In the trailer of Aanand L Rai’s upcoming film Zero, Bauua (Shah Rukh Khan) loses his heart to a photograph of Aafia (Anushka Sharma), but is taken aback when he sees that she uses a wheelchair. “Photo mein toh wheelchair dikhi hi nahi,” he says. Bauua is perplexed that the image has failed to depict what he considers a significant facet of Aafia’s identity: the chair that is an extension of her body.
In 1992, the United Nations General Assembly declared December 3 as International Day for Disabled Persons. The wheelchair, for better or worse, has been at the centre of movements that campaign for making physical spaces inclusive of and accessible to persons with disabilities. The International Symbol of Access is a static person sitting on a wheelchair, but Hindi cinema demonstrates that the chair with wheels has a symbolic potential that is remarkably dynamic and mobile.
The wheelchair is often an indicator of a mental disturbance that would not have otherwise been evident. In Aadmi (1968), a young Rajesh kills his playmate because the boy touches a beloved doll named Meena. Rajesh buries the incident and moves on, but his past resurfaces when he falls in love with a woman named Meena. When a sudden accident causes Rajesh to become wheelchair-bound, his repressed angst flows in full force. The mobile chair is a veritable time capsule, dragging his past trauma firmly into the present.
In Khoobsurat (2014), the wheelchair becomes the symbol of mental trauma. Shekhar Singh Rathore is paralysed from the waist down after a road accident that killed his eldest son. Shekhar’s wheelchair represents his internal turmoil, and it is implied that he won’t be able to kick it until he makes peace with his trauma. His wife copes with his absence by becoming rigid and serious-minded. The presence of the wheelchair fuels an oppressive and stifling external environment.
On the other hand, in Aaj Aur Kal (1963), a king’s stifling insistence on discipline and tradition causes his eldest daughter Hemalata to become wheelchair-bound. However, as she regains the use of her feet, upcoming elections threaten the king’s hold on his ancestral power. Aaj Aur Kal represents an optimistic India on the cusp of political change. Hemlata’s wheelchair is also symbolic of the state of the country’s crumbling aristocracy, and the loosening hold of traditional power relations.
The metaphor repeats itself in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (2013), where an outdated royal struggling to stay relevant is frustrated because he is confined to a wheelchair. However, Aditya continues to hold court while being seated on his mobile throne. The movement afforded by the wheelchair also signifies Aditya’s wily efforts to retain authority. Ironically, he loses power only after he kicks away his wheelchair.
People with different political beliefs can be united on the idea that a person using a wheelchair deserves to be treated with dignity. Although this lack of politics frequently tips over into valourisation (consider the apellation divyaang), it has been explored subtly in Guru (2007). Meenu has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. Her mobile chair also represents the last fluid channel of communication between her socialistic grandfather and his flagrantly capitalistic enemy Gurukant. Both men can agree only on their love for Meenu.
Inheritors of property and estate are often slowed down by a wheelchair, which complicates access to their ancestral wealth. In Satte Pe Satta (1982), Seema is the heir to a fortune and glued to a wheelchair. In Seeta aur Geeta (1972), the oppressed matriarch of a wealthy family is uses a wheelchair, and is unable to champion for her mild-mannered and exploited grandaughter Seeta.
Although it cosies up to wealth, a wheelchair is often perceived as incompatible with love. Since it signifies a lack, wheelchair-using men often view their bodies as unworthy of love. Consider Chandni (1989), in which Rohit pushes Chandni away because an accident has rendered him incapable of “standing up” for her.
In Heroes (2008), a crippled ex-soldier makes short work of goons who are harassing his girlfriend, indicating that he is virile despite being confined. Love also has the power to drive away the wheelchair and park it up for good, as evidenced in Satte Pe Satta, and parodied in Khel (1992).
In Wazir (2016), the wheelchair allows chess master Pandit to achieve his ends, both despite and because of his body. However, Pandit’s dependence on the chair, coupled with his advanced age, leads him to believe that he is expendable. The idea that a wheelchair user leads a sub-human existence has also been echoed by Dhund (1973). Prakash decides not to kill his nemesis, Ranjit Singh, because he thinks that confinement to a wheelchair is punishment enough.
Hindi cinema’s relationship with the wheelchair has been summarised with a painfully accurate parody in Om Shanti Om (2007). Pampered actor OK is alarmed to find that he is playing a pained blind, deaf-mute, wheelchair-borne lover attending his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. This film will get awards, OK tells his director, but no one will watch it. OK’s solution is simple: include a dream sequence with the hero dancing his helplessness away.