I was intrigued to learn that Tamannaah of Baahubali fame has signed up to play the role of a deaf and mute character in her next film. The last few years have seen a wide variety of films themed around disabled characters. It is great to see more such films, whatever their merits. These movies in India and around the world can be divided into three broad categories that tell us a lot about the way the filmmakers treat disability.
This is the most clichéd category¸ and its best-known entry is the French movie The Intouchables (2011). Millionaire Philippe (Francois Cluzet), who is paralysed down the neck, lives in a mansion with a spoilt adopted daughter and his staff. He hires as his helper Driss (Omar Sy), a street-smart hooligan who’s applying for the job only to get the required number of rejections to claim unemployment benefits. Both men develop a deep friendship.
My favourite scene is when Philippe’s friend warns him, “These street guys have no pity,” to which he retorts, “That’s what I want… no pity”.
Driss transforms himself into a responsible, mature man, gets lessons in art and sells his first painting. Philippe, on the other hand, starts taking life less seriously, smokes a joint, visits strippers (who play with his ears as he can’t feel below his neck), starts disciplining his daughter and meets a pen friend.
Replace middle-aged Philippe with young Will (Sam Claffin) and Driss with Lou (Emilia Clarke) and you get Me Before You (2016) – The Intouchables plus romance. Too bad that Will can’t fathom living the rest of his life as a disabled individual, deciding to prematurely end his life through euthanasia.
Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai are the leads in Guzaarish, loosely inspired by Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When the courts prevent Ethan Mascarenhas (Roshan) from ending his life his nurse and love Sofia (Rai) offers to end his suffering.
The Fundamentals of Caring (2016) is about failed writer Ben (Paul Rudd) who becomes a caregiver to18-year-old Trevor (Craig Roberts), who has muscular dystrophy. Over time, they become close and decide to go on a journey to the world’s deepest pit. The trip is one of self-discovery for both – Craig has many firsts, including talking to a woman. Ben copes with the loss of his son and revives his writing career, penning a book on Trevor.
In a twisted way, Black (2005) fits into this genre too. The movie revolves around Michelle McNally (Rani Mukerji), a blind and deaf woman, and her teacher Debraj (Amitabh Bachchan) who uses unconventional and often violent methods to teach her. Ironically, the film ends with Michelle caring for Debraj after he develops Alzheimer’s disease.
Another extremely popular category is biopics of achievers with disabilities. The Theory of Everything (2014) is easily my second favourite in the category. Not only because of the odds Stephen Hawking has beaten in his life, but also for the excellent performance by Eddie Redmayne as a scientist suffering from ALS.
However, for my favourite, we have to go two decades back to My Left Foot (1989), the story of Irish artist Christy Brown (Daniel Day Lewis), who one day writes the word “mother” on the floor with a chalk. And from there starts his education and eventual painting career. This movie has hope, humour, love and heartbreak.
The Indian biopic Margarita with a Straw (2014), loosely based on Malini Chib’s life, is about Laila (Kalki Koechelin) who has cerebral palsy. Shonali Bose’s movie single-handedly started a conversation on many taboos – disability, love, sexuality and companionship in a country as conservative as India.
The ‘divyang’ disabled
The third category could only have come up in a country that calls its disabled “divyang” (divine). These are action films starring disabled individuals outdoing the rest of the world. In Wazir (2016), Amitabh Bachchan stars as Omkar Nath, a chess master who convinces an anti-terrorism officer to attack the top political establishment of the country to avenge his daughter’s death.
In Kaabil (2017), Hrithik Roshan avenges his wife’s rape and suicide by outsmarting the entire Mumbai police force (after telling them about his intentions). He is as powerful as Dharmendra. The movie totally loses it in the second half after a powerful scene early on in which Roshan starts dancing with his future wife (Yami Gautam) after asking her for the dimensions and number of levels of the dance floor.
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the dwarf in Game of Thrones, is a perfect example of someone who isn’t a superhero but realises the challenges of his short stature. He outplays his rivals with cunningness and intelligence. In his own words, “Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour and it can never be used to hurt you.”
There are also movies that don’t fall into any of these categories. Taare Zameen Par (2007) is about a dyslexic child and Paa (2009) focuses on progeria. The show Life’s Too Short, starring Warwick Davis as a pompous, narcissistic dwarf actor going through a tough phase in life, is sarcastic and funny and shows the daily challenges faced by dwarves. The mockumentary even makes you hate Warwick Davis at times, and I can’t think of anything in India that attempts to come close.
The commonality in all these movies and television shows (with the exception of Game of Thrones) is that they are part of a niche segment. Films can go a long way towards breaking stereotypes about disability, but for far too long, we have seen disabled characters restricted to specialist movies centered on disability.
The mainstreaming of the disabled is becoming a rising trend in many sectors. This needs to happen in the entertainment industry too. Persons with disabilities are complete individuals interacting with a world that would not be normal without them. Perhaps, it is time that characters with disabilities are written into mainstream genres such as action, drama, romance, horror or musicals. For instance, in the X-Men franchise, Charles Xavier is restricted to a wheelchair, but it does no harm to his character.
Nipun Malhotra is a wheelchair user. He is the CEO of Nipman Foundation and founder of Wheels For Life (www.wheelsforlife.in). He can be followed on Twitter @nipunmalhotra.