This piece contains spoilers about the movie ‘Me Before You’.
I heard about the movie Me Before You for the first time when my cousin showed me the trailer a few weeks ago. “Daenerys is acting in a movie,” he exclaimed, referring to Emilia Clarke, who plays the fictional character in the Game of Thrones television series. The striking thing in the trailer was that it did not have a standard romantic waltz but Will (Sam Claflin) twirling his wheelchair around with Lou (Emilia Clarke) sitting on his lap.
My cousin wanted to know what I felt about the trailer because of the wheelchair-bound character. However, I’m a man first and a wheelchair user second, and my mind was occupied with thoughts of Clarke, whom I have had a crush on ever since she walked out of a fire topless alongside dragons in Game of Thrones.
I had completely forgotten about Me Before You until a week ago, when it received a stinging backlash on social media from large sections of the disabled community upon its release on June 3. Spoiler alert here: the movie is about a wealthy young man, Will, whose idea of a birthday celebration is creating videos where he outdoes James Bond at stunts. Everything in Will’s life seems perfect until a motorbike accident leaves him with a spinal cord injury that restricts him to a wheelchair. The bulk of the plot revolves around his interactions with caregiver Lou, who has six months to make him change his decision of ending his life. She creates a bucket list and puts her heart into giving him the best of experiences. Somewhere between all of this, they fall in love, but Will does not change his decision.
This is where the disabled community has a problem with the movie. There have been wide-ranging articles talking about the problems with the film, ranging from those that highlight persons with wheelchairs who do not want to kill themselves to those that say that Me Before You is an insult to disability. There are others who feel that that the romantic drama is clichéd and portrays its central character as pathetic and pitiful.
Let’s talk about ‘divyang’
However, isn’t it the disabled community that is being clichéd by criticising anything that involves disability? One of the major causes of outrage for the disabled community in India has been the usage of the term “divyang” (or divine) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The coinage conveys that the disabled have achieved a lot despite all the obstacles that come their way because there is some divinity within them that gives them this ability. I have no special powers – whatever I have achieved is because of my hard work. The disability sector has been trying to counter the usage of “divyang” by urging policy makers to shift focus towards a social model of disability.
Thus, I do not understand the criticism of the disabled community towards Me Before You. Are people on wheelchairs depressed and want to commit suicide? Yes and no. Some would be depressed enough to think of such a radical step while most others wouldn’t. Are the disabled pathetic and pitiful? The disabled community that asks such a question is an insult to the community itself.
One of my favorite scenes in Me Before You is of Will attending his pre-accident girlfriend’s wedding (who conveniently moves on and marries his pre-accident best friend) with Lou by his side. Lou points out to him at the wedding that he wouldn’t even be talking to her if he wasn’t disabled, given her working class background. The sequence scene beautifully captures the economic disparity that is often prevalent in the dating market while also showing how once disabled, a person gets stuck in the “best friend” or, worse still, “brother” zone (Will and his ex).
Another criticism is that there a disabled actor could played Will. That is illogical since Will is at one stage in the movie is physically fit.
Are movies like Farhad-Sajid’s Housefull 3, which was also released on June 3, offensive too? Its characters fake disability in order to soften a father’s heart who doesn’t want his daughters to get married as he feels they cursed. Definitely. However, the Housefull series itself is an insult to the human intellect and doesn’t even deserve a thoughtful analysis.
It is time that we in the disabled community decide how we want the world to see us. Are we open to being regarded as complete individuals with likes and dislikes and emotional highs and lows? Can we be both perfect gentlemen as well as complete rascals? If not, it’s time we accept our fate as being “divyang” cheerleaders who inspire the world while leading incomplete, unfulfilling lives. I’ve made my choice – I want to be both.
Nipun Malhotra is a wheelchair user who is enjoying life, still awaiting divine powers and has no intention of killing himself. He tweets @nipunmalhotra.