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  • Bollywood Stars and Cancer MemoirsThe Year in India
  • Pramod K. Nayar (bio)

Two cancer memoirs from Bollywood heroines were published in 2019: Manisha Koirala's Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life and Lisa Ray's Close to the Bone. Koirala's text begins with her diagnosis, and concludes with her healing and subsequent attempts to establish a new lifestyle. Ray's text arrives at "cancer time"—Nancy Miller's term, defined as the time spent in "diagnosis, staging, prognosis, protocol," where the "only future fixed chronology is that of treatment sessions" (217)—almost two-thirds into the narrative, with the bulk of her book focused on her childhood and career. Ray's work lists "with Neelam Kumar" under the authorname, though the extent of authorial collaboration and contribution is unclear.

Celebrity culture in India is constituted, primarily, by film stars and their lives. Sports stars are famous, but it is film personalities that take up maximum space on page three of major newspapers, with reams of glossy tabloid paper devoted to "uncovering" their private lives. Bollywood stars remain the cornerstone of India's celebrity culture in terms of their affective impact: their lifestyles are the subject of reportage, their appearances and fashion the subject of imitation, and their controversies the stuff of the rumor mills. Scandals, as in any celebrity culture, are important events in Bollywood lives as well: their extramarital affairs, divorces, legal crises, substance abuse, and squabbles feature in magazines such as Filmfare. The stars' philanthropic work and activism are also highly visible and the subject of public debates (Nayar, "Brand Bollywood"). Deaths in their families, or of the stars themselves, such as Sridevi's drowning in a bathtub in 2018, also receive intensive coverage.

In the recent past, revelations about stars' unhappy childhoods or depression have also made the news, most notably the case of top-ranked star Deepika Padukone, who was the face of depression in a nationwide campaign about mental health. That she went public about her history of depression was often touted as playing a pivotal role in drawing attention to a national crisis. It is in this context of the high visibility of their lives as stars that memoirs of their diseases are consumed. [End Page 86] These disease memoirs may be termed "celebrity somatography," extending the original meaning of the term "somatography"—body visualization, but also employed by G. Thomas Couser to speak of memoirs by people with disabilities (Signifying Bodies 2)—from a focus on the star-body to the biosocial network engendered by the disease and its treatment processes.

From the Cosmetic to the Pathologized Body

The most notable feature of the celebrity somatography is the careful account of the body and the ontological instability that appears with the disease, mapping a shift from the cosmetic to the pathologized body. Both Ray and Koirala, as film stars, present their glamorous, highly visible lives and bodies. They discuss their roles on screen, the progress of their careers, and their social networks within the film industry. Their books are interleaved with images and stills from their careers.1

Ray speaks of her stage performances (116–17), her modelling (120–22), and the parties where she is constantly on show as a glamorous, doll-like public figure. She records, self-reflexively, the sense of being on display, of role-playing: "A large chunk of my early life had been about looking like someone else" (190). But she is also intensely aware of her ontological and corporeal identity: "It was a vital shock of oxygen, this idea, that it was my individuality that was sacred, not fitting into an arbitrary standard of beauty" (190–91).

Like Ray, Koirala also records how her public image began to slowly generate an emotion different from triumph or happiness: "I became a robot—instantly donning another persona at the snap of 'Lights, Camera, Action'" (78). The focus on appearance and the public consumption of a star's good looks foregrounds the "cosmetic body." "Cosmetic body" is my shorthand term for the star's body that foregrounds the looks, style, and fashion of the star over anything else. That is, the "cosmetic body" is the star...


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pp. 86-93
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