Bombay Showcase

Sparsh touched a chord, shattered stereotypes

Radha Rajadhyaksha  

The woman sitting with the blind man gently berates him for refusing to accompany her and their friends to a Bharatanatyam recital she wanted to attend. “So you should have gone,” he tells her, his voice slightly on edge. “Not without you,” she responds. The man’s sightless eyes dart agitatedly from side to side. “Dekho Kavita, main nahin chahta hoon ki tum mere liye Gandhari ban jaao,” he says tensely.

This pivotal scene in Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh encapsulates what the film did when it was released 35 years ago — it subverted, in one stroke, every stereotype that Bollywood had built up about visually challenged people over the decades. Cinema has its classics as well as its path-breakers — and Sparsh , though underrated on account of not getting a proper release, belongs to the latter category. Not only did it combat the cliché of the blind as objects of pity, it had Hindi cinema’s first realistic portrayal of a visually impaired man — Naseeruddin Shah’s mind-blowing act, famously described by Gulzar as a “textbook performance” for actors to follow.

Till Sparsh came along, blind characters in Bollywood were something of a bad joke. The popular enactment of such a character was someone who stumbled around, fluttering his eyelids and rolling his eyes heavenwards (notably, the female blind characters all wore eye make-up). After the pathos of the sightless condition had been sufficiently milked by the director, the blind person would regain his or her eyesight in a stock scene — the bandages would come off slowly and suspensefully followed by one or two out-of-focus shots and then a joyful “Doctor saab, main dekh sakta/sakti hoon!” to the sound of violins.

Against this sort of caricaturish backdrop came the blind characters of Sparsh to make a stunning impact. Most of them were adorable children from the Blind School, Delhi, aided by remarkable professionals like Om Puri. And then of course there was Naseeruddin Shah in what is arguably the best performance of his lifetime.

Born of a blend of insightful writing and extraordinary acting, Naseer’s Aniruddh Parmar is an unforgettable character — a poised and fiercely independent man who nevertheless harbours a complex about his handicap and is constantly wary of what he perceives as pity from sighted people. Every time I watch Sparsh , I’m mesmerised anew by the way Naseer (under)played the character… downcast eyes, eyeballs darting rapidly when excited or perturbed, cautious walk, white cane moving in a sweeping left-to-right arc. It was not so much a performance as masterful character authenticity on display.

Naseer has consistently rated Sparsh as one of his most fulfilling roles because of “the simple beauty of the script that was written with truth”. True. Sparsh is a narrative that seamlessly merges vital issues relating to the world of the blind with a unique love story in which the sighted Kavita, far from becoming Gandhari, journeys from a visual to a more tactile understanding of love and her lover’s world. Indeed, Sparsh subtly establishes parity between their two worlds: if Aniruddh is visually handicapped, Kavita is emotionally so; Pappu, the sighted child wants to be blind because Kavita pays more attention to his blind friend; and Kavita rues to her friend that her being ‘normal’ is her biggest disqualification in Aniruddh’s eyes. Here, the blind are not pitiable, and the sighted are not superior — they share the same vulnerabilities and human frailties, the same joys and sorrows. The universe of Sparsh is a beautiful, inclusive one.

Sparsh won three national awards: best screenplay, best Hindi film, and best actor for Naseeruddin Shah, who had gone all out to prepare for the difficult role. Told by Sai Paranjpye that her protagonist was inspired by the suave and erudite principal of the Delhi Blind School, Ajay Mittal, the actor asked if he could spend some time with him. “Mittal was most flattered,” recalls Sai. “He agreed instantly and Naseer went to Delhi 10 days before the shooting began.” By the time the rest of the unit landed up, however, things had changed somewhat. “When Mittal met me, he was totally agitated,” recalls Sai with a chuckle. “Naseer had been trailing him everywhere from the classroom to the bathroom, and he was at his wits’ end. ‘Sai, I can’t take it anymore,’ he expostulated. ‘Please get your hero off my back!’”

Interestingly, it wasn’t Naseer but Sanjeev Kumar who was Sai’s first choice for the role. Impressed by her script, the actor, who’d brilliantly played a deaf-and-dumb man in Koshish , agreed instantly. Later, however, he backed out, and Sai had to replace her original lead pair of him and Tanuja with Naseer and Shabana Azmi.

Sanjeev Kumar’s brief association with the film has an interesting epilogue. “Sanjeev and Naseer were on a set in Bangalore when the national awards were announced,” says Sai. “Sanjeev, generous as he was, threw a party for Naseer, at which he casually asked him which role he’d got the award for ( Sparsh was yet to be released). Naseer told him it was a blind man’s part — and as he filled him in with more details, it suddenly dawned on Sanjeev that this was the role he’d withdrawn from. ‘Hell, I was supposed to do this one!’ he exclaimed. And then added good-humouredly, ‘Agar main karta, shayad mujhe hi national award mil jaata!’”

Some things are meant to be, and today it’s inconceivable to think of Aniruddh Parmar as anyone else but Naseeruddin Shah. In a beautiful piece of cinema that allowed audiences a sparsh of a world so different from their own.

The author is a freelance writer and editor


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 10:56:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/Sparsh-touched-a-chord-shattered-stereotypes/article14029371.ece

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