Review of film The name of the disease

Published: Sunday 15 October 2006

The Name of the Disease directed by Abhijit Banerjee, Arundhati Banerjee and Bappa Sen

A young man in rural north India dies of a disease, the name of which he does not know. But this film does not trivialise this ignorance, even as it does not presume to offer easy answers. Rather, the value of this documentary lies in raising questions that command reflection and refuse apathy. Healthcare in the area is a matter of life and death.

Rural north India suffers as much from a deficiency of healthcare infrastructure as from conflicting traditions and provisions that govern the ethos of public service. Government sub-centres vie with Bengali doctors, mostly unqualified, while superstitious bhopas have the closest ties to the villagers.The documentary indicates that for a health system to work, two ingredients are essential medical knowledge and experience; and a relationship of trust between patient and healer. But could it be that, within a certain space, there is only enough of each of these ingredients to make a system successful?

According to the film, 41 per cent of rural doctors are without degrees. One person, when interviewed, admits he failed his 12th grade and thus unable to get a job, became a doctor. Such a step is possible due to the obscure differentiation between a doctor and his assistant (compounder), between the real McCoy and the charlatan. While the state has the know-how for the use of the available medicines, the Bengali doctors have the medicines and the clients. Thus 68 per cent of visits to a clinic result in injections, and a patient returns happily after a drip, for he has been given "some little thing" hope, attention, or, in the words of the director Ahbijit Banerjee, a fiction upon which to build a faith.

There are dangers involved in fictions which bacteria were sitting on the unsterilised syringe? What might the side-effects be of the concoction of steroids and anti-malarials the unwitting patient swallowed? Here again, this intelligently silent documentary makes no clear comment. Can the fiction, the buffer against despair, be condemned, when the other option, the government sub-center, would have asked an unpayable price, and in any case, was most probably closed?

The villagers interviewed during the documentary stand shyly at an angle from the camera, unconcerned by the questions. Ninety per cent of them will go to the bhopa, and spend more money on the sacrifice of a goat than on medical care. Are they not angry that the state shows such little concern for their well-being? No, for they too collude in this nonchalance.

This documentary calls for training and education and the transfer of skills and experience. It does not condemn the struggling systems in place.

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