By Poulomi Das Jul. 15, 2017
Bollywood has almost always treated a stutter as comic relief. Maybe Jagga Jasoos will do for the speech impediment, what Taare Zameen Par was able to do for dyslexia.
Igrew up in an orthodox Bengali household that held two things sacrosanct: any meal was incomplete without roshogollas, and every member of the extended family was to spend the four days of Durga Pujo at our century-old ancestral house in the Bengal countryside. It was the only time of the year that my sister and I got to hang with my cousins, passing the days in a blur of giggling fits and role-playing Feluda.
In this elaborate affair, two people would be entrusted with creating a case and laying clues, while the role of the swashbuckling Feluda would be rotated among all the cousins – all cousins except Babai, that is. The youngest of us all was never permitted to live out his fantasy of playing Feluda. Babai was a shy, curious, ever-smiling boy. For us, though, his identity hinged on his biggest embarrassment, his crippling stutter. He stopped asking to play Feluda after my eldest cousin bullied him into believing that “totla chhelera goyenda hote pare naa” (stuttering boys can’t make detectives).
I was reminded of our stiff childhood cruelties as I watched Ranbir Kapoor’s overgrown Jagga, the unlikely detective-hero of Jagga Jasoos. Jagga also suffers from a stuttering problem – but unlike Babai, he is neither relegated to the background of an adventure he wants to headline, nor treated as a punchline in typical Bollywood tradition.
In a refreshing departure for mainstream Hindi cinema, Jagga’s debilitating speech defect isn’t an object of pity. In the first half of the madcap musical, the little orphan is egged on by a mysterious patient (Saswata Chatterjee who later becomes his foster father) in his Manipur hospital to sing out his thoughts. Jagga, who until then has rarely uttered a word, is ecstatic at finding that he doesn’t falter. It’s a delightfully heartwarming scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film, which understands and gives its lead enough time to coexist with his impairment, and communicate his expressions set to the tunes of his own liking.
The film not only manages to make its audience realise the unbearable arduousness of living with an impairment, but also takes its hero seriously.
Over the course of the 160-minute film, Jagga graduates 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 is the film’s greatest achievement. It not only manages to make its audience realise the unbearable arduousness of living with an impairment, but also takes its hero seriously. The stutter isn’t merely a plot device, an ailment that gets cured once Jagga displays traditional hero behaviour. Instead, the pauses are allowed to linger, almost as if the film is goading him to get them out, in his own time.
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.
In a refreshing departure for mainstream Hindi cinema, Jagga’s debilitating speech defect isn’t an object of pity. Image / Disney India
In a refreshing departure for mainstream Hindi cinema, Jagga’s debilitating speech defect isn’t an object of pity.
Image / Disney India
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 Jagga Jasoos 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.
Now, an impressionable young man, Babai rarely finds himself stammering anymore. I’m certain he will watch Jagga Jasoos with a bittersweet twinge, knowing that cinema could permit him to be a hero when his own cousins didn’t.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.