Hrithik Roshan has played a variety of roles: mentally challenged savant (Koi…Mil Gaya), superhero (Krrish), suave robber (Dhoom 2), quadriplegic (Guzaarish) and Emperor Akbar (Jodhaa Akbar). In the January 25 release Kaabil, Roshan pushes himself to the limit yet again in the role of a blind man who avenges the rape and murder of his wife.

Visual impairment is usually treated as a handicap in the movies, but Kaabil seems to be making the case that even the blind can “see” – and be just as able when it comes to plotting vengeance.

Sai Paranjpye’s sensitive Sparsh, about the relationship between a blind teacher (Naseeruddin Shah) and his sighted colleague (Shabana Azmi), is an exception to the general rule that when lead characters have a perceived drawback – a physical handicap, a life-threatening ailment – they must be overcompensated.

Kaabil has its antecedents in such vengeance dramas as Qatl (1986). In RK Nayyar’s thriller, Sanjeev Kumar plays a cuckolded husband whose knockout wife is burning up the sheets with another man. The movie opens with a cautionary song with the teling lyrics “Kisika dil jo todega, Khuda kya uske chodega” (God will not spare the one who causes heartbreak).

After Rakesh (Sanjeev Kumar) loses his sight in an accident, his wife Rohini (Sarika) starts an affair with Ranjeet (Marc Zuber). Rakesh’s perceptive powers have increased since his blindness, and when he learns about the affair, he meticulously plots Ranjeet’s death. The movie’s highlight is the courtroom sequence in which Rakesh recreates the murder step-by-step to general wonderment.

AL Vijay’s Thaandavam goes a step further in bestowing special powers on its visually challenged hero. Kenny (Vikram) has mastered echolocation, which gives him the ability to detect the presence of people and objects through sound. Kenny goes on a killing spree in London before popping up on the radar of a British Indian police officer, who resignedly observes that “These people manage fine without help.”

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Thaandavam.

The sudden occurrence of blindness and the disappearance of “aankhon ki roshni” (the light in the eyes) can drive a wedge between lovers and spouses, as evident from such movies as Jailor (1958), Patang (1960), Chiraag (1969) and Kinara (1977). Morose songs, in which actors express their plight or defiantly overcome it, are the norm in such films. With a fixed stare, minimal eyeball movement and full-on determination, Hema Malini dances on a stage in Gulzar’s lachrymose Kinara. Deepika Padukone’s blind skater brings down the house (but naturally) in Pradeep Sarkar’s 2010 dud Lafangey Parindey.

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Lafangey Parindey (2010).

Kamal Haasan, who is known for rising up to histrionic challenges (a dwarf, George Bush, a double agent, a potential killer of Mahatma Gandhi), plays a blind violinist in Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s delightful comedy Raja Paarvai (1981). Raghu (Haasan) loses his sight in a childhood illness, but rebuffs any mollycoddling. He knows when he is being shortchanged and hates pity. “I live independently, and happily,” he says. Nancy (Madhavi) loses her heart to Raghu in the process of writing a book on his exploits, and their respective parents are horrified. Illaiyaraaja rolls out some lovely tunes, while LV Prasad, the legendary filmmaker, has a hilarious turn as Nancy’s grandfather.

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Andhi Mazhai Pozhigirathu from Raja Paarvai (1981).

Sparsh and Raja Paarvai are rare movies that allow blind characters to exercise their choice and individual will. Blindness is often a plot excuse to manipulate audiences into reaching for their hankies. Moviegoers who are allergic to overwrought melodrama usually run in the opposite direction from films about visual impairment.

Blind women in films are especially vulnerable to pity and exploitation. The threat of rape always hangs over a visually impaired female – for instance, Barsaat Ki Ek Raat (1981) and Avatharam, 1995). The men have it no better – they are objects of derision and filled with self-loathing, forever glowering at their condition behind dark glasses.

Yet, the portrayal of blindness is a challenge that few actors can resist. Actors like prove to the world that like their characters, they too can impress the world with their feats. Very few – Naseeruddin Shah remains the gold standard – succeed in conveying the inner lives of their characters.

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Sparsh.

Most films treat blindness itself as a special ability, which has the power to break down audience reserve and leave them sobbing in their seats. Dilip Kumar played a blind father and a blind son in Bairaag (1976) apart from portraying the son’s sighted twin. But even he could not best his performance in Deedar (1951), in which his singer moves heaven and earth to be reunited with his one true love. When he regains his sight and finds out that she has married the eye doctor who conducted his surgery, he blinds himself in anguish. Directed and shot by Nitin Bose, Deedar remains one of the thespian’s greatest forays into tragedy, best portrayed in the closing line, “Some challenges are better lost than overcome.”

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Hue Hum Jinke Liye Barbad from Deedar (1951).

Films about the blind rarely reach such philosophical heights. Rani Mukerji boosted her filmography in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (2005), inspired by The Miracle Worker, the biopic of Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan. Bhansali’s Baroque style removes any scope for subtlety.

At the extreme end of achievement is the action thriller Shadow (2009). The visually impaired Naseer Khan made international headlines when he produced and starred as a garage owner who is actually a vigilante. A favourite of B-grade cinema enthusiasts, Shadow is a platform for Khan’s ability to fix cars, dance in nightclubs, zip around on a motorbike, and murders his victims leaving no one the wiser. Sonali Kulkarni, as a clueless police officer, and Milind Soman, as Mumbai’s dishiest television journalist, sportingly cushion Khan’s fall. Khan’s can-do attitude deserves praise, but even overcompensation has its limits.

Naseer Khan in Shadow (2009).
Naseer Khan in Shadow (2009).