What Bollywood Always Gets Wrong About the Differently Abled

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What Bollywood Always Gets Wrong About the Differently Abled

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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n John Krasinski’s 2018 post-apocalyptic masterpiece A Quiet Place, the world is ravaged by monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing, forcing a family of four to go into semi-permanent hiding. While three members of the family are able-bodied, the fourth member, Regan, the teenage daughter is actually deaf. What’s surprising is that viewers don’t realise this until much later when Lee Abbott, Regan’s father uses sign language to communicate with her.

Regan’s deafness makes for an efficient survival tactic in the film but her character doesn’t exist in a vacuum, written simply to garner sympathy points. A Quiet Place gives Regan an equal footing in the process, never fetishising her disability. What’s even more inspiring is that Krasinski went to great lengths to ensure that the part of Regan went to an actual deaf actor.

Yep, Millicent Simmonds is deaf as well as a brilliant actor. How is that for representation and diversity? And when can we hope to see it in Bollywood?  

Remember Thakur in Sholay, where every viewer was called upon to ignore what was staring them in the face – that Sanjeev Kumar’s arms were tucked under his kurta? Exactly 30 years later, we had Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, a story of a Helen Keller-like protagonist who is “saved” by her teacher. This is disability in Bollywood, an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

The age we live in right now, misrepresentation and erasure in pop-culture has the capacity to do palpable harm and set back actual work done by activists.

In fact, Bhansali specialises in narratives featuring disability. Khamoshi: The Musical (1996) uses the saviour trope for maximum emotional effect, while in Guzaarish (2010), the disabled character has to resort to euthanasia to free himself of his disability. In all three of Bhansali’s films, disability is portrayed as an overwhelming “other”, which either needs to be warded off completely, or needs to be overpowered.

Why can’t Bollywood filmmakers seem to give disabled protagonists challenges other than overcoming their disability? It isn’t as if we don’t have precedents. In Sparsh (1980), Naseeruddin Shah plays the blind Anirudh who falls in love with Kavita (Shabana Azmi). During a scene in the film, Anirudh says something along the lines of, “The blind need help, not pity.” That pretty much describes the fault in how Bollywood portrays disabled protagonists. In Sparsh, Anirudh’s affliction doesn’t dominate his character. It’s the same with Gulzar’s Koshish (1972).

Anurag Basu’s Barfi (2012) and Jagga Jassos (2018) refused to treat disability as the other; instead getting to understand it. It’s similar to the especially progressive Margarita With A Straw (2014), where we see Kalki Koechlin’s Laila, who is suffering from cerebral palsy, come to terms with her sexuality. These films have steered away from harmful tropes and used effective storytelling to their advantage.

Which brings me to the point of representation. Both on-screen portrayals and representation go hand-in-hand; one complements the other. Perhaps Indian filmmakers could take a leaf out of Vince Gilligan’s book. In Breaking Bad, Walter White Jr — or Finn — is played by RJ Mitte. In the show, Finn suffers from cerebral palsy and has impaired motor control; just like the character, RJ Mitte too has cerebral palsy. And the writers ensure that Finn isn’t just a disabled kid who needs sympathy. He is a regular teenager coming to terms with his drug lord father’s continued absence. His disability isn’t his calling card. It’s just a part of him.

So when will Bollywood filmmakers get this memo?

It’s the same argument which has been brought up time and again when it comes to LGBTQIA+ representation. I call this the Danish Girl syndrome. In 2015’s romantic drama, Eddie Redmayne, a cis-white male actor plays a trans-woman. Redmayne is a terrific actor but it’s impossible to ignore that he was woefully miscast. The film itself, although well-received, erased a real-life trans person. But while Hollywood is trying to learn from its mistakes, it looks like the Hindi film industry isn’t even trying.

In only a few days, we’ll get to see all the glitz and colour associated with a Shah Rukh Khan film. In Zero, he’ll play a person suffering from dwarfism, who is in love with a woman who has cerebral palsy. SRK has been made shorter digitally and warning bells are already ringing in my head. Were there really no dwarf actors in Bollywood?

Casting disabled actors — or even actors who have lived with a disability — for such roles shouldn’t come as an afterthought. In fact, in the age we live in right now, misrepresentation and erasure in pop-culture has the capacity to do palpable harm and set back actual work done by activists.

I suppose, because filmmaking is such a visual medium that is easily accessible to a wide audience, the onus falls on the creators to tell better, nuanced stories, and not fall into lazy tropes. Good representation begins with empathy and good creators, even before jotting down a story, writers need to empathise with the characters they create – abled, disabled, straight, queer, white, black, or brown – and not treat them as “others”. Some day, I hope, Bollywood will listen?

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