Hichki and Bollywood’s New-Found Sensitivity

Pop Culture

Hichki and Bollywood’s New-Found Sensitivity

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Hichki will mark Rani Mukherjee’s return to screen after a gap of four years. As seen from Hichki’s trailer, the actress plays Naina Mathur, who is keen to pursue her dreams of becoming a school teacher despite suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. The neurological disorder ensures that Naina’s speech is punctuated by regular involuntary hiccup-like sounds, giving her a speech impediment. Much of the film rests on how she overcomes obstacles and ill-mannered students to realise her dream.

Hichki just might be what Bollywood needs; a renewed vigour in portraying impediments on screen with sensitivity, instead of exploiting it for punchlines. It’s a trend that began this year with Jagga Jasoos.

In a refreshing departure for mainstream Hindi cinema, Jagga’s (Ranbir Kapoor) debilitating speech defect in Jagga Jasoos wasn’t an object of pity. Over the course of the 160-minute film, Jagga graduated from a stuttering teenager detective – with several shades of Tintin and Harry Potter – whose words “so so ke nikalte hai”, to the film’s stuttering hero in search of his missing father. That by itself was the film’s greatest achievement. It not only managed to make its audience realise the unbearable arduousness of living with an impairment, but also took its hero seriously. The stutter wasn’t merely a plot device, an ailment that gets cured once Jagga displayed traditional hero behaviour.

But, Bollywood hasn’t always been this lenient in its portrayal of impairment. The binary treatment of a disability in Bollywood has almost always verged between humiliation and pity. Scraping the bottom of the barrel here is Rohit Shetty’s Golmaal series. In the third installment of the unnecessary franchise, Shreyas Talpade’s stutter is a device that’s only exploited for comic relief in the film. “Abey jaldi bol, kal subah Panvel nikalna hai,” a character tells him. For a country that has approximately 1.25 crore Indians who stammer, the film’s demeaning usage of a disability to garner cheap laughs forced the Indian Stammering Association to file a petition against its makers.

Jagga Jasoos not only managed to make its audience realise the unbearable arduousness of living with an impairment, but also took its hero seriously

Golmaal 3 was only following in the footsteps of Awaara Pagaal Deewana and Phir Hera Pheri, where two stuttering mobsters are constantly stuck in supposedly hilarious situations. On the opposing side are films like Chalbaaz, where Anju’s stutter and nervousness render her a weak character. I also remember Pooja Bhatt as the meek, under-confident student in Sir, who is given therapeutic advice by Naseeruddin Shah’s character who tells her to “not be nervous” and just talk.

Sure there was a Kaminey, featuring two different speech impediments, which weren’t caricaturised. But maybe Rani Mukherjee’s Hichki is the film we need to mainstream conversation about “lesser” speech impairments – just the way Taare Zameen Par was able to do for dyslexia. It’s a trend Bollywood could really get behind, one film at a time.