Before ‘Zero’: a look at disability in Indian cinema

Margarita, with a Straw

Margarita, with a Straw

Anand Varma was mocked and scorned at. But he was confident that his daughter, Abhinaya, who is speech and hearing-impaired, would make it to the silver screen one day. An actor himself, he would take his young daughter to all his shoots, so that she could build a sense of the camera from childhood. Success didn’t come easy, and when she had almost given up on acting, she got a call from director Samuthirakani, who would later cast her in the Tamil superhit film Naadodigal (2009), that eventually gave her the much-needed break.

At 27, Abhinaya has been praised for getting the lip-sync right, despite the fact that she only understands English. “I translate the dialogue in Tanglish, which helps her understand what she needs to deliver,” says her mother Hemalatha. There aren’t very many directors accepting of the disability, but thanks to her talent, she has been getting a lot of offers from across industries, her mother says, of Abhinaya, who is shooting and so was not available for comment. Her journey though, is one of the rare success stories to come out of the community of differently-abled actors in India.

OF the people: Disability in film scripts

Kalki Koechlin’s Laila in Margarita with a Straw (2014) touched upon a number of themes: growing up, sexuality, the strength of the family structure. The one thing Laila wasn’t: a saint. By humanising her lead characters, director Shonali Bose gave a refreshing portrayal of a young woman with cerebral palsy. Are filmmakers finally changing the way disability is represented in films?

Radha Mohan, who directed the critically-acclaimed Tamil film Mozhi (2007), feels there's an inherent pressure among filmmakers to portray the differently-abled with shades of white. He says complete inclusion can only be achieved when people start writing about their flaws too. “Most popular films scream for sympathy,” he says, adding, “If I write a story, in which the person with disability disabled person is a serial killer, people shouldn’t take offence. I’m treating him as any human.”

He adds that filmmakers need to understand the issues faced by the differently-abled before making films about them. “For Mozhi , I took up a sign language course at the Ability Foundation, where I discovered a whole other side.” His fellow participants, all deaf-mute, “were mischievous and playful, which we don’t get to see in films,” he says.


BY the people: Casting PwDs on screen

How often do we see the differently-abled on the screen? How willing are filmmakers to cast people with disabilities? Even in Malayalam cinema that boasts of progressive themes and stories, senior journalist-filmmaker Sreekumar feels there’s a lack of representation of disabled artistes with disability.

For his film, Shabdam (2018), he was adamant in casting real-life siblings Sophia M Joe and Richard M Joe, who are both speech and hearing-impaired. He feels it is not easy for able actors to get the nuances of people with disabilities right. “I specifically wanted them for my story, which is about the dying art of pottery,” he says.

Tamil movies such as Anjathey and Naan Kadavul , directed by Mysskin and Bala respectively, have also featured disabledpeople with disabilities in significant characters.

FOR the people: PwD-friendly cinema halls

Cinema halls aren’t always disabled-friendly. It is to enrich their experience that Chennai-based SPI Cinemas has recently introduced a special show called ‘Sens’. Bhavesh Shah, Head of Experience, SPI Cinemas, says, “We wanted cinemas to be a social change agent.”

The show has a few special features for people with intellectual disabilities, which include dimmed lights throughout the show, and lowered sound levels, to allow unrestricted movement and chatter, and a longer intermission. “Introducing such shows allows us to not only build an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, but also to be more socially aware,” he says. The menu is specially curated as well, keeping in mind the dietary restrictions of children with special needs. This includes vegan and low-gluten options.




An inclusive theatrical experience

Ability Fest, a biannual film festival, was established in 2005, in an attempt to provide a decent theatrical experience for people with disability. “We won’t screen films that don’t have subtitles,” says Janaki Pillai, director (programmes) of Ability Fest. For those who are visually-impaired, the festival has adapted an audio-description technique, where a pre-recorded narrative is inserted between the dialogue that conveys what’s happening on the screen. “The first Indian film we screened was Taare Zameen Par ,” she says. “With Netflix and other platforms adapting to audio-description, there’s now an awareness that cinema should be accessible to all.”

Our top picks

Koshish (1972) revolves around a speech and hearing-impaired couple and their struggle in society

Sparsh (1980) is a love story between a visually-impaired school principal and a sighted teacher

Anjali (1990) centres on a child with developmental disability and the challenges faced by the family

Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum (1999) explores the issues of a visually-impaired person who lives with his sister

Margarita with a Straw (2014) is about a teenage girl with cerebral palsy, who falls in love with a visually-impaired girl

With inputs from Harikumar JS and Srinivasa Ramanujam

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2022 5:19:47 am |