A look at how Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s Aarohanam and Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom treated disability, subverting cliches

Have you always been annoyed with the portrayal of disability and mental illness in our cinema?

Often filmmakers have employed disability to show great tragedy when a character faced with a sudden disability in the film loses all hope in life. Not only is it exaggerated and caricatured by actors who use extreme disability as a calling card for the awards season, directors have often felt that mental illness or any disability deserves your sympathy, your pity, your tears. Rarely, a Mozhi comes along as a slap in the face of manipulative filmmakers.

Over the last few weeks, we have had at least two films that have treated disability right.

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan's Aarohanam subverted every cliché to have hit Tamil cinema over the last decade and more.

According to most filmmakers, the rich are evil, the poor are good. (Remember how Vazhukku En 18/9 has taught you that the rich, even when manifested through a kid in school, is the epitome of evil perversion and Eesan showed you why a security guard of your apartment in the city who refuses to go buy milk for you is heartless). And disability is worse than death.

Triumph of characterisation

In Aarohanam, Lakshmy shows us an accident when two rich women discussing spa treatments accidentally hit a poor pedestrian in the middle of the road. They seem to be headed to a party an illiterate politician is trying to crash. Just when you prepare for all the Tamil cinema clichés to unfold, the director pulls the rug from right under your feet and shows you the titular ‘upswing’... and we learn that just because they are rich, does not mean they lack compassion. Just because the characters are poor, does not mean that they do the right things. Just because a character is a politician, does not mean he’s a pervert. Just because a man has left his wife and married another woman, does not mean he wouldn't go in search of her when it mattered, no matter what issues he may have with her. The film is the ultimate triumph of characterisation as we finally learn that this eccentric, quirky woman we met is only as sane as someone in shock after an accident. The fact that she did have bipolar disorder is something we discover much later, and as a matter of fact. “It’s not like we are normal,” as one of the characters in the film delivers the film’s strong message at the end.

Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom that released just the other week is another fine example of how the makers have made disability into a situation that can be dealt with, with the right kind of support from friends and family.

A slice-of-life film

While it borders on political incorrectness (when the friends decide to get a guy who has lost all his short term memory married to the girl he loves), due credit must be given to the director Balaji Tharaneetharan to keep the mood light. Because of his short term memory loss, the character actually lives life by the moment. He has forgotten the feud with his brother. There’s always a bright side if you paid enough attention and there’s comedy in the gravest of situations that life throws up.

The story outline may evoke memories of The Hangover as three friends go in search of the groom's memory on the eve of his wedding after a freak accident while playing cricket but the similarity ends right there. Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom is a slice-of-life mostly realistic film and that's because it's based on the unbelievable true story of the cinematographer of the film, Prem Kumar. How different is loss of short term memory from a hangover, when you deal with it one day at a time?

We can only wish that more filmmakers learn from Lakshmy and Balaji in treating disability right.