On November 3, 1906, psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer faced an audience of 88 individuals at the Tübingen meeting of the Southwest German Psychiatrists. Over the last several years, studying a patient at a Frankfurt asylum, Alzheimer had discovered an “unusual disease of the cerebral cortex”. As he began discussing his findings, the attendees had little patience for what he had to say—his lecture invited no comments or questions—because the next scheduled speaker already had their attention by the mere topic alone: “compulsive masturbation”. The disease would find its identity four years later, when Alzheimer’s mentor, Emil Kraeplin, mentioned it in the Handbook of Psychiatry. In the subsequent decades, as the disease spread, so did its awareness.
In 1994, Alzheimer’s Disease International, a non-profit federation of Alzheimer and dementia associations, celebrated its tenth anniversary and declared September 21 as World Alzheimer’s Day. Marked by loss of memory, reasoning, and judgment—in essence, a person’s identity—Alzheimer’s disease (or its broader category, dementia) has inspired numerous poignant films across the world. From The Notebook (2004) to Still Alice (2014) to The Father (2020, featuring an incredible performance by Anthony Hopkins, which won him the Academy Award for Best Actor), these films illuminated the physical and psychological devastation of a disease that hollows out a person’s inner core. Over the last two decades, Bollywood, too, has tackled it in the following films:
Black (2005): Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, this drama is pivoted on the relationship between a teacher, Debraj (Amitabh Bachchan), and a deaf, mute, and blind woman Michelle (Rani Mukerji). She starts to flourish under his tutelage—from learning the fundamentals of the language to attending college—but, over a decade later, their relationship flips, as now Debraj, struggling to speak and suffering from Alzheimer’s, resembles her student at the start of the movie: someone only at the cusp of what this life has to offer. The movie received widespread critical acclaim and box-office success, paving the path for other Bollywood portrayals.
Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara (2005): Jahnu Barua’s movie focuses on the travails of a retired Hindi professor, as he hurtles towards a rapid cognitive decline. Helped by a piercing performance by Anupam Kher, the movie is an excellent portrayal of dementia—how it dismantles the spirit and psyche of a person and the rippling effect it produces on his family—which won Kher a Special Jury recognition at the National Film Awards.
U, Me, Aur Hum (2008): The Ajay Devgn directorial, starring him and Kajol, explores the varying shades of Alzheimer’s in the mold of a love story. Bearing some similarities to The Notebook, this romantic drama featured an impressive performance by Kajol who, suffering from Alzheimer’s for over two decades, loves and lives one day at a time.
Mai (2013): At the age of 79, Asha Bhosle made her acting debut, as an Alzheimer’s patient, in this family drama. Director Mahesh Kodiyal uses the disease as a narrative frame to spotlight children abandoning their parents. Even though it was criticised for its clichéd plot—callous children and hapless parents have dominated many Hindi films for long—Bhosle was praised for her layered performance, telling us that the veteran singer, popularly known as the “Queen of Indipop”, is quite simply the queen of all things.
Goldfish (2023): Centered on a fraught mother-daughter relationship (played by Deepti Naval and Kalki Koechlin), where the latter is suffering from dementia, Pushan Kriplani’s drama unfolds as a complex contemplation on unresolved grief, unspoken grievances, unrealised dreams. Naval is superb in her turn as someone struggling to comprehend the fast-vanishing lines between the past and present, guilt and grief, mother and daughter.