Are you a Bollywood buff or a Masala-hit connoisseur? Are you interested in disability issues? Do you read film reviews and critiques? Do you enjoy thinking about things in your free time? If your answer to any of these questions is YES, this is for you! Read, post, comment, argue, agree, disagree…whatever. Just be there!
Bollywood’s Disability Through the Ages
As I sit down to write for the “Hunchback of Hindustan”, my thoughts go to the black-and-white (B&W) films which did not have the technology to paint the frames with the so-called colors of reality. I know very few people who genuinely have the patience to sit through B&W Hindi films and enjoy their slow pace, abrupt editing, melodramatic dialogues, and glitches. Unless of course, people do make exceptions when it is fashionable to watch classics touted as landmark cinema as is the case with Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Vijay Anand films. However hard it is to feel connected to the realities of cinema and society of B&W days, fact remains that the characters and their dilemmas were much more real than what is the case today. Since 1970s, we have not seen many social dramas in mainstream cinema or even farmer films that cannot be called art films. Post-Sholay cinema has mostly been about larger than life characters, humungous frames, grand song situations and an actually accentuated melodrama! A “real” character would either be from art films which take decades to reach out to people or it could be in the form of messiah of the masses, be it a Coolie or a Rakhwala. 1980s saw the worst of cinema when it was full of pelvic thrusts and choli-tributes, when film-makers were in a “Ghai” (also read hurry or eagerness) to fight helicopter operating villains from across the border, insanely cruel politicians or basti ka mawaali. And since 1990s, we talk mostly in terms of NRI, BPO-KPO, MNC and call-centre junta; the liberated India with cinema that takes a skewed look at what it means to be an Indian, because the focus is completely on collections in the opening weekend which means focus on urban multiplexes and cross-border revenues and hence films with their stories. There are hardly any commercial films on farmer suicides and what urbanization means to our villages today. But I am hopeful on this front because we do get to see traces of true depictions of the middle-class of metros and small towns like in Dilli 6 (2009), Bunty aur Bubli (2005), Chak de India (2007) and Khosla ka Ghosla (2006).
Coming back to the B&W days, about which I said that the characters or at least issues were closer to reality. Bucked up with newly found independence and a sense of purpose, our film-makers went full-on with social dramas covering a wide range of aspects like droughts, urbanization, unemployment, black marketers, families facing social dilemmas, etc. However, there is an irony to this whole depiction of reality and that in my opinion forms a disability of Hindi cinema, which still continues. Though real, the characters were mostly exaggerated, and non-heroes were usually caricatures. For many years, a comedian had to be someone who “looked” funny and disabilities formed the core of such depictions. A guy with a limp or a deformed face or speech problems (it made us laugh even this year in Kaminey), would be considered funny.The same extended to villains who had to look wicked with one eye shut or one arm paralyzed or again, with a limp. Roots of this can be traced to the depiction of Shakuni (Mahabharat) and Manthara (Ramayan), both of whom form some kind of a disabled image in our minds. Even when star comedians like Johny Walker and Mehmood Saab or star villains like Pran Saab or Prem Chopra entered films, we had these caricatures in the form of hero or villain’s side-kicks.
The blame I feel should go to the very core of our social fabric which unfortunately may not have shown much change. For some strange reason, our reaction to human disabilities is that we either joke about them or we extend grave sympathy. While making fun is cruel, even sympathy may not always be the right expression. A helping hand works best when it is hidden and is not the on-your-face help; when it is about empowering and not about “look I am in a better position to do this favor on you”. I will come to this point again, later in this article. Having said that, there have been instances in the cinema of those days when main protagonists faced a limitation but still managed to look sane, real and many times, heroic. For example, the lead roles in the 1964 flick Dosti, Dilip Kumar Saab playing a blind man in Deedar (1951), Upkar (1967 – both Pran as well as Manoj Kumar), the legendary Thakur in Sholay (1975), Koshish (1972), Gora aur Kala (1972), etc. But all this raises an important question: if lead character has a limitation, he or she will emerge heroic but what happens when a side-kick or a smaller character faces a limitation or a disability? Most of the times when character actors like Shakti Kapoor, Kader Khan, Rajpal Yadav, Dr. Shriram Lagoo, Satyen Kappu, etc have been shown with a disability, it has either been for fun or to generate strong sympathetic emotions.
I personally have a lot against the “sympathy” part. To gain sympathy from the audience, it is very easy to show someone in dire straits for example, get a disabled child beaten up, etc. But this I feel is sheer manipulation. The impact of ‘what is not shown’ is very well exploited in the west; when implied, cruelty leaves a deeper impact. For example, in films like The Kite Runner (2007), Gran Torino (2008) and Life is Beautiful (1997) (even the Indian ones directed by female directors like in 1947 Earth (1998) and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002)), there have been poignant depictions of cruelty but all in the implied form. Black (2005) and even Taare Zameen Par (2007) in my opinion, were too harsh on their protagonists. In the west, majority of schools take unpublicized care of their children with special needs. Many times, children themselves don’t realize that they were facing an issue. I remember also reading about it in an Abhishek Bachchan interview when he was talking about his Swiss school days of dyslexia. I fail to understand that why should our disabled protagonists emerge winners, underdogs and heroes at the end of each film? I remember having seen a beautiful film called Little Miss Sunshine (2006) in which a little girl and her family prepare hard for a competition and take a journey that changes their lives and relationships forever. But when she actually enters the competition, she and her family are literally thrown out of the venue! She loses but ends up having a ball, and we don’t feel bad about it. On the other hand, a Taare Zameen Par, that talks a lot about how competition is bad actually ends with the boy winning a competition!
I wait to see more Hindi films like Aankhen (2002) and Iqbal (2005) in which disability truly reached lead roles without much ‘sympathetic’ manipulation (what if Kachra of Lagaan (2000) could actually be the Bhuvan, the leader, the idol). I wait to see Hindi films that end up in a celebration and hence triumph of life and not necessarily in a competitive victory. I also wait to see Hindi films on disability to be made without actually keeping it at the centre of the script. For example, a film like Monsoon Wedding (2001) was actually not about the wedding, but turned out to be a film on child abuse which was very subtly woven into the script. Though I am glad that disabilities in our films are no longer being cured by Shirdi ke Sai Baba! After having lost a lot of hair in the recent years, I also wait to see a Bald lead role in a big budget Hindi film. Optimism Index in my heart went up big time when I heard that Aamir Khan would go bald for Ghajini (2008) but it came crashing down when he stopped at the “trimmer setting 1” shave instead! Till this wish is fulfilled, I’ll console myself with Bruce Willis and Jason Statham as my idols.
As I end this piece, I would like to quote Martina Navratilova who once said that, “Disability is a matter of perception. If you can do just one thing well, you’re needed by someone.”
Please feel free to comment on this and more importantly bring out hidden facets from Indian cinema and flaunt your knowledge of films ;). We shall keep talking about it. Ciao.
* Gaurav is one of our prized guest-bloggers. He passed out of IIT Bombay (2003) and IIM Kozhikode (2007). He is an ardent fan of RD Burman and a film-enthusiast. He is recently involved in making of a documentary biopic on RD.