding anniversary. Or when Piku makes fun of her father’s bum cleaning practices in front of other family members in Calcutta. They were both hurt by one another’s words in these circumstances, but neither said anything.

Perhaps more than anything else, this film is about roots– about holding on to our roots and cherishing them, as Piku learned to do at the end of the film, symbolized by her sudden change of mind about selling their ancestral home. We all need our roots, and our families. They are our identity and what keeps us firmly rooted and stable through life.

And what about the amazingly frank and direct statements of Bhaskor da throughout the movie, who is by the way, quite the feminist in support of women’s financial and sexual independence . “We are critical people” he says and goes on to say things like:

Piku: I’m not saying I want to take a long holiday but maybe just for a day or two I can go somewhere..
Mosi: Piku’s right. Every normal person needs a break, relaxation is needed in life.
Bhoskar da: Nonesense.. in their own homes, on their own bed, with their own family, they won’t be relaxed… spending on a train, on a plane, will go to a hotel and sleep on other people’s used bed, that is relaxation. These travel companies are at fault, it’s all in the mind.

Piku: Aap log ice cream khayenge?
Bhaskor da: Obviously.. laye kis liye tha? Khane ke liye na?

Marriage without purpose is low IQ. Man wants the wife to serve food in the day and sex in the night. Is that all a woman was made for? No!

See Piku again and re-discover all these little valuable things that were hidden in the film and may have gone unnoticed during a first viewing.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshi: The Indian Sherlock Holmes

Sushant Singh Rajput and Dibakar Banerjee for Detective Byomkesh Bakshi (to be released 13 February, 2015)

Detective Byomkesh Bakshi, a Dibakar Banarjee film produced by Aditya Chopra and starring Sushant Singh Rajput, is set to release on February 13, 2015. The film is based on the works of  Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay who wrote 30 some stories featuring the fictional detective Byomkesh Bakhshi. Byomkesh Bakshi is sometimes called the Indian Sherlock Holmes and not surprisingly as Bandyopadhyay was greatly influenced by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular fictional characters and it is fascinating because it has maintained its popularity for over 100 years. I am reading “the Canon,” the major works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the famous detective, and they are wonderful.

Although the popularity of Sherlock Holmes never flattened at any point, there seems to be a re-emergence of its popularity. It has been remade countless of times in a variety of works in many countries. But I attribute this recent popularity to the Sherlock Holmes films and more specifically to BBC’s Sherlock, which I wrote about recently. The BBC series and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance has been one of the most fascinating and influential things I have come across lately. The last I found myself so excited about something was a few years back when I saw Manichitrathazhu. There is even an American version of the Sherlock series called Elementary.

Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009)

BBC’s series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (2010-present)

CBS’ Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (2012-present)


Rajeev Khandelwal, dressed to look like BBC’s Sherlock, in Samrat & Co (2014).

This worldwide re-emergence of love for our favorite detective has also found enthusiasts in Indian cinema. This year we had the release of Vidya Balan’s Bobby Jasoos, which wasn’t actually a crime thriller at all and Samrat & Co starring Rajeev Khandelwal, a sad attempt to copy BBC’s Sherlock. There is another such film directed by Anurag Basu and expected to release in August 2015, Jagga Jasoos, starring Katrina Kaif and Ranbir Kapoor. I expect little from that film. But next up is perhaps the crime thriller with the most potential and also carrying the most risk, Dibakar Banarjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshi. The film will be a period film, taking place in the 1940s, similar to the films starring Robert Downey Jr. It is not a modern version like BBC’s Sherlock.

I have not read the original Byomkesh Bakshi stories. When I first heard of this film, my first response was “Oh no.” I felt it was a bad move. It’s such a risk to take on such a well known fictional character, especially when there are such amazing international productions out there on him already.

Rajit Kapoor in and as Byomkesh Bakshi, a TV series that ran in 1993 and 1997.

But this is not the first time that the Indian audience will see Byomkesh Bakshi on screen. There was a critically acclaimed television series called Byomkesh Bakshi that ran in 1993 and 1997 starring Rajit Kapur. Apparently, the series were quite good– intelligent, thrilling and humorous. There were also numerous films based on the character in the 60s and 70s. And more recently, an Anjan Dutt film in 2010. Surprisingly though, Bollywood has not produced much on the fictional detective. Most of the adaptations have come from Bengali regional cinema.

It would silly to think of this project as a copy of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. For Doyle himself was heavily influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s fictional character, Detective Dupin. When it comes to literature, and films, almost everything has been done before, somewhere, somehow. We are never getting something completely original. And that’s fine as long as it is done intelligently, with class and value. My only concern is Sushant and whether he will be able to pull off this role. I believe he’s a good actor, perhaps a bit too young for this role, but then again, that’s what I thought about Benedict in Sherlock and I was completely wrong about that.

I think that Banarjee’s film might turn out very good if he follows the same path as the much successful TV series. I plan on watching Detective Byomkesh Bakshi with an open mind. I try to do that with every film regardless. I think you will too. Hopefully, it won’t disappoint.

Sherlock Holmes fans in Japan. Literature, music and films have no boundaries.

Vicky Donor

This is another film that I heard very good things about. The topic is definitely very unconventional. It’s about sperm donation! Guess who produced the film? It’s John Abraham! It’s his first production venture and it looks like he did well for himself.

The film is about a doctor who runs a fertility clinic and who is in need of a sperm donor who has healthy sperm and a high sperm count. He finds Vicky, who he thinks will be perfect for the job. He finally convinces Vicky to do it and Vicky soon starts earning a lot of cash from his new job. Then, Vicky falls in love with a Bengali banker and marries her. Vicky doesn’t tell his wife about his job and has the intention of quitting sperm donation forever. But his wife finds out, is angry at him and leaves the house. What happens after that, you can find out when you watch the film.

Vicky is a debutante, Ayushmann Khurrana. He did a good job but I can’t get over his looks. I know this is rude, but I’m just going to say it. He’s ugly!  And the actress who was playing opposite him is Yami Gautam who is gorgeous. She kind of reminds me of Tamanna Bhatia. Where has she been hiding? I just cannot imagine these two people as a couple, so that was kind of what bothered me about the film.

But I have nothing to say about Ayushmann’s acting. He played his character convincingly and his first film has done well. So I’m sure we will be seeing him in more good films.

I think Yami was just perfect in this film. She plays the role of Ashima. She has the looks and she can act. This is a combination that’s not found easily these days. This is was also her Bollywood debut. Apparently, she has acted in some Hindi soap operas and did a film in the South before debuting with Vicky Donor. But I’m already a fan, I hope that she is here to stay.

As much as the topic of the film is a serious one, the film is quite funny. I actually think that being a sperm donor must be the dream job of every man. But it’s not something that someone can openly declare as an occupation. This is the main theme of the movie.

I think the funniest part of the movie is the doctor. I think he’s crazy. This man is obsessed with sperm. He has all sorts of sperm images and objects in his office. He even has a sperm shaped décor hanging from his rear view mirror in the car! I actually think that all the sperm décor was over-the-top. I’ve never been to a fertility clinic or met a fertility specialist. But I highly doubt that fertility doctors like to decorate their offices and cars with sperm shaped objects. It was silly, but I’m sure that many people found it funny.

The other part I found very funny was the struggle of getting the parents to agree for the marriage. Vicky is Punjabi and Ashima is Bengali. Both sides were arguing against the alliance and stereotypes for both Punjabis and Bengalis were mentioned. I found it hilarious.

This film was funny but, it was also weird at times. One thing I found very distasteful was the talk of “Aryan blood.” At one point, to convince Vicky to do this job, the doctor tells him that he has pure Aryan blood and that he’s a descendant of Europeans. And apparently, this is why he has so much sperm. I think this part was simply disgusting. When will Indians stop glorifying other races and start appreciating themselves? At least don’t do it in movies, because it’s not true. No race is superior to another race. I found it very distasteful that this was even spoken in the movie. Just terrible.

Overall, Vicky Donor is good for Hindi cinema. The fact that the film did well shows that filmmakers can explore different and unconventional topics without negative backlash from the audience. Not only was an unconventional topic discussed, but it was also discussed in a humorous way and people didn’t take any offence to it. I think the film is worth a watch.