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PEOPLE Sangeeta Gala has trained top Bollywood actors in sign language. The Mumbaikar with hearing impairment is building a database of disabled people interested in the industry

FINDING RELEVANCESangeeta Gala has won this year’s NCPEDP – Shell Helen Keller Award in the category ‘Role Model Disabled Individual’Photo: V. Sudershan
FINDING RELEVANCESangeeta Gala has won this year’s NCPEDP – Shell Helen Keller Award in the category ‘Role Model Disabled Individual’Photo: V. Sudershan

“You know what…I am very lucky.”

Sangeeta Gala’s avowal of the wand of Lady Luck in her life can also be a candid statement on the ‘X factor’ that many young disabled in our country need to prove their worth in adult life. It can be their good fortune of being born in an aware family, or say, the opportunity of a good academic institution.

With Sangeeta, who is hearing impaired, it was a permutation of efforts by her parents Maganlal and Shantaben Barot, as well as teachers of two Mumbai schools.

“My father was from a farmer family in Gujarat, had minimal education. He started in Mumbai from the footpath. When I was diagnosed tone deaf at age two, he didn’t know what it meant,” she recalls. She later joined The Stephen High School for the Deaf and Aphasia in Dadar. “Since there was no class 8 in it, I thereafter joined the Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Chowpatty. Because of these institutions, I can speak today. Though I didn’t go to college, these places gave me the self-belief to find a calling,” says the bubbly Mumbaikar.

Sangeeta is known in Bollywood circles for training Nana Patekar in non-verbal communication for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s moving flick Khamoshi . Thereafter, she worked in Bhansali’s Devdas , Black and Sawaariya and trained actors for Mani Ratnam’s Ravaan too. “My last work was for Anurag Basu’s Barfi . I trained Ranbir Kapoor for his role,” she fills in. An accomplished athlete too, she was the first Indian woman to participate in the Deaf Olympics at Los Angeles in 1985.

She recently received the 14th NCPEDP-Shell Helen Keller Award in the category Role Model Disabled Individual, Sangeeta talks about finding more people like her interested in working in Bollywood and our television industry, as actors, dancers, assistant directors, or fitting into the art department, photography, etc.

Along with her friend Shailey Sharma — also hearing impaired — she is building a database of such people to train them in non-verbal communication to connect better with others at the workplace. “It is an initiative of All India Foundation of Deaf Women, of which I am the vice chairman. We are meeting film and TV associations to understand in what capacity such people can work the best,” says Sangeeta. The duo is working on short films to showcase the talent of the job seekers to be uploaded on a website to hasten their selection by production houses.

The winding conversation with her also brings to the fore her son Pratik, her unsuccessful marriage, and that her brother didn’t want her to stay with him after the breakup. She also recalls the morning meeting at Nana Patekar’s house for the test for Khamoshi , the turning point of her life.

“My friends, Peru Ebrahim and Nooruddin, a deaf couple, offered me space to stay. From them I learnt that Bhansali was looking for trainers for his actors. His assistant director came to the Helen Keller Institute and saw me training kids in non-verbal communication. I was asked to be at Nana’s house along with many others and my friend Peru too for a test.” That morning, Nana, surrounded by the crowd of candidates, was lighting a cigarette, about to proceed for the test. “I asked him if he can put off the cigarette and tell us what he wants from us. He was stunned, crushed it and then tells Bhansali, she will train me,” relates Sangeeta with a giggle. Her son too “was coaxed to act in the film by Bhansali and Nana.” Recalling more names that helped her change the course of her life, she mentions Beroz Vacha, the founder of the Helen Keller Institute. “When I enrolled there, I had perennial cough. Vacha prodded me to take up running to get healthy. I did, the cough left me and I began taking part in marathons. When medals started pouring in, I started enjoying it,” recalls Sangeeta. With regret she adds, “I stood fifth in the Olympics, it somehow crushed my dreams.”

Having made her mark in Bollywood, she must be well settled now. “I am okay, but I still don’t have a house of my own. After Barfi , I don’t have any film in hand.”

Looks like Lady Luck will have to bring out her wand yet again.

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

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