For all the creativity and melodrama that Bollywood’s championed all these years, Kalki Koechlin’s Margarita With A Straw, which releases on Friday, raises one moot question: Why does the industry always portray ‘disability’ on the screen in a half-hearted, caricaturist manner, which invariably borders on being insensitive? Sadly, B’town’s attitude towards the disabled is either stereotypical or patronising, or they have used them as objects of pity, comic interludes, liabilities, medical aberrations, or burden etc.
Margarita With A Straw, directed by Shonali Bose, could change the trend. The film has its lead, Laila (convincingly played by Kalki), a rebellious young woman with cerebral palsy struggling with her life. More importantly, it explores Laila’s sexual urges and a whole range of issues related to it. Bose’s deep understanding of Laila’s condition makes the treatment special, and also raises the hope that this film will be instrumental in changing Bollywood’s attitudes towards the disabled.
However, till that happens, here’s a look at some films which did not just have a disabled character at the centre of its plot, but which also treated the subject with the right measure of compassion and sensitivity.
Considered a landmark performance by its male lead actor Sanjeev Kumar, Koshish, also starring Jaya Bhaduri, depicts the life of a deaf and mute couple and their conflicts, their pain and struggle to survive in a rather insensitive society. The film breaks all stereotypical conventions about two lead actors in a film and is a believable lesson on how to take on the might of the so-called world of ‘normal’ men and women. The two lives of Hari (Sanjeev Kumar) and Aarthi (Jaya Bhaduri) are intertwined by the disability that they are both saddled. And as they meet, fall in love, get married, have a son who they raise to be well- educated. The film shows the inner turmoil of the son when he is asked to marry a girl with similar disabilities as his parents. What keeps them going is their constant struggle and their persistence as they negotiate some of life’s greatest challenges, never giving up hope.
This film is about the visually challenged principal (Anirudh Parmar) Naseeruddin Shah in a Blind School, and deals with the lives and feelings of other blind children of the school. Sparsh refers to the sensation and feeling of touch upon which blind people rely in the absence of sight. Directed by Sai Paranjpye, it starred Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi as a sighted teacher (Kavita) in the school. It is Anirudh’s dealings and negotiations with his daily life that make Kavita realise who he really is as falls in love with him. But as the baggage behind their own lives rears itself, an ugly reality begins to dawn on them. Subsequently, they reconnect with the “touch” of love. The film remains most memorable for the subtle acting of its leads, plus the handling of the issue of relationships with the visually handicapped, revealing the emotional and perception divide between the world, the “blind” and the “sighted”, epitomized by the characters. Kavita also makes the audience see the real man beneath the incredible deformity. The film won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi.
Directed by Balu Mahendra, this film that had Sridevi and Kamal Hassan in the leads and is considered by many critics as Sridevi’s finest performance. The film is the story of Nehalata (Sridevi), a young woman who regresses to childhood after suffering a head injury in a car crash. Lost, she ends up trapped in a brothel before being rescued by Somu (Kamal Haasan), a lonely school teacher who falls in love with her. The film was a remake of the 1982 of Balu Mahendra’s own Tamil Film Moondram Pirai, starring Sridevi and Kamal Hassan. Sridevi’s autistic child-woman performance brought her nominations in the Filmfare Best actress award category as well as State awards and National Awards. Kamal’s performance in the film’s climax won him the National Award in the Tamil original. The film flopped achieved a cult status and is regarded as an all-time classic.
Another Sanjay Leela Bhansali directed 1996 production, the Indian musical drama Khamoshi starred Nana Patekar, Manisha Koirala, Salman Khan, Seema Biswas and Helen, and marked Bhansali’s directorial debut. Though the film did not get success at the box office, it won hearts of this extremely talented filmmaker. The story is about Joseph (Nana Patekar) and Flavy Braganza (Seema Biswas), a deaf and mute couple in Goa. Their baby girl, Annie (Manisha Koirala) is able to speak and hear. So can their son Sam. As Annie’s life gets centres around her parent, she also is determined to pursue her love for music. She gets her musical inspirations from her grandmother, Maria Braganza (Helen). The film is about love, about giving, about the duty bound children who are caught up in their lives’ dilemma and feel obliged to fulfil their personal ambitions in the maze of human relationships. Both Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas, along with Manisha Koirala gave bravura performances.
Nagesh Kukoonoor’s Iqbal (played by actor Shreyas Talpade), is about the hard of hearing and mute son of a farmer, who has a passion for the game of cricket and seeks the tutelage of washed-up, alcoholic ex-player (played by Naseeruddin Shah). Besides great acting by Talpade, the film shows great hope for the differently abled people as Iqbal overcomes all the obstacles and goes on to make it to the Indian Cricket team.
Inspired by the film The Miracle Worker, which was based on Helen Keller’s life and struggle, the cathartic tale of a visually challenged and hearing impaired girl in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black overcomes the adversity of being disabled to become one of the 20th century’s leading humanitarians. It is also about her teacher who brings a ray of light into her world of BLACK and helps her triumph over her misfortune. A tour de force performance by Rani Mukerji is the highlight of the film. As the storyline focuses on her relationship with her teacher who himself later develops Alzheimer’s disease. The film was screened at the Casablanca Film Festival and the International Film Festival of India and won the Filmfare Award for the Best film. Time Magazine (Europe) selected the film as one of the 10 Best Movies of the Year 2005 from around the globe. The film was also premiered in the Marché du Film section of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The story turned out to be incredibly uplifting as it presented a form of underdog tale which puts the audience firmly on the side of the disabled character.
Taare Zamin Par (2007)
This film made many Indian parents sit up and take note of the eight year old boy, who is thought to be lazy and a shirker, but in reality suffers from dyslexia. As a compulsive reaction, many parents did the rounds of shrinks to ascertain their own child’s slowcoach behaviour that led to poor grades in school. In the film, it is a new art teacher (Aamir Khgan) has the patience and compassion to discover the real problem behind his daily struggles at school. The film explores the creative bent of Ishan’s mind and his imagination, which once guided blossom to great heights. Significantly, this film’s success, led to many behavioural disabilities becoming more visible on the big screen.