Disability is not the defining feature

Characters with disabilities in Hindi cinema have come a long way from objects to be pitied or laughed at

Updated - December 03, 2018 12:18 am IST

Published - December 03, 2018 12:15 am IST

I loved the trailer of the movie Zero . It’s a Shah Rukh Khan movie that also features Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif. Mr. Khan plays a dwarf. Ms. Sharma plays a woman with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair. But it doesn’t seem to be a movie about disability in the traditional Indian sense. More on that later.

Disability that’s in your face

The first known movie to feature disability in a meaningful way in Hindi cinema was Jeevan Naiya (1936). In this movie, the lead character abandons his wife on learning that she belongs to a family of dancers. Later, he is blinded in an accident and is nursed by a woman who he eventually falls in love with. Of course that woman is his wife. Karma comes a full circle.

And that’s what continued in subsequent films: either karma and its lessons or pity. In Sholay (1975), Thakur, the police officer (Sanjeev Kumar) has his arms amputated by the infamous Gabbar (Amjad Khan). Thakur hires two mercenaries to avenge Gabbar and his gang. This leads to a final duel between Gabbar and Thakur. And what does Thakur do? He crushes Gabbar’s arms with spikes. Thakur probably thought that living with a disability is worse than dying.

Khamoshi (1996) was about deaf parents, their daughter and their inability to allow her to move on. Taare Zameen Par (2007) and Black (2005) focused on the schooling challenges of the dyslexic, and the deaf and blind, respectively. Two other big-ticket movies with disabled characters in the recent past have been Margarita With a Straw (2015), which explored the sexuality of a woman with cerebral palsy, and Guzaarish (2010), which was the story of a paralysed magician-turned-radio jockey and his legal battle to end his life. What’s common in all these movies is that disability is in your face. It’s the overarching theme of the movie. I loved the storytelling in these films. However, disability is what defined them. And let’s admit it: disability is not the sexiest theme to bring in people to the theatres.

Of course there is another category too, where disabled characters provide comic respite at the cost of their disability. However, I shall refrain from commenting on it to not give these highly offensive movies any undue attention.

So why am I so excited about Zero ? Going by the trailer, Mr. Khan, who plays a dwarf, is shown the photo of a girl played by Ms. Sharma. He’s immediately smitten and decides to attend an event where she’s speaking. Only on seeing her in person does he realise that she has cerebral palsy and, as a result, is on a wheelchair. He’s sad but nevertheless continues to pursue her and eventually succeeds.

He confesses to having a safe, stable life if he marries her. The trailer up to this point looks like the quintessential Bollywood movie. Dwarf meets wheelchair, they fall in love and live happily ever after. Except we live in the 21st century. This isn’t the Raju (Raj Kapoor) from Mera Naam Joker being a circus clown collecting a bunch of heartbreaks in the process. Mr. Khan doesn’t want to just live life. He wants to live it king size. He wants adventure. Maybe he even wants to be a moron. Not satisfied with cerebral palsy-stricken Ms. Sharma, he pursues Ms. Kaif who seems to be playing a silver screen actor with millions of fans. They meet and they kiss (perhaps the Indian Censor Board didn’t let them take things further). And when things go wrong, she calls him “Zero” and he presumably runs back to Ms. Sharma — but she is no helpless, egoless wheelchair-user waiting to have him back in her life. She seems angry and wants her revenge. “The relationship is now on an equal footing,” she says, glaring into the camera.

The characters are no ‘divine’ individuals seeking sympathy. The government might have called the disabled “ divyang ” (divine individuals), but Mr. Khan might truly be playing a divyang moron in the movie. The characters here are human beings with hopes and aspirations, shades of black and white, and happen to have disabilities. It doesn’t seem to be a movie on disability. It seems to be a love triangle with characters with disabilities.

Responding to criticism

And that is why I was so saddened to read criticism about this movie from some pockets of the disabled community. The movie was questioned for not having actors with disabilities play these roles. I do believe that the first challenge is to get people to the theatres to watch movies related to disability. Having stars of course helps. Secondly, and more importantly, these stars inadvertently become brand ambassadors of the cause. These are important issues considering that I come across middle-aged government engineers, police officers and bureaucrats who claim to have never come across a person with a disability even today. If big stars will get them to the theatres, so be it.

Besides, I do find the idea that only actors with disabilities can portray characters with disabilities bizarre. We didn’t complain that Dangal didn’t have wrestlers playing wrestlers, or that Sanju didn’t have Sanjay Dutt playing Sanjay Dutt, or that an alien didn’t star in PK. What we need is for actors to be properly sensitised to the role they’re signing up for. Daniel Day-Lewis got into the skin of his character, Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy in My Left Foot . He did this not just by interacting with people with the disability but by actually refusing to leave his wheelchair through the shoot of the film. He had to be carried around by crew members and insisted on being spoon-fed. The movie was critically acclaimed and he won an Oscar for it.

Breaking barriers

Persons with disabilities in India are breaking barriers. The next generation wants no sympathy. Varun Khullar was paralysed waist down after an accident in Manali in 2014. The accident forced him to start using a wheelchair but didn’t stop him from accomplishing his dreams. He studied music and started deejaying at parties. He is the resident DJ at a club in New Delhi. Divyanshu Ganatra was just 19 when glaucoma claimed his eyesight. He runs an adventure sport company. Nidhi Goyal was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disorder at the age of 15. She converted her subsequent dating misadventures into an internationally acclaimed stand-up comedy sketch.

I am glad that Hindi cinema is learning from society and going beyond looking at characters with disabilities as either objects to be pitied or laughed at.

Nipun Malhotra is a wheelchair user. He’s founder, Wheels For Life (www.wheelsforlife.in) and CEO, Nipman Foundation. Twitter: @nipunmalhotra. Email: nipun@nipunmalhotra.com

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.