Indian cinema has been a big let down when it comes to disability, says director Vijay S. Jodha

Director Vijay S. Jodha on how True Colours dispels common myths about disability and brings the invisible aspect of arts and PwD to the centre stage

December 03, 2018 03:26 pm | Updated December 04, 2018 06:01 pm IST

Hues of harmony: We Are One in performance

Hues of harmony: We Are One in performance

Vijay Jodha sounds elated as we get connected over phone after a number of call drops. The director is in Paris to participate in celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) where his documentary True Colours will be screened today.

Being organised by UNESCO at their headquarters in Paris, Jodha says, “I am honoured to be part of an event that celebrates world’s leading artists who happen to be disabled as well as those working to make a difference to this community. This includes artists like the well-known French composer and pianist Maud Caillat, Japanese violinist Eijin Nimura, and singer Jane Constance from Mauritius. Then there are people like Pete Sparkes artistic director of Drake Music in Scotland working with musicians with serious physical limitations. I had the good fortune of filming many of these people earlier.” Excerpts from an interview conducted over phone and e-mail:

Vijay S. Jodha (left) with Tony Dee

Vijay S. Jodha (left) with Tony Dee

What was the catalyst for the film?

Most of us assume that when it comes to PwD community, our concern should be to ensure they get access to education and training and then get some kind of a job to contribute to their family and society at large. But this is an extremely narrow view. In addition to work there is also question of art and culture. After all, each one of us, no matter, how rich or poor, and regardless of what work we do, end of the day when we get home, we want to be entertained. We watch TV or listen to music or go out seeking some form of entertainment. Some of us may even want to produce art itself be it to sing, dance, painting.... Now why shouldn’t this be available to the PwDs too? To UNESCO’s credit, they have brought this invisible aspect of arts and PwD to the centre stage through True Colours .

What are you trying to say through the film?

I think the two key messages of the film is that, first we need to be more inclusive in every sphere including the field of arts and culture. And if we do that, it is not the lives of the differently-abled, but the lives of the rest of us, will be more beautiful and enriched. Second, this film dispels common notions we (and I include most disabled too in this group), have about disability. That the disabled/PWD/Divyang/Differently abled – call them whatever you like, they are physically inferior to everyone else. This film shows that this is not necessarily the case. You see example after example, people doing what people like you and I, who don’t have any physical challenges, cannot do. One other thing that you will notice, and it is something that makes it different from the performances that we see in some of the talent shows – here, regardless of the artist or the performance, almost every work is tied to the disability in some manner. So in many ways it is autobiographical.

How did you select the artistes featured in the film?

UNESCO first selected over 150 artists, largely from the Asia-Pacific region in consultation with the various UNESCO member countries and various arts experts. Nippon Foundation which is principal sponsor for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics also sponsored this arts festival called ‘True Colours’ in Singapore to showcase the best differently-abled artists. In this case it was at an Asian level, at the Olympics it will be at global level. I had worked as one of the directors for a Smithsonian film in the U.S. years ago.

Based on that when UNESCO asked me to direct the film project, I had drawn out a complete plan where one would have several film units. Multiple film teams would cover the front story, back-story as well as performance of each artist. Unfortunately budgetary issues meant that we could focus only on the performance part and only short interviews. Other than that, there the usual challenges of filming performing arts in a manner it comes out as exciting as watching it live.

Tell us about the shooting process and your cinematic gaze.

I have worked on disability issues for almost 20 years now for a variety of projects and in various mediums. So I am sensitive towards their concerns. In case of this project we did various behind the series interviews with the various artists and their back up team which included parents, family members or professional arts promoters, some of whom happened to be PwD themselves. We asked them how they have reached the world stage, which helped them along and what advice would they have for policy makers, art promoters or anyone wanting to promote greater diversity in the creative world. We have incorporated some in my film but all of it is part of UNESCO archives now.

The interactions have also been incorporated as part of the policy document that UNESCO has prepared and is sending to 195 member countries along with copy of my film in multiple languages and accessibility versions.

How do you think disability has been treated in the Hindi cinematic space ?

Indian cinema has been a big let down when it comes to disability. I don’t know one differently-abled person who is happy with this. We keep them out of sight and out of mind in real life and same goes on in reel life. Some of the Bollywood comedy films, which feature the disabled, make you cringe. A few others that have been produced with good intentions also leave much to be desired. Sparsh – one of the finest films ever made, has the visually challenged protagonist getting married to a sighted, but who, if I recall right, is a widow. A good movie like Tare Zamin Par also creates the false impression that if a person is mentally or physically challenged in some manner, he will be extra-endowed in some other department. I recall an instance where a mother who had a mentally challenged child lamenting after seeing the film, ‘what am I to do, my child is not even good in painting.’ I think Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw was a path breaker in this context. It made you think of the fact that the differently abled are also humans and have the same desires as anyone else. In this context I think our non-fiction work i.e. documentaries have been more up to the mark and have highlighted some truly amazing people. I have been involved as a jury member with United Nations We Care Festival for some years and we look at some of the best films from across the world.

What are your memories of shooting with these artistes?

One of the things that I noticed with some of the these accomplished artists be it Tony Dee – who was voice of the London Paralympics, or Alinette Coldfire who was a finalists in France Has Got Talent, or any other, is how they keep themselves motivated. Their motivation is thousand times more than the rest of us. Some of them, such as Dyson Rousen, who is only fifteen years old and who taught himself to play the ukulele at the age of eight. He comes from the tiny island nation of Micronesia.

Now how many of us are familiar with the instrument of ukulele or can spot Micronesia on a world map? It is the most unbelievable story when you think of. And there are scores of people like that. Dyson, who is blind from birth, told us how despite all his fame, even till date he has problems getting to school as the school bus driver doesn’t want to pick him. One cannot be unmoved listening to such stories.

Can you tell us about Indian artistes featured in the film?

A Delhi-based group We Are One was selected for this festival and featured in my film. They are renowned for performing Bharatanatyam on wheelchairs. They had three male dancers on wheelchairs and a female dancer who is not on wheelchair but hearing impaired. It was amazing to see how this lady who cannot hear, was dancing to the tail of the music.

Similarly, how the three male dancers were moving about at unbelievable speed. One of the dancers had created a world record some years back for maximum spins on his wheelchair within a single minute. You can see him spin away in the film too. It was one of the most well received performances in the whole film. This looks so dangerous to us but all these artists have practised endlessly to achieve that level of accomplishment.

Where do you place it in your oeuvre in terms of creative satisfaction?

True Colours has been one of the most exciting film projects for me. For one, I am very fond of music and have worked on music related assignments before such as on a film for Smithsonian in the US and at MTV’s global headquarters in New York years ago. This project has enabled me to meet up with some amazing people from across the world and managed to capture their achievement cinematically in a manner in which others can be similarly moved and be inspired. I feel more satisfied when not only the end film comes out looking good, but also that it makes a difference somewhere.

(True Colours will be Telecast on DD National at 9.30 a.m.)

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