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Why do Indians shy away from organ donation? Film 7 Lives says it all

7 Lives is based on the reality of what organs donated by a comatose person or a dead person can lead to.

Shoma A Chatterji | Kolkata |

The number of films in India dealing with the fragile subject of body donation or organ donation can perhaps be counted on the fingers of one hand. Why do Indian filmmakers shy away from films tackling this much-needed subject in feature films to spread the message across? The reason is that Indian society itself treats this significant subject with a conspiracy of silence. It is not just the parents of a terminally comatose child who refuse to donate the organs of the dying child. There are many reasons why body and organ donation does not happen in India.

Nearly half a million people die annually in India due to unavailability of organs. Through organ donation, one person can save up to 7 lives. Also a person can donate 50 tissues. Out of 301 hospitals equipped to handle the process, only 250 have registered with National Organ and Tissue Transplant Organisation (NOTTO). Which means to conduct an organ transplant, there exists one fully equipped hospital for around 43 lakh people. Currently, in India, there are only 5 Regional Organ and Tissue Transplant Organisation (ROTTO) and 6 State Organ and Tissue Transplant Organisation (SOTTO) are being planned.

Bollywood films have used organ donation from time to time but they were more a melodramatic compromise with the script to draw full theatres rather than for the organ donation and its significance for the larger case of saving lives that need these organs.

Anuraag (1972) directed by Shakti Samanta tackled eye donation but in doing so, it ignored the anonymity that any organ donation demands. In this film, Nutan’s dying son’s corneas are donated to the character played by Moushumi Chatterjee who is blind. Nutan sees her dead son in her eyes. Initially, Shakti Samanta was thinking whether to make this film or not as he was not sure if the distributors would buy a film with such a story line. But the film was a reasonable hit and led to its remake in all the four South Indian languages.

Saaheb (1985), the Hindi remake of its Bengali original of the same name which was a big box office hit, explored kidney donation very well though it was a mainstream film. Anil Kapoor, the good-for-nothing youngest son in an extended family is an excellent footballer. But when the family faces a tremendous financial crunch and his older brothers refuse to help the old father, he quietly donates one kidney to a man’s dying child in exchange of a job in the man’s concern. No one knows about his humane act then but when they learn of it later, they are taken aback because he will never be able to play football again.

Anand Gandhi’s offbeat but very philosophical Ship of Theseus (2013) follows the journeys of different characters distinct in their own ways. One is a visually impaired Egyptian photographer who undergoes a cornea transplant, a monk suffering from liver cirrhosis and a stockbroker looking for a kidney are also narrated with a magic touch in the film that is focussed entirely on these transplants. Traffic (2016), based on a real life incident that happened in Chennai follows the challenges faced by a traffic constable in setting up and transporting a heart over 150 km in heavy rain and poor visibility. The heart is donated by a young, critically comatose young man in Mumbai for the daughter of a superstar in Pune who needs a heart urgently. How they manage the long journey within the specific timeline turns this film into an exciting thriller.

Filmmaker Runjiv Kapur has just made a short film called 7 Lives on organ donation which covers different layers that block organ donation in India. It is fictional, short and to-the-point but is based on a true story. The head of marketing of a leading hospital in New Delhi (name withheld) narrated the incident to the director in 2015. He says he was shocked to hear that here was a story that demanded to be presented to an audience because it was tragic to discover that even when the parents were persuaded to agree to donate the organs of their clinically comatose daughter, there were other areas that stepped in to stop the donation and the donation could not be done at all. One body donated meant saving the lives of seven people who are waiting for an organ but there are many elements in our social order who refuse to bend to their old-fashioned beliefs based on out-dated traditions and practices and superstitions.

The film is named 7 Lives based on the reality of what organs donated by a comatose person or a dead person can lead to. It is a short film with a tightly knit script that does not permit any kind of melodrama or sentimentalism to enter into the film. The film opens with a young girl getting into an autorickshaw getting suddenly shot at by a young man who will not take “no” to his proposal for marriage! The shocked rickshaw driver picks up her cell and calls up her parents. But the girl is brain dead and the surgeon along with an activist of an organ donating NGO persuades them to donate their daughter’s organs.

Arrangements are made to shift the body for donation but the interference comes from the Panchayat head and some members who sternly step in to stop the donation on grounds of religion and faith!

The film closes on this note of uncertainty that stops organ and cadaver donations in our country even when the family consents.

Nearly 2.2 lakh people await kidney transplant, of which around 15,000 end up receiving a kidney. At a given point of time, about 1 lakh people die of liver diseases in India and only 1,000 get liver transplant. A cadaver or deceased donor can save up to 9 lives, but despite this organ donation is a neglected issue.

“I was very disturbed by the incident when I heard it,” says Kapur. “My immediate reaction was that 7 lives could easily have been saved but due to a regressive mindset the opportunity was lost. As a film maker, I felt I have to tell this story. It may not change mindsets but the least it will do is it will create a conversation around the issue and discussion and debate may make a difference somewhere along the way. The least takeaway from the film would be an understanding of the process of organ donation and how legit it is as against what myths say it is. It is completely above board and ethical,” he sums up.