Profound amnesia is exceedingly rare in the South Asian sub-continent, but a rather frequent occurrence in Bollywood Hindi films. The most common variety of memory loss involves an on-screen character who has experienced a traumatic life-event usually resulting in head injury. The character then shows no recollection of events occurring prior to the onset of memory loss, a condition known as retrograde amnesia. In Hindi films, the character then leads a new life in an assumed role surrounded by strangers until a second rectifying injury negates the amnesia from the first one.
One well-known example out of the countless in Hindi films can be found in Henna, in which a character by the name of Chunder falls in a river and loses his memory in India and is rescued in Pakistan where he assumes the name Chand. Chand becomes Chunder again after a violent ruckus, and in the process loses the memories he has formed as Chand. If it sounds confusing and medically implausible, then clearly you are thinking too hard.
I’ll give you a minute to clear your mind.
Now, If you are still thinking logically, then perhaps you should read this medical review in the British Medical Journal dealing with amnesia at the movies. The review covers some recent examples such as Bourne Identity and 50 First Dates. Although, the focus of the review is on Hollywood movies, Bollywood has generally been very good at following many of the same trends. The most severe causes of real amnesia are psychiatric and neurological disorders often resulting from infection or stroke. Of course, in the movies, it is almost always a result of an injury to the head. The review also mentions the standard personality change and recovery through a second head injury which the author sardonically calls “two is better than one”.
The author does point out Memento as a good example of a movie featuring anterograde amnesia. Recently, with Ghajini, a film loosely based on Memento, South Asian films ventured into new territory. In both films, the protagonist suffers a head injury and loses the ability to form memories after the injury.
I could not find a specific survey of amnesia in Hindi films, but I did come across medical articles entitled “Mental health in Tamil cinema“, “Malayalam cinema and mental health“, and “Psychoanalysis and the Hindi cinema [sic]” in the International Review of Psychiatry.
Not everything that is associated with filmi amnesia is medically inaccurate though. An outstanding paper published in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 12 shows that emotions exist even after memory loss in amnesia patients. Conducted on a series of patients with severe anterograde amnesia (the Ghajini-type of amnesia), the scientists found that the emotions that they could invoke persisted long after the memories had dissipated. That we had to wait until 2010 to get this sort of a landmark study tells you a bit about just how rare this form of amnesia is!
Nevertheless, next time you see an amnesiac character in a Hindi film feel anger, love, or sadness even though they have no associative memory, remember that this is this is an aspect of the depiction that is plausible.
© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban