Dr Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapur) strikes a hands-up pose and declares: “I surrender!” In the climactic scene of Tapan Sinha’s National Award-winning 1990 film Ek Doctor Ki Maut, its protagonist finds himself in front of a committee of his peers, who are trying to determine whether or not he has actually discovered a vaccine for leprosy as he claims. Dr Roy makes no bones about the fact that he has no regard for the members of this board. “Who among you is a microbiologist?” he asks, calling into question their qualification to judge him when they are not even aware of a multi-drug therapy to treat leprosy.
Towards the end of the scene, he realises that the board has no intention of taking an impartial view of his research. “You want to finish me off!” he tells them. His assessment of the situation is spot on. He has appeared before the board because as a government doctor, he needs their permission to accept the John Anderson Foundation’s invitation to present his research findings. His jurors are driven not only by incredulity of his ability to discover a leprosy vaccine without access to any western-style laboratories, but also by professional jealousy. “I have discovered no vaccine,” says Dr Roy, defeated by the bureaucratic behemoth.
The harassment Dr Roy is subjected to since his discovery is publicised by an enthusiastic newspaper reporter Amulya (Irrfan Khan in one of his earliest roles) is like a Kafkaesque nightmare. He is reprimanded by his boss who refuses to believe that he has made any such discovery. Some colleagues invite him to deliver a public lecture at a college, but the audience turns belligerent. This is only an excuse to humiliate Dr Roy further. Then he is transferred to a village where he is the only doctor. He is overworked, with no access to research facilities or libraries to complete his paper. It is only on the intervention of his friend and influential doctor Arijit Sen (Vijayendra Ghatge) that Dr Roy is transferred back to Calcutta (now Kolkata), but the harassment does not let up.
This film was made nearly 40 years ago. The situation within the scientific community in India does not seem to have changed significantly even now. Journalist Damini Kulkarni writes: “Tapan Sinha’s acclaimed movie is a rare exploration of the complications faced by scientific researchers in India.” The situation is worse for women, argues Kulkarni. “Women have been attempting to make headway in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) research in India, but the field is already fraught with a host of diverse difficulties. Although gender complicates access to resources, the facilities available to Indian scientists and researchers are woefully scarce to begin with.”
If the situation within the scientific community is bad, the environment outside it is not really conducive to fostering a scientific temper. At the 106th Indian Science Congress, which ran from January 3 to 7, G Nageshwar Rao, vice-chancellor (VC) of Andhra University, said Ravana in Ramayana had 24 types of aircraft and a network of landing strips in Sri Lanka and that Kauravas in Mahabharata were born using stem-cell technology. Rao, a professor of inorganic chemistry, also tried to explain evolution through Vishnu’s Dasavatara or 10 incarnations. At the same session, another scientist, K J Krishnan, said the theories of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were incorrect and gravitational waves would soon be called “Modi waves”.
Such ludicrous comments made news last week, but should not really have. Pseudo-science and myth seemed to have gained more currency than science in this country. Journalist Soutik Biswas writes: “Many believe under (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)… pseudoscience has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Mr Modi himself set the tone in 2014 with his outlandish claim that cosmetic surgery was practised in India thousands of years ago.” A member of Modi’s council of ministers, Satyapal Singh, who is in charge of higher education, said in 2017 that airplanes were first mentioned in Ramayana.
The reason why Andhra University VC Rao’s comment reminded me of Sinha’s film is because of the doctor who inspired the filmmaker: Subhas Mukherji. British scientist Robert Edwards won the Nobel in 2010 for developing in-vitro fertilisation that helped 4 million infertile couple have babies. “The award almost coincides with the anniversary of the announcement of the birth of Durga — India’s first and the world’s second test-tube baby — by reproductive scientist Subhas Mukerji on October 3, 1978. But Mukerji was called a fraud and faced bureaucratic vindictiveness in Bengal, and took his own life on July 19, 1981,” wrote The Telegraph.
The same article, referring to a report by reproductive scientist T C Anand Kumar in Current Science, 1997, said: “the West Bengal government had appointed a panel headed by a radiophysicist — with a gynaecologist, a neurophysiologist and a physiologist as members — to examine the claims by Mukerji.” The climatic showdown between Dr Roy and the government board in Ek Doctor Ki Maut, with which I began this essay, refers to this. The newly elected Left Front government stopped Mukherji from presenting his findings at Kyoto University to which he was invited and transferred him to an institute of ophthalmology, an area in which he had no expertise. He was 50 when he hanged himself.
Sinha references all this in his film. Dr Roy does not die, but he is completely crushed when two American doctors have already been credited for his work. One night, he kills all the laboratory animals which he has infected with leprosy for his research. He tells his wife Seema (Shabana Azmi) that he does not want them to suffer anymore. The poignant scene in which Dr Roy sits in front of the dead animals is also one of his own death. A little later, when he is invited by the John Anderson Foundation, he decides to leave the country. “I only want to work,” he says. The film ends on a hopeful note. That was 40 years ago. But hope might be in short supply for scientists and others alike when delegates at the National Science Congress have freedom to propagate pseudoscience.