Matter of life and death: Chetan Shah revisits the issue of passive euthanasia

Through the story of nurse Aruna Shanbaug, filmmaker Chetan Shah revisits the issue of passive euthanasia

Written by Debesh Banerjee | Delhi | Updated: October 3, 2014 1:56 pm
Chetan Shah uses elements from theatre to present his case Chetan Shah uses elements from theatre to present his case

For over four decades, the room outside ward no 4 of King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai was home, and hell for Aruna Shanbaug. A brutal sexual attack by a ward boy from the same hospital on November 27, 1973, left Shanbaug in a Permanent Vegetative State (PVS). After public outcry over nurse Shanbaug’s condition, the Supreme Court (SC) verdict of 2011 on passive euthanasia brought into focus the ethics surrounding its practice.

Three years later, not many are aware about this judgement. “When we met doctors during our research, we realised that there was a fear about performing passive euthanasia, they were afraid they were breaking some law. Even relatives were not confident to allow this practice,” says Chennai-based filmmaker Chetan Shah, whose documentary looks at rekindling the talk around passive euthanasia.

His 52-minute documentary, Passive Euthanasia: Kahaani Karuna Ki is a unique behind-the-scenes look at what led to the SC judgement and the irony behind Shanbaug’s case. More importantly, the film is a look at the single-handed struggle of author-activist Pinki Virani, who petitioned the SC in 2009 for passive euthanasia for Shanbaug. The film was screened last month at the India International Centre as part of PSBT’s Open Frame, and Shah is still looking at other forums to expand the discussion around this issue. The film, shot in Mumbai comprises interviews with those closely involved with Shanbaug’s case, like advocates, including interviews with Virani, whom Shah’s has known for 30 years.

The narrative flows in three parts: the first part lays the background for Shanbaug’s case, the hopelessness of her condition and Virani filing a petition. In the second, Shah employs a stylistic element, using theatre in a segment called Konkan Katha, where performers enact Shanbaug’s story from the time she moved from a coastal village in Karnataka to Mumbai to becoming a nurse. “We did not want to make a downbeat film. Theatre distances people from the emotional side of the story,” says Shah, 55, whose last film The Open Frame was based on the life of artist SG Vasudev.

The final segment looks at ways to prevent misuse and concepts like living will. Though the movie focuses on the larger issue of passive euthanasia, it doesn’t move beyond being Shanbaug’s story. Shah’s next is a semi-biography film on historian Romila Thapar called In Her Own Words.

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