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.

hemlock-society-2012-342

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.

Suicide in Indian Films

Has anyone noticed that suicide is a very common theme in Indian cinema? Especially in the past years, there seem to be a large number of films where one or more of the characters commit suicide or attempt to. Considering the frequency in which this concept is used, I’m not sure if Indian films discourage suicide or actually encourage it.

So why do characters commit suicide in Indian films?

3 Idiots

Due to Parental Pressure or Failure in School

The first film that comes to mind in this category is 3 Idiots. In the film, a student hangs himself for not completing a project on time and one of the main characters jumps out of the window of the building due to being rusticated from school. Another film, Chal Chalein shows a middle schooler jumping off of the roof of the school because his father doesn’t allow him to choose the section he wants.

Prema Katha Chitram

For Love

In Raanjhanaa, several characters slit their wrists to either prove their love or because they couldn’t attain their love. The Telugu film Prema Katha Chitram appears to criticize youngsters’ reasons for committing suicide but the heroine ends up slitting her wrist at the end of the film because she couldn’t attain her love. In the Malayalam film Geethanjali, the actress tries to kill herself and the boy she loves because he no longer wants her.

3

Due to Mental Illness

In Karthik Calling Kartik, Karthik, who suffers from schizophrenia, plans to take pills and commit suicide because of depression and disappointment with his life. In 404: Error Not Found, a previous student has hanged himself due to ragging and the main actor hangs himself because of mental illness and disappointment. In the Tamil film 3, instead of seeking help for his schizophrenia, the main actor slits his throat to end his suffering and protect his wife.

Anjaana Anjaani

Due to Failure and Disappointment

Based on the real life story of Silk Smitha, the main character of The Dirty Picture commits suicide at the end of the film. The characters of Anjaana Anjaani attempt to commit suicide numerous times for various reasons. In the Bengali film Hemlock Society, the main character decides to commit suicide to “escape from pain and suffering” and goes to Hemlock Society to learn how to commit suicide properly.


I’m sure that there are many more examples I have not thought of at the moment. The messages given in these films about suicide can be argued but the reality is that several students acually committed suicide after seeing 3 Idiots. It is still not certain whether 3 Idiots played a role in their decision.

Some of these films aim to emphasize high suicide rates in India or try to show that suicide is not the solution. But does it really work? Do these films actually end up instilling suicide as an option in the minds of viewers facing the same problems in real life? What do you think?