Mum is the Buzzword: Films that discuss pregnancy on the rise
As films like Sara’s and Netrikann explore the complex topic of pregnancy termination, filmmakers and doctors highlight the responsibilities associated with picking such a topic
What if a woman decides she doesn't want a kid? What if a decision is taken to abort, for reasons ranging from unplanned pregnancy to a refusal to burden the world with more people? These are ideas that have always frightened filmmakers, but of late, we have seen an increase in films that discuss pregnancy. "Why do we even bother commenting on what women want for themselves?" asks Dr Akshay Hareesh, who wrote the Malayalam film, Sara's, which spoke about a woman's right to choose MTP (medical termination of pregnancy).
Sara's is one of many recent Indian films that have chosen pregnancy as its central theme without resorting to the overwhelming saccharine sentiment attached with such films. We are also getting films that talk about fertility treatments and surrogacy. While this isn't exactly new in our films, considering we had the likes of Doosri Dulhan (1983), Dasharatham (1989), Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001), and Filhaal (2002), the ‘normalisation’ of these treatments can best be attributed to the stupendous success of Vicky Donor (2012). "The film was an eyeopener, sure, but there are real-life regulations for sperm donations... The film probably also gave men the wrong idea about sperm donation," says Dr Priya Kannan, a Chennai-based embryologist. However, she doesn't share this fairly warm outlook towards some other films focussing on surrogacy and infertility treatments.
Take, for instance, the 2019 superhit Hindi film, Good Newwz, which centred around the rarest of rare cases of sperms getting switched during IVF (in vitro fertilisation) treatment. Of course, it was treated in a light-hearted manner, but it wasn't taken lightly by embryologists who were up in arms against getting shown in poor light. “My friends were bombarded with questions about the veracity of their IVF treatments, and if they used the right sperms and eggs. They had to reassure patients over and over again that there are guidelines and checks in place to ensure such things don't happen. Highlighting such a rare case in a film turned out to be detrimental for the whole profession," says Dr Priya. This is something that Akshay, agrees with too. "It all boils down to trust, and that trust has been on shaky grounds for many reasons. Smallest doubts get amplified when they consume something in mainstream media. Sometimes, this even leads to violence against doctors."
In fact, Akshay was at the receiving end of hate from pro-life people. "Funnily enough, some even created posts pitting Sara's against the more ‘acceptable’ film, Mimi," says Akshay. Mimi, starring Kriti Sanon, was a film that spoke about surrogacy, and how the deed can backfire at times. Priya argues that strict guidelines, like the recent surrogacy bill, make sure these mistakes can’t happen. "There are elaborate legal agreements done whenever there is third-party reproduction. Surrogacy for a married couple cannot really happen without the consent of the husband either. It is actually mandated. We have a guardian sign the agreement too to ensure the safety of the child is protected irrespective of what happens to the primary parties involved. In fact, many corporate centres have stopped doing surrogacy because of the paperwork. There are a lot of rules and guidelines in place. It is disappointing when some filmmakers don't do their homework. Artistic responsibility is as important as artistic freedom in these cases," adds Priya.
While Milind Rau, the director of the recent Nayanthara-starrer Netrikann does agree that it is wrong to generalise a profession, his film, based on illegal abortion rackets, was apparently a result of research based on news items. "A lot of women are being exploited by the illegal abortion rackets. We were also careful not to generalise in the film. There are doctors who misuse their position of power, and our antagonist, Dr James Dinah (played by Ajmal), was one such man who gets his punishment at the end." Both Netrikann and Sara's spoke about MTP and how women mustn't be judged or shamed for their choices to remain pregnant or opt for abortion. "We felt someone like Nayanthara ma'am saying dialogues in support of a woman's choice was important because she is seen as a role model," says Milind. And it is interesting how Akshay too chose to present his pro-choice film in the mainstream commercial format. "I wanted the idea to go public. Though the theme might seem dark, the treatment is very light, and director Jude Anthany Joseph packaged it as a pleasing, soothing film, with necessary punches."
Priya believes there’s a lot of misconception around MTP, a topic addressed in Netrikann. "It has been there since the 70s, and it is the right of every woman in our country. As it is not spoken about a lot, it is painted as something illegal. Women can walk into any government hospital or a licensed clinic to terminate pregnancies. They don't need middlemen. While there is cinematic liberty taken in the portrayal of this racket, they did have that Nayanthara monologue to redeem it at the end," says Priya, who adds that it is equally important that doctors don't get offended by relentless questioning from patients, who are influenced by what they see on screen.
If it was news items that pushed Milind into choosing such a story for Netrikann, it was Akshay's real-life experiences that made him think of a film like Sara's. Akshay does share that he had to move past his privileged male perspective to write his characters with more empathy and relatability. "Being from the medical field, for me, these topics aren’t taboo. If I was aware of the backlash that Sara's would get, I might not have chosen it to be my first film. But women of my mother's age were able to relate to the 20-something Sara. It made me realise how women suppress their emotions and voice for the smooth running of a family," says Akshay, who adds that the only way to go forward from where we are right now is to develop scientific temper as a community. "But more than anything else, it is essentially about just one thing...The power of choice wrested firmly in the rightful hands.”