Clad in a burgundy salwar kameez, with a bag slung over her shoulder, she strides along one of Kolkata’s bustling footpaths. As the traffic light hits red, Jeeja Ghosh makes her way along the zebra crossing. An unruly biker hollers at her inability to walk. Hurling an abuse at him, she picks up her pace and walks away. “Who can think that I am also in a hurry? Firstly a woman then disabled…and she is going to work. Just unimaginable!” she remarks with an ironic smile.

Swati Chakraborty’s documentary I’m Jeeja explores the lives and battles of people living with cerebral palsy through Ghosh’s stirring story. The disability rights activist got into the public eye in 2012 when an airline deplaned her owing to her condition.

Chakraborty, who has been working closely with the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy for three decades, made her documentary debut with Easy Tech, a film on inclusive technologies for the differently abled. I’m Jeeja was named the Best Film on Social Issues in the Non-Feature films category at the 64th National Film Awards. Equality is about providing a level playing field for all, Chakraborty told in an email interview.

Why does I’m Jeeja have a first-person narrative?
People with cerebral palsy in most cases face multiple challenges. Many of them have bright minds trapped inside disobedient bodies. And many of them have associated problems such as speech impairment leading to complex communication needs.

Sadly, public awareness about disability is still at a low level and people with CP are less heard of, less visible and less understood. Even inside the community of PWD (People with Disability), PWCP (People with Cerebral Palsy) are kind of marginalised. Hence, I wanted to make a film with a changed perception about disability and PWDs, which shows someone, who has proved to be no less than any human being in achieving her dreams. It had to be a first person narrative as it would present the undiluted perspective and the voice of the stakeholder.

Moreover, it was also a question of rights. I wanted my audience to accept Jeeja, my protagonist, as she is – a bright sparky woman with jumpy gait and movements, slurred speech, deformities and drooling.

I’m Jeeja.

When did you first meet Jeeja?
I first met Jeeja when she paid a visit to IICP. At that time she was studying at La Martiniere for Girls and I was a young computer teacher at IICP. She came to ask me whether I could teach her computers. It was a sultry summer afternoon. When she came in and saw that I had an AC room, she said that she would now come by and talk to me as frequently as possible as such talks are bound to be “cool”! And immediately we were friends.

When she went to Presidency College, our camaraderie remained unchanged with her flooding me with stories of many adventures of student life and her boyfriend. I had the privilege of watching her journey closely and to know the person that she is. A vibrant, bright, witty, caring, fiery and courageous Jeeja is what I treasure.

I have also known her moments of despairs and depressions, but she has always fought back. As an activist, she talks about responsibilities when she talks about rights. She is a born fighter, a rebel who has fought with her body from the very childhood. If someone tries to abuse her or any other person in front of her, she doesn’t think twice about confronting that person. She is not a conformist, she loves to challenge taboos.

Jeeja was an integral part of the film’s research and scripting. What was it like working with her?
I was coaxing Jeeja from 2012 about making this film on her. She would laugh and say, “Nobody will watch it.” When PSBT approved my proposal, I asked her to work with me for script writing. I wanted her to stick to her own way of speaking, her choice of words. So, she wrote those words. When I worked on the visual part and started binding all the bits and pieces of experiences together, I discussed with her and finally the script evolved.

Jeeja has faced many road accidents in real life, and I wanted to use one such incident to start off the film. We had a debate about showing Jeeja hurling abuse at an unruly biker who would taunt Jeeja. The audio had to be beeped later. Jeeja laughed and said, “Now, people will wonder what this naïve looking poor girl may have said!”

Jeeja and her husband Bappaditya Nag. Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Apart from the struggles Jeeja has overcome, the film also deals with her personal life and marriage.
Actually, it depends on what we mean by success. I think it is all about having a positive attitude towards life.

It is true that for Jeeja, even small things are challenging. There are some days when because of spasticity, she has to depend on others for dressing and grooming, for eating or drinking, for walking etc. Considering that, going out every day, travelling by bus, studying (we didn’t have any assistive technology while she was growing up), especially a subject like social work, living alone in Delhi and abroad, maintaining a job are herculean tasks that she has done successfully.

Indian attitudes towards PWDs is a combination of neglect and pity. So, I thought it was important to show that someone with so many challenges can share a responsible and beautiful relationship with a person without disabilities whom she loves and is loved back. Moreover, sexuality is at the core of human identity; I think, with the episode of love Jeeja’s character portrayal achieves completeness, we can relate to her and she can touch our soul.

Bappaditya Nag, Jeeja’s husband, is a wonderful person. I think it is a most charming relationship that they share. It is special because it is most normal. They met each other at the workplace, dated like any other young boy and girl of this generation and finally married. They do fight also and then make up like all couples do. I think their marriage is one of the central themes that I wanted to portray from the beginning.

What went into the film’s production?
I wanted to tell a positive story and I wanted Jeeja as the narrator, using her on screen and using her speech without any dubbing. I had difficulties convincing people that this would be effective. Then, Ladly Mukhopadhaya, a senior documentarian filmmaker, advised to send the proposal to PSBT. I got the film fellowship grant for Doordarshan and it was really easy!

PSBT never put any pressure on me, they gave me complete freedom regarding content and treatment, which was just wonderful. We did the shooting in Delhi, Kolkata and Chinsura (suburban West Bengal). Shooting was tiring for Jeeja, at times she was unwell, but Jeeja being Jeeja was most supportive. IICP, naturally extended wholehearted support to us. Ladly Da kindly agreed to do camera for me and handled all the technical issues. My crew members, were just fabulous. I had a tough time fitting in Jeeja within 28 minutes that we had to accomplish.

I faced some personal challenges though when my husband was detected with lung cancer; I had to take time off for his treatment and the film got delayed.

Nearly half of India’s disabled population is illiterate. What are your thoughts on the national policies on people with disability in India?
The main problem is in the attitude. We have problems in accepting differences. So, as a whole, the society is not inclusive. What we need is access and opportunities for all irrespective of physical, cognitive, emotional, social, economic, caste, religion etc.

When we construct a building, even a public space, we do not ever think whether PWDs will be able to come in. Our roads, transport, schools, universities, theatres, hotels – nothing is accessible. The school system does not yet allow access to special software and devices. The issue of rights for PWDs is to be looked at in the bigger perspective of human rights issues. When such a large population in the country is still below the poverty line, with little access to education, health and sustainable livelihood, having little scope to exercise their constitutional rights, obviously, national policy and the ACT will only remain as a documents. It needs lots of activism to change attitudes and the social situation.

How is disability, in particular, cerebral palsy, treated in Indian films?
In India, mainstream films in most cases portray disability either in a negative way or submerged in pity. Feature films lack in real life research and fictional presentation, and are often far away from reality. I don’t want to name films, but some of the popular films fall into this category.

In fact, I have rarely seen PWDs in the film industry, either in the capacity of actors or technicians. I think involvement of PWDs and stakeholders can only bring out the real situation, sentiment and perspective in light.