Finding a good way to die

21 February, 2021 06:55 AM IST  |  Mumbai  | | Meenakshi Shedde

How many of us can pull a life-giving plug on a loved one and watch him or her die? Many of us are asked to take that tough decision. Mostly, we cannot, and leave it to doctors to decide—it takes away the burden of our guilt. Farida Pacha’s documentary film Watch Over Me (92 minutes), is a most deeply moving account of a palliative care team in New Delhi, that visits the homes of terminally ill cancer patients, and tenderly holds the hands of dying patients and helps them cross peacefully to the other world. They primarily help manage symptoms such as pain, psycho-social distress, and grief. In helping terminally ill patients, as well as their families, come to terms with the inevitability of death, the film becomes tremendously life affirming. You understand why such trained care teams are angels of mercy, and why we desperately need many more of them. This film is all the more relevant in the time of COVID-19, when millions worldwide have come closer to death.

“In the end, being there is all that matters,” is the tag-line of the film. Maniamma R, Sini Kuriakose and Dr Reena Sharma are a wonderful team of counsellor, nurse and doctor, working for the NGO CanSupport, a palliative care organisation in Delhi. They do regular home visits, providing medical and emotional support to the patients and families, here Meherchand, Munni Devi and Hanif. They ease the grief of families when loved ones quietly become photo frames on the wall.

The documentary, a Switzerland-Germany-India co-production, is in black and white, and in Hindi and Malayalam. The film screened at the Solothurn Film Festival, Switzerland, and will play at the Berlin Critics’ Week next month. It was officially selected at the Mumbai Film Festival’s India Gold in 2020, though the festival did not take place because of COVID-19.

Mumbai-born, Milan-based Farida Pacha, who studied filmmaking in the US, is an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her previous work includes the wonderful My Name is Salt (on workers who extract salt from the Rann of Kutch desert, Gujarati, 2013), The Women in Blue Berets (on an Indian, all-women police contingent of the UN peacekeeping operations in Liberia, West Africa, English, 2012), and The Seedkeepers (on Dalit women’s collectives practising sustainable farming in Andhra Pradesh, Telugu, 2005).

Watch Over Me also helps you understand the meaning of life—of existence itself—differently. Can the patient whisper to you? Can he swallow a spoon of water? Can she get sleep? Such are the minutiae that mean everything at the border of life and death, when there is little to do but wait. In India, we avoid uttering the C-word (cancer) or D-word (death) before the patient. Dr Sharma tells Meherchand with quiet firmness, that he has cancer, and not long to live, but they will care for him at home, so he is more comfortable. Later, the son gratefully tells the doctor, “Papa had been restless until you told him. After that he was very calm.” When a daughter begs for her mother’s life to be prolonged, she is advised, “She will live maximum a week longer, but that’s just for you, not for her; it’s only agony for her body.” Very few are lucky: Hanif recovers well, and even goes back to work. In most cases, the families are grateful for the team’s intervention: “She went easily, without pain… ahsan hi hai (we are grateful).”

Pacha’s direction is absolutely assured and unobtrusive.

Lutz Konermann’s cinematography is discreetly intimate, by the side of the dying and the medic team, witnessing heart-breaking decisions. As a black-and-white film, it pares all distractions and focuses on essentials. Pacha’s screenplay and Katharina Fiedler’s editing are spare and effective. Pratik Biswas’ location sound is superb, and composers Dürbeck and Dohmen gently, musically hold our hands too. The film is produced by Leafbird Film, Ventana-Film and Video Without Borders.

Don’t miss this film whenever it’s released. Jana toh hai, as a character says: go we must.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist.

Reach her at

Moving, humane look at illness, death and the process of grief

03 March, 2021 00:57 AM IST  |  Mumbai  | | Sonal Pandya

The documentary Watch Over Me by Farida Pacha is an important look into medical care for terminally ill patients at home in India. It is held together by the work of three women — nurse Sini Kuriakose, counsellor Maniamma R and Dr Reena Sharma. These women tirelessly visit their terminally ill patients in the city of Delhi and offer them comfort, care and respect.

The majority of the patients are terminally ill and often don’t have time left. Watch Over Me, written and directed by Farida Pacha, follows the trio of health-care workers as they tend to their patients — Meherchand, Munni Devi, and Hanif. With each visit, we learn more about their families and the way the women have to alter the care according to the situation. All the patients are a shell for their former selves — one can barely put together the words, while Hanif, who has arrived here from West Bengal, is often breathless due to the effects of the cancer on his body and the medication he is under. Most of the patients can’t afford the care or the medicine, so the NGO the women work for, CanSupport, helps them and their families get the support they need.

The 92 minute documentary ends with an appalling statistic, that only 1% of six million patients in the country have access to palliative care. Watch Over Me makes a strong case for the need for palliative care, and the reformation of health care in India. Patients and their families, at the latter stages of their lives, should not be battling paperwork to avail of a medicine that can ease their pain, maybe even prolong their lives. The coronavirus pandemic exposed the state of health care even in most so-called first world countries, what to speak of the Indian system. There is a long way to go to fix the many problems we still face.

Pacha’s documentary, in Hindi and Malayalam, captures the constant state of grief these families live in. While unbridled grief can be hard to witness at times, here, it is not intrusive. The documentary focuses on the subjects but is respectful of their journeys. In fact, it helps them cope and understand what they are up against. Like the patients, even the family members have their own pain to process. Sometimes, the family wants them to live a little just to assuage their feelings and guilt. Gently, the counsellor or the doctor pushes them to think of the patient first.

Shot in black and white by cinematographer Lutz Konermann, the documentary often captures moments of stillness — when the subjects are lost in their own thoughts, or in the case of the patients, their pain. Editor Katharina Fiedler also intersperses the film with shots of the city going about its business, unaware of the pain these families are going through.

It is a difficult, draining occupation of taking care of terminally ill patients and it takes a toll on the women as well, especially Sini and Maniamma, who sometimes see eight patients a day. Watch Over Me deals with heavy matters, but humanity is always at the centre of it. The feature aims to show how compassion and proper care can lead to dignity and peace at death for those suffering from terminal illnesses.

Berlin Critics Week 2021: Two Docs and a Dream


Death, always a ripe subject for cinema, is something that is incompatible with the way we have built society. Financially, emotionally, and socially, death is considered an inconvenience. It is something that is not at the whims of our need for control and comfort at every turn. Especially in the developed world, death is foreign to us, and thus, requires deep emotional excavation to come to terms with. The subjects of Farida Pacha’s documentary Watch Over Me have one of the most emotionally difficult jobs in the world. Based in India, three women of a palliative care team assist a number of families dealing with one of their members suffering from a terminal illness. (…)

There is always a moral discussion necessary to be had in documentary cinema where the most vulnerable and aching moments of human life and connection are on display for the world to see. (…) On the other hand, Watch Over Me manages to be an introspective and empathetic portrayal of death, offering the valiant efforts of the trio of palliative care nurses as a blessing but also brings into question the deeper psychological and economic issues of the ‘death industry’. (…) One of the subjects, Hanif, and many like him from poor backgrounds can’t afford the treatment to fully recover from their illnesses. We also get a glimpse of the bureaucratic and logistic preparations required for death – shuffling papers, signing documents, etc. It’s all very mechanical and coldly pragmatic work for something that has such a tidal wave of an emotional effect.

While the heart of the movie lies in the love and warmth of family recovery, its soul asks the tough question: Is the society we have built compatible with our frail mortality?

Film Text: Watch Over Me

FEBRUARY 28, 2021 / / Bessie Rubinstein

Farida Pacha’s second feature-length documentary, Watch Over Me, closes with a title card bearing information that can be felt throughout the film: only one percent of seriously ill Indians have access to palliative care. The two, overworked caregivers whom Pacha follows, Mani and Sini, are introduced through opening shots of the women making their way to a patient’s home. This man, dying of cancer, is the first of three patients, all with children, whose stories Pacha intercuts. There is no coworker chit-chat between Mani and Sini in their vehicle at the film’s start. They don’t speak to each other, but look ahead. Their expressions are like a rorschach test for the viewer’s feelings about life’s end; a fearful viewer would call their faces solemn, while a more comfortable viewer could detect calmness and preparation.

Pacha shot Watch Over Me in black and white, unlike her other films. The choice forwards this documentary’s affective message: like shades of gray, every patient’s fight against their declining body brings the same emotions, and yet each clinical episode is different in the way that the fear and pain manifest in the patient and their family. Mani and Sini don’t meet the patient inside. Instead, Pacha shoots them greeting his son as they exit the car in a shot which reminds us of the emotional labor, and the triaging of knowledge, that frames each encounter with somebody facing potential death. The patient’s son tells Mani and Sini that his parents don’t know how far his father’s carcinogenic cells have spread—Mani’s easily forthcoming, measured response, that they’ll “keep it in mind,” conveys a sliver of what must be a considerable background in this field of care. Such a steady response to this request—to hide the fact that a man is at death’s threshold from himself and his life partner—speaks more to Mani’s experience addressing life-threatening illness than an overview of her career could.

The air of surrender Mani and Sini take on with their patients, and the shots Pacha inserts throughout—cars speeding through Delhi from behind a smudged windshield, clotheslines and wires swinging in open air—also suggest the mundanity of pathology, of mortality, while bringing up questions of direction and pace. Restless streets become insignificant when contrasted by the minute lateral movements Hanif, another cancerous patient, must make to breathe on his own. Or when a barely conscious mother’s slight turn onto her side can spare her yet more pain. Pacha hones in on gesture and breath, at times getting so close with her camera to the ill subject, their variably swelling and hardening bodies, that the scene becomes almost unbearable. Yet Mani and Sini do not blanch at symptoms in person, nor do the patients’ families. Instead they lean closer; gesture and breath is the only language of the dying. 

And so Pacha must get closer, too. Far from being invasive, a pan to Hanif’s engorged stomach, its rise and fall, communicates his struggle to breath so that he doesn’t have to expend precious energy explaining it. In this way, Pacha’s economical filmmaking is vital. Mani and Sini, too, carry attitudes prioritizing conservation of emotional energy. “No matter what problems come up, we will have to face them,” says Mani in response to families who wish for improbable improvement for their loved ones, or for a few more days, or for final words that the sick person doesn’t have the ability to speak. Just as palliative care may need to prioritize comfort over treatment, caregivers and families might choose peace over honesty. Most in India, as evidenced by the families’ grateful deference to Mani and Sini, receive neither comfort nor treatment. “If you already know you’re going to die,” reflects Hanif (who lives), “then you feel that it can happen at any time.” Through both Pacha’s filmmaking and the caretaking practices she studies, Watch Over Me asks us to accept, even calmly embrace, the realities of what will come.