Disability in Cinema

By K. Kannan and Dr. Sushma Batra :

While cinema remains a powerful medium to reflect the happenings in society, it has also been a medium which is caught between the real and the surreal. And therefore, fact and fiction, reality and imagination or real life and reel life move about in films as characters entertaining people, educating them or transporting them to a different world altogether. While there are people who believe in the power of cinema to change the world, there are others who say that its chief purpose is to entertain people.

And so, the disability experience too has been twisted and distorted to suit the dynamics of entertainment by many film-makers across the globe. And there have been some who have used films to highlight the reality of the disability experience and the diversity it brings to the world, how coping-up mechanisms highlight the triumph of spirit over the body and so on.

The imagery surrounding disability in films swings between these two extremes – pity, fun, carcicaturing, sympathy, lampooning and awesome heroism are at one end of the spectrum while discrimination, coping-up, emotional swings and aspirations of the human soul are at the other end. And the world over, cinema has either been charitable towards people with disabilities, pitying or laughing at them or portraying their concerns with real sensitivity.

Whether Hollywood or Bollywood, the trend is very much the same. In films that revolve around disability as a theme, there are efforts to portray the problem and potential of persons with disability but in countless other films, disability is a tool to enhance the appeal of the script, to dramatise it and to build up the heroic image of the lead character of the film. And therefore, the hero becomes a champion of the downtrodden.

India too has been part and parcel of this film-making extreme that disability is subject to. In some films like “Guide” made in the sixties, a blind man is portrayed as a saint reflecting a worldwide trend of equating blindness with sainthood, a person on a wheel-chair attracts sympathy for a variety of reasons including the fact that he is more human than the others in society.

However, the portrayal of disability in such films is hardly realistic. For example, a lady wearing a saree and seated on a wheel-chair is shown in such a manner that the sari hardly looks crumpled – the daily struggle of a lady sitting on a wheel-chair and wearing a saree is different. And then there are films where the wheel-chair is actually a pretense on part of the hero. In fact, a physically challenged person is shown as getting cured using natural medicine in a Hindi film made in the eighties.

Enhancing the appeal of the film by over-dramatizing the disabled character is a flaw that almost all film-makers seem to have perfected. And so, in a film like “Shaan”, there is Abdul in a heroic role moving about on the streets singing a song or for that matter, a film like “Aankhen” actually revolved around three blind men robbing a bank.

And then there is an attempt on the part of the script writer and the film-maker to build up the heroism of the lead character in the film by portraying him as a champion of the downtrodden. So, in almost all of the films in which Amitabh Bachchan played a central role, there is a person with a disability who is intimately associated with him, whether it is Rakhee in “Great Gambler” or Nirupa Roy as mother in “Amar, Akbar Anthony”. In fact, the trend began much earlier – witness the young orthopaedically challenged boy in “Dream Girl” or Rajesh Khanna’s handicapped sister in “Saccha Jhoota”.

The attempt on the part of film-makers to look at the position of persons with disabilities in society started with “Deedar”, though it too had an element of sensationalism,what with Dilip Kumar preferring to lose his eyes rather than see his beloved in the arms of another man. But then Dilip Kumar’s acting and the plot of the film which used disability cautiously ensured that the film became a hit.

And then came “Dosti” and this too was very well appreciated by the audience. However a real attempt to give a glimpse into the complex world of the hearing impaired and their relationships in society was attempted by Gulzar in “Koshish” who wanted to advance the concept of inclusive society. Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Badhuri in the lead roles did an excellent job and the film to this day is a landmark in the history of disability cinema in India.

“Sparsh”, another film made with a great deal of sensitivity looked into the complex world of a visually impaired person and it too was a hit with the audience. Another landmark film was “Anjali” revolving around the treatment that society metes out to a mentally challenged girl and how even the family members have to undergo a great deal of trauma because of rejection. Then came films like “Khamoshi” and “Tera Mera Saath Rahe” which were marketed differently. In fact, “Khamoshi” made by Sanjay Leela Bansali was branded as a musical though the storyline revolved around the two main characters – Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas – both of whom are hearing impaired.

Thus, it can be said that there have been two trends in film-making in so far as Bollywood films are concerned. While film-makers have used disability as a comic interlude or as giving a dramatic twist to their script with scant regard for the rights of a large group of people who are ostracized by society because of their handicap, there have been some film-makers who have been able to build a tale around the insensitivity of society towards people with disabilities. However, not many film-makers are successful in telling it with poignancy and sensitivity.

The following are some of the stereotypes that films have been perpetuating over the years:

Disability as a comic interlude – often you have characters in the film who are disabled just because the audience can enjoy at his or her expense. A classic example of this is the recent Bollywood release, “Mujhse Shaadi Karoge” in which Kader Khan appears with a new disability everyday and regales the audience. He even puts up a board outside his house saying he is blind today, he is deaf and so on.

Disability as an object of pity – There are innumerable films which reinforce the pity element. This is the most common emotion surrounding a disabled character in a film.

Disability as requiring a patronizing attitude – The hero patronizes the disabled character in the film. While it shows the disabled person in poor light, it enhances the former’s heroism.

Disability as dramatic convenience – Sometimes, disability is used to give a twist to the script and storyline as in the film “Koyla” where Shah Rukh Khan loses his speech only to regain his voice in the end when burning coal is thrust into his mouth and this introduces a twist in the film as he goes all out to avenge his enemies.

Disability as heroism – There are some films which project persons with disabilities as heroes and super-heroes. This too is an unrealistic portrayal.

Disability as a liability – use of the terms like “bechara”, “andha” , “langda” are found aplenty in films denigrating a person with disability as a liability and as an unproductive member of society.

Disability as a burden – This too reinforces the stereotype that they are unproductive members of society.

Disability as a medical problem – Many films reinforce this stereotype and hence even suggest miracle or quick fix solutions. This too is fraught with danger as disability is an irreversible condition and can be reversed only if there is early intervention.

Disability as science fiction – In “Koi Mil Gaya”, Hrithik Roshan plays a mentally challenged character who is cured by an alien world. While this may be entertaining to the audience, it can send a wrong message to children.

So, what we need is a close analysis of films – both in Hindi as well as in regional languages – to see whether they advance the cause of persons with disability or denigrate their position in society. In terms of films made in regional languages, an example can be given of some of the Malayalam films made by Vinayan like “Karumadi Kuttan” and “Vasanthiyum, Lakshmiyum Pinne Gnanum” which looks at the lives of persons with disabilities and the extra-ordinary talents they possess. Vinayan is perhaps the only film-maker in the country who has been consistently making films exploring the theme of disability, though he too has been criticized for sensationalizing his films. It is to start a process of close analysis and research of the films being made in the country that BROTHERHOOD came up with the idea of an international special film festival. By screening Hollywood and Bollywood movies together, one also can make a comparative analysis and that is what Brotherhood has attempted through the two film festivals organized so far. And of course, the attempt is also to classify the major and minor films which have either used disability as a theme or built their script and storyline around the lives of persons with disabilities so that a realistic assessment of where Indian cinema stands vis-à-vis the disability experience can be carried out. Much of this work is being planned through the National Disability Film Centre which aims to be a repository of research and documentation for those wanting to go deeper into the subject. Apart from keeping the CDs and DVDs of films and documentaries on the subject, the NDFC plans to advance research and also use films to create awareness on disability issues especially among children by screening these films in schools. The following are the objectives of the proposed National Disability Film Centre:

1. To establish a permanent resource centre starting with a library of books, manuscripts periodicals, still photographs, posters, audio-video recordings on disability issues from within and outside the country for reference, research and study.
2. To build up a comprehensive collection of Films (both fiction and non fiction), features and shorts, documentaries, educational and motivational films on issues relating to disability made in India and abroad, either in Film / Video or Digital format.
3. To document content data of all the film and non film material in the collection of the Centre in a scientific manner, for possible use by researchers, communicators, media personnel and others interested in the use of the material in their respective fields.
4. To set up a distribution network throughout the country for the wider reach of the films / videos and print material to all sections of society.
5. To encourage research and use of the material for creating awareness on disability issues through films (features as well as documentaries), audio-video and audio-visual material in schools, colleges, educational institutions and among the public on an ongoing basis.
6. To organize regular workshops, training programmes and film festivals and seminars in different cities as part of the awareness programme mentioned above.
7. To build up the necessary infrastructure for the production of educational and motivational film/video programmes on disability issues by trained personnel who have been specially trained for making such films.
8. To serve as a catalyst for influencing professionals involved in Film and TV production, for the correct treatment and depiction of the subject in entertainment films and TV serials dealing with disability issues and act as a watchdog in monitoring such distorted depictions to ensure that disability is not taken advantage of for material gains. Most such distortions are being perpetuated in the name of entertainment and box office requirements by vested interests without realizing the tremendous harm they are doing in terms of creating misunderstanding and false notions among ordinary people about the subject.
9. To conduct periodical training programmes / workshops either independently or in collaboration with established institutions like Film and Television Institute, Pune, SR FTI, Mass Communication and Research Centre, Jamia Milia Islamia, India Institute for Mass Communication and others to sensitize new and upcoming film makers, Non-Governmental Organizations and funding agencies to take up the subject connected with disability issues in their future production programmes.
10. To provide adequate expertise on disability issues to institutions and individuals interested in making films/documentaries/audio-visual programmes on the subject.
11. To encourage persons with disability to get involved in the making of films, TV and audio-visual programmes.
12. To persuade both public and private TV channels to allow time slots in their day-to-day programmes on disability issues.

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