Women, disability and films in India

BY Rema Sundar| IN Media Practice | 26/06/2005
Mainstream Indian cinema rarely addresses the issue of disability, and it is rarer still to find a film on the plight of the disabled woman.

Rema Sundar

The face of cinema changes colour quite often. One could say that the differing tastes of the audience and demands of the market often change the face of cinema. In their bid to experiment - and offer something ¿different¿ - filmmakers stumble upon harsh realities that cry for focus, like the case of the disabled. According to WHO estimates, approximately 10 per cent of the world¿s population suffers from disability. In India, there were about 103 million people with disability in 2001.

Starting from the 1970s, which saw an increase in cinema¿s audiences with the growth of the urban population, one finds that films in India have periodically raised the issue of disability.

The 70s saw the Gulzar film ¿Koshish¿ on the life of a deaf and dumb couple. Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhadhuri brilliantly enacted the lead roles of the movie. The romantic moments shared by the couple were realistically and heart-warmingly captured on screen. Even when the couple is seemingly comfortable in their little world, their anguish is reflected in their overwhelming desire to see their child develop normally, without any disability.

In the 90s, there was ¿Khamoshi - The Musical¿ (1996) directed by the now widely appreciated Sanjay Leela Bhansali. In this first film, we see the life of a musically talented girl coping with her deaf and dumb parents.

That the disabled are not lesser beings is well established in Vipul Shah¿s `Aankhen` (2002) starring Amitabh Bachchan and Sushmita Sen. This witty film revolves around three blind men, played by Akshay Kumar, Paresh Rawal and Arjun Ramphal, who execute a bank robbery masterminded by Bachchan.

Rakesh Roshan¿s ¿Koi Mil Gaya¿ (2004) has Hrithik Roshan essaying the character of a grown-up with the mind of a child. The film, with a dose of fantasy, dwells on the societal alienation faced by such individuals and their caregivers. The young man falls in love and his mother, overcome with sorrow, tells her son that such relationships are not meant for him. Stricken with grief, the boy-man voices the concern felt by every disabled person at some point in time: ¿Why am I not like the others?¿

Tracing regional cinemas, one recalls filmmakers like Bala in Tamil and Vinayan in Malayalam cinema who have given sufficient berth to the cause of disability. Bala¿s ¿Sethu¿ (1999) saw the actor Vikram make a giant leap towards stardom after delivering a convincing performance as a mentally disabled person. The film also focused on the plight of the inmates in a mental asylum.

Kalabhavan Mani acts as a poor blind villager in Vinayan¿s film, ¿Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njanum¿ (1999). The problems of the disabled in this milieu are compounded by poverty and ignorance. The disabled character has nowhere to turn for comfort, and is forever chastised by his bedridden father for being born without sight. How the character overcomes all odds to achieve the love and understanding of his father forms the narrative of the story.

In spite of cinema¿s periodic tryst with disability, one finds that films in India have largely ignored the issue of women with disability. In all the examples cited above (except for ¿Koshish¿, which portrays a disabled couple), it has always been the male character who is shown with afflictions of some sort, with the female - in the form of the mother, sister, girlfriend or wife - providing tender support and caring. Save for a ¿Sadma¿ (1983), originally made in Tamil as ¿Moonram Pirai¿, there have been no moving accounts worth recalling of a woman with disability being portrayed in India cinema. In ¿Sadma¿, directed by Balu Mahendra, Sridevi plays the part of a young woman whose mental state regresses to that of a five year old following an accident. Kamal Hassan takes care of her until her eventual recovery.

The year 2005 scores powerfully for, after over two decades of cinema, we now have in ¿Black¿ a movie that addresses the cause of disabled women. This Sanjay Leela Bhansali creation focuses on the life of a strong-willed and an ambitious girl with a milestone to reach in her life. The student with multiple afflictions (being deaf, mute and blind), through the guidance and support of her mentor and by sheer force of will, completes her graduation. The film has been immortalized by perfect renditions by Amitabh Bachchan, who plays the teacher, and Rani Mukherjee who lives the life of a disabled person for the length of the movie. The film, which has all the ingredients to move and motivate people who are similarly afflicted, also throws light on issues that concern this group. Another aspect that emerges from this movie is the general lack of sensitivity to such conditions. Michelle McNally¿s (Rani Mukherjee) family sees her as a mentally retarded child. It is left to her teacher Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan) to prove that she is not mentally retarded and that her violent behaviour, seen as sign of her mental illness, is on account of her frustration at not being able to communicate.

In Kerala, again in 2005, the director Vinayan has created a story with a cast of nearly 300 dwarfs in his film, ¿Adbhutha Dweepam¿, which is running to packed houses. Dwarfs, though not necessarily disabled, are often objects of curiosity and derision. The Hollywood company, DreamWorks has approached Vinayan for the rights to the film, to be re-made with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role that was played by Prithviraj in the Malayalam version.

While well-made and researched movies on disability would serve to draw attention to the plight of the disabled and help improve their quality of life, filmmakers should refrain from showcasing disability just for the sake of a different plot. To encourage filmmakers who wish to explore disability through cinema, disability film festivals like the one to be held in Texas (1) would be in order.

(1) A Cinema Touching Disability film festival is to be held by the Coalition of Texans with Disability from September 30 to October  More details can be had from http://www.ctdfilmfest.org/

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