A man and a woman fall in love, get married, and are living happily ever after… until the villain intervenes and harasses the woman. She dies and the man avenges her death. This could be the story of any Bollywood film. But millions of blind persons in India finally sat up on January 25, 2017, and said hmm, here are characters and a story that we relate to – and, you know what, it is absolutely “normal”.
I am talking about Sanjay Gupta’s Kaabil, where both leads are blind. This film is not special to me as a blind woman and a disability rights activist only because of the stunning Hrithik Roshan and his sweet character Rohan Bhatnagar, but because the film is not about disability. We have seen films like Taare Zameen Par and Margarita With a Straw that have been issue-based or educational. Just as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham have affluent protagonists who provide the context to the plot, similarly Kaabil has blind protagonists. “Normalising” disability in cinema – that is what Kaabil does.
Critics are sure that the movie is gender insensitive – which is only the problem of Kaabil but almost all of Bollywood. They further say that that Roshan has been portrayed as a superhero fighting off all the villains who harmed his wife Supriya (Yami Gautam), but does that really have anything to do with the disability? If Bollywood is known for heroes who always win at the end, why should it be different if the hero is blind?
Rather than using disability to gain sympathy and pity, the movie reflects the research invested in its making and the casually inserted nuanced moments. You would know this as soon as the film opens with a scene of the lead actor cooking. It was fantastic to watch a blind man dealing with rupee notes and correcting the autorickshaw driver when he tries to cheat him. It was also fun to see that the blind man knew how to ride a bicycle.
And it is definitely a no-brainer when he gifts a watch to his future wife. These sequences actually question what most people shockingly don’t know about visually impaired persons. To add to this, the beautiful energy of the blind couple dancing is a recreational activity not commonly associated with disability – the fact that two blind individuals are confident, independent, and considering romance and marriage was probably an eye opener for most.
When the trailer was out, alarm bells began ringing for me, particularly when I heard the dialogue “Negative aur negative positive toh nahi ho sakte” and “Andhera andhere ko ujala toh nahi de sakta”. These are typical statements made by lay persons who know nothing about living with disability. These are unsaid assumptions around love and relationships that society makes and that seep into the subconscious minds of people with disabilities.
Thus in real or reel life, the discussion around potential dating partners for someone disabled is reduced to the disability and not how wonderful or not the person is. Showing people with disabilities to be incomplete and hopelessly dependent, particularly in relationships, has been the forte of Indian cinema.
The trailer suggested that Kaabil was no different. But Rohan helps Supriya deal with this incorrect assumption and experience a different reality of equal love.
The film is not all hunky dory, and is punctuated with ignorance and stigma. Rohan’s close friend says that he has heard that love is blind, but he doesn’t know that the blind also love. These lines, though said in jest, highlight important issues faced by disabled people. The popular idea is that disability reduces us to something less than complete, and that love, romance and sex will never be on our minds with the struggles and survival issues that we face.
Kaabil also subtly echoes questions that perhaps many people imagine and want to raise. This is particularly in the area of sex and sexuality. The film very beautifully dispels such misconceptions when it answers the ignorant questions posed by the villains who wonder about Rohan and Supriya’s wedding night, “How would these blind people be doing it?” This statement is juxtaposed with a lovemaking scene.
Yes, Supriya is at greater risk because of her blindness, but the issues portrayed in the film were very real for disabled women who are raped by someone who has money, power, and other privileges. The corruption of the police, the difficulties in giving evidence, and the helplessness of a middle-class couple were heart-wrenching and true.
We could complain that Kaabil didn’t attempt to have blind/visually impaired actors or show the amazing assistive technology that blind persons use. But after sitting through blockbusters that have heroes pull out their intravenous support lines in hospital and jump straight into action, it would be unfair to expect Kaabil to be perfect! The only real complaint is that a film about blind persons is not accessible to them. It would have been great for Kaabil to have thought of audio descriptions and accessible cinema.
I grew up watching Bollywood films that told me there were no equal relationships for someone like me or that no interesting man – disabled or not – would chose to be with a disabled woman out of attraction and love. But a film like Kaabil makes me happy for the young disabled teenagers who see themselves being accepted and celebrated in mainstream cinema. Never mind the fact that Rohan Bhatnagar kindled the teenaged celebrity crush on the actor for me.
Nidhi Goyal is an activist working on disability rights and gender justice. Being disabled herself, she works at the intersection of disability and gender through research, training, advocacy, and art. Follow her @saysnidhigoyal.