They say that cinema and reality are two sides of the same coin with one reflecting the other and vice versa. Sure enough! Indian cinema has shared a parallel path on the evolution graph with the society it represents. The changing tone from the merely entertaining to an unflinchingly inclusive of issues-that-mattered is evident from the increasing viewership and popularity of non-commercial and socially sensitive cinema. From overtly dramatic and fantastical scenes like Nirupa Roy miraculously getting her eyesight back from a pair of floating battis sent from the God to blatantly realistic movies like Shahid and Fire, Indian cinema has witnessed a drastic change. Not that Indian cinema was completely deprived of socially driven themes and content; films like Mother India and Gulzar’s Koshish 1972 were absolute treat to the critical and socially driven eye, but such films were scarse in numbers and mostly appreciated only by the film connoisseurs.
Cinema, as a visual artistic medium makes for a very effective and impactful tool. And in a country like India which produces most number of films in a year and has one of the largest base of cinema going public, its role in affecting and effecting the society can never be overestimated. Therefore, the choice of themes and content of films have to be very judicious and responsible.
And rightly so, Indian filmmakers mindfully assuming their roles as apostles of change have given the cinema landscape a boastful number of meaningful themes. Venturing onto the untrodden lines and working on socially driven themes like homosexuality; polyandry; honour killings; sexual abuse and so on, films in Indian cinema has significantly grown over the last few decades.
One of the most crucial themes that has come to dominate Hindi cinema is the depiction of the differently abled. While there was no lack of differently abled characters in older films, the portrayal of such characters was strikingly different from the ones in the last two decades.
In the earlier decades disability in cinema was either showcased with the sympathy card or as marginalised comic characters in supporting roles. Characters of disability were often commonly complimented with imageries of pity, sympathy, discrimination, ludicrousness and eccentricity. Portrayals as these were the inevitable product and representation of the then society and in turn cemented such approach and attitude towards the differently abled.
While movies like Sparsh realistically depicted complexes within both abled and disabled individuals, movies like these were rare. However, a number of realistic portrayal of the differently abled in the last two decades makes visible the paradigm shift in the perception of the differently abled both amongst the artists and the audience. Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue centred around the life of a Schizophrenic Meethi (Konkona Sharma) and illuminates well on the predicaments of a person with this condition. Sajay Leela Bansali’s Black depicted Michelle McNally (Rani Mukerjee) a blind, deaf and dumb character and her intensely inspiring journey towards achieving her goals. Iqbal, story of a mute young boy’s journey to become a part of the Indian Cricket team, was also on similar lines.
Joining these commendable creations is Kalki Koechlin’s soon to be released Margarita with a Straw, story of a rebellious young girl with Celebral Palsy. Directed by Shonali Bose, this movie depicts a differently abled girl with the usual teen age aspirations and desire and her journey of self-discovery. What makes these movies stand out is that they refrain from idealising or ‘sympathising’ with these characters. They don’t mould these characters into mere sentimental characters and distinctly avoid stereotypical patronising tones while dealing with them.
Depicted with the least possible distortions and complete sensitivity these movies have very well played their part of spreading awareness amongst the audience and calling for change in attitude towards the differently abled.
Venturing into a sensitive theme like the differently abled is risky task both for the maker and the artist playing such roles, for there’s a thin line between compassion and sentimentality. For instance, movies like My Name is Khan and Gajini too walked on the lines of a similar theme but giving in to the hackneyed thread of Bollywood sentimentality these movies eventually seemed to assume more of didactic, moralistic and romanticised tones making it hard for the audience to connect. Apart from such minor glitches Indian cinema in the last couple of decades has shown utmost sensitivity and responsibility in terms portraying the differently abled and the increasing popularity of such socially vigilant works testifies the growing sensitivity and vigilance amongst the Indian audience.