Difference and diversity - physical, neurological, mental - have never been accepted wholeheartedly by our society. Even the most privileged of us have to conform to bodily ‘norms’ and ‘normality’.
This being the case, the depiction of persons with disabilities has been consistently below par in Malayalam cinema. Disability depictions often vacillate between a comic interlude, underplayed heroism, liability and burden. It’s also wrongly projected as a medical problem that can be fixed through Ayurveda, occult powers or even plain miracles when the truth is that disability is an irreversible condition that can be reversed only if it is diagnosed earlier. No, an alien cannot cure a disability like it is shown in Koi Mil Gaya.
Rarely are the characters portrayed as people with feelings just like everyone else, especially when it comes to romance and enjoying life.
“World cinema I think had movies that sensitively portrayed disabled characters. But Malayalam filmmakers give the impression of never doing their homework properly—neither the actor, the writer, nor the director. Since the general public’s understanding is minimal, unless they live with someone with a disability, it’s important that cinema shows it correctly. Actors taking up a character with disability in a longitudinal way be it blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy or autism, I would say they never understand the disability at all. A person who is born blind and someone who turned blind due to illness or accident have different approaches to life. Disability is an integral part of human experience, we are all prone to it at any phase of life,” maintains Dr Samuel Mathews, educational consultant and former executive director of National Institure of Speech and Hearing (NISH).
How romance is written for persons with disability
Director Vinayan has made a career out of using and misusing disability as a tool to enhance the appeal of his film’s narrative. His idea of disability rarely goes beyond pity, lampooning or caricaturing. It appears more like an act of charity than a sincere attempt to understand and address their issues with sensitivity.
Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njanum (1999) has a blind hero (Kalabhavan Mani) who also has two deaf and mute sisters. Besides living in abject poverty, with the bedridden father (Bharath Gopy) constantly berating him for his blindness, he is also unaware of the fact that his sisters’ attempts to fund his eye operation are being exploited by the villains.
Not only is it a depressing state of events, the actor who plays the part somehow adds to the misery by caricaturing the role with loud mannerisms, giving the impression that blindness is a disease that takes away all the joy out of one’s life.
Hindi cinema, in Sparsh (1980), had already shown to the world how to delicately thread together a narrative if the hero was visually impaired. Oomapenninum Uriyada Payyan (2002) had a deaf and mute hero (Jayasurya) and heroine (Kavya Madhavan) who fall in love (to think that Koshish, a beautifully sensitive love story between a deaf and mute couple had already released two decades ago). In fact, one of the reasons the heroine falls in love is for his disability. What follows is a typical Vinayan cocktail—poor boy (he paints billboards for a living) and poor little rich girl decide to elope, get caught by the villains and live happily ever after.
What really pulls down the representation are also the performances. Kavya Madhavan can’t decide (blame it on the terrible direction) whether to act silly or behave like someone with a mental health issue while Jayasurya resorts to loud mannerisms that border on the comical.
Meerayude Dukhavum Muthuvinte Swapnavum (2003) is the bizarre tale of a hero (Prithviraj) and his sister with a physical disability (she can’t walk, played by Ambili Devi) and the narrative typically focuses on the society that ridicules her and sympathises with her at every given opportunity. Every time the world pokes fun at her, the camera pans to her teary face, her quivering lips, making it clear that she is already on her way to despising her fate. She is poor and dependent on her brother who is desperately looking for a groom for her and when that doesn’t happen, she opts for suicide. It’s a shockingly irresponsible depiction at various levels, besides being deplorably misogynistic.
For some bizarre reason, our filmmakers have often used the outdated belief surrounding bad karma ending in disability in various films. The subtext being that either they are being punished for their sins or for those committed by the parents.
“The best example I can think of is Mangalassery Neelakandan (Mohanlal) in Devasuram (1993), who gets beaten up by bad guys minutes after being cursed by Bhanumati (Revathy), resulting in him becoming a wheelchair user and getting the sympathy of the heroine. The way I’d like to see people with disabilities in films is just as casually as any other person and not to emotionally manipulate the viewer,” says Paresh Palicha, a film critic who has had cerebral palsy since birth.
In Kattu (2017), the heroine (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) who falls in love with the hero (Murali Gopy) from another community, is “punished”. She is forced to marry her cousin who is tied to the wheelchair. He was beaten black and blue by the hero and that resulted in his condition. “That is life-long imprisonment for her,” declares her father, thereby desexualising those with disability.
Ranjith’s Mizhi Randilum (2003) has the rich hero’s (Dileep) sister in a wheelchair (Revathy) unmarried, resigned to her fate.
Dileep has shown an affinity to playing characters with disability. The loud person with a hunchback and protruding teeth in Sasi Sankar’s Kunjikoonan (2002), the one with a limping leg in the Kareem directorial Ezharakootam (1995), the person with a mental disability in Kamal’s Pachakuthira (2006) and the one with a cleft lip in Vysakh’s Sound Thoma (2013).
In AK Lohithadas’s Chakkaramuthu (2006), one isn’t entirely sure what condition he's portraying — he has speech impairment, mannerisms that are meant to look "abnormal" and yet responds to situations like everyone else.
In Kunjikoonan, he plays a double role and the other character, perceived as “normal” is someone with an obsessive controlling streak and a filthy temper. Kunjikoonan, sketched with mirth for the most part, runs a telephone booth, has low self-esteem but isn’t a character with whom we are made to entirely sympathise. He has a wicked sense of humour and seems thrilled when the woman (Navya Nair) he has taken a liking for turns out to be blind.
Though the film eventually ends happily, it does have its share of problems. For one, Dileep’s get-up of Koonan is too grotesque, with the makers goig overboard in their attempt to play the sympathy card. And the message that only a person with disability is fit to love/marry another person with disability. The heroine is blind at the time she meets Koonan. While Koonan falls for her looks, the former is floored by his compassion. So, in a way the makers are also implying that the possibility of her falling for him seems far-fetched if she saw him, so they decided to safely make her blind.
But still, the film was better than others.
“Talking about positive characters, the first film that comes to my mind is Kunjikoonan, not because of Dileep’s portrayal. But, for the writer Benny P. Nayarambalam who makes someone who looks like that feel and behave just as others,” says Paresh.
A disability like the cleft lip is handled comically in Sound Thoma, supplementing it with the actor making a song and dance out of it inside a middling narrative. In Pachakuthira, it’s not clear what his character’s disability is—he walks differently, talks like a child and wears oversized glasses, making him look like a comical figure.
In Punjabi House (1998), though he pretends to be mute, the narrative either opts to sympathise or laugh at the situation. Towards the climax, when his childhood sweetheart realises that he is about to marry a mute woman, all her anger disappears, and she is happy that he is doing such a “noble act” of saving the woman from lifelong spinsterhood.
Films which got it right
For the longest time, our filmmakers made a mockery of people with stammering issues, never addressing the emotional and psychological issues linked to it. The only film which sensitively attempted to understand the complexities of this issue was Ranjit Sankar’s Su Sudhi Vathmeekam (2015).
Not only did the film delicately present the speech difficulty but also allowed us to empathise with people who have it. Full marks to Jayasurya who did his homework well and worked hard not to make a mockery out of it. It was so thorough that he even got the fluctuations in stammering due to ageing correctly. That’s why Jayasurya remains one of the most reliable actors to portray characters with disability on screen.
In Beautiful (2011), he plays a quadriplegic person called Stephen, a millionaire who is surprisingly witty and positive despite being immobile. The actor is nuanced, putting together the emotional graph of the character with restraint. It’s one of the rare instances when you try to see him as a person than through the disability lens.
“I loved that scene where he sits on the bike experiencing rain. It’s something we have always wished to do,” says Preetha, a paraplegic person who also designs jewellery, makes pickles and organic pens for a living.
VK Prakash, the director of Beautiful ,recalls the exact moment when the story took shape. He was visiting Jayasurya who was resting in bed with a broken leg, and the actor told him about an interesting character Anoop Menon (who scripted the film) had in mind.
“We wanted to make a happier Guzarish (2010), a similar character who had so much of positivity around him. I told Jayasurya to use his eyes alone to communicate, which he did so effectively,” says VK Praksh.
Even in the light-hearted entertainer Amar Akbar Anthony (2015), directed by Nadirshah in which Jayasurya plays a character with a disability, he never invites our pity. On the contrary, there is a scene where he uses his disability to his advantage, though it doesn’t work. At the packed ticket counter, he says— “See the power of a handicapped,” strides in slow motion and ends up being thrashed by the cop.
In the Anjali Menon directed Bangalore Days (2014), Sarah (Parvathy) is a paraplegic person who works as an RJ, commutes in an electric wheelchair, gives inspirational speeches in schools and would probably show you the door if you dared to sympathise with her.
“She is independent, free-spirited and positive. And you see a strapping young man (Dulquer Salmaan) pursuing her and falling madly in love with her, thereby giving the image that a woman with a disability has feelings, needs and dreams like everyone else and she needn’t only aspire to marry someone with a similar disability. Post this film, a lot of people have enquired about the kind of wheelchair I use or where to get it,” says Ashla Rani, assistant to Dr MR Rajagopal, Chairman, Pallium India who also works with people with disabilities.
But it’s a different scene in Jayaraj’s Sneham (1998). Jomol is a paraplegic person, who lives an isolated existence with her widowed mother in a village. When her mother dies, the hero (Jayaram) who is going through his own personal crisis decides to marry her to “redeem himself” from the humiliation and rejections he has gone through. In a narrative injected with nauseating sympathy, she is also an uneasy victim.
“Don’t show us sympathy. A lot of us live independent, happy lives. Considering cinema is such an influential medium, every filmmaker is accountable to show us in an empowering light. It’s their pity and stares that make us feel disabled,” says Ashla.
Bharathan’s Keli (1991) which has a hero with one leg, is let down by the same “pitying overtones” in the narrative. Poor, disabled, lone bread winner, low self-esteem. Though he gets the girl in the end, it’s a depressing picture that is painted before you.
Another disturbing aspect has been the inability to humanise (marvelously done in the indie film Margarita with a Straw (2014) characters with disability on screen. They are always a paragon of virtue along with being a victim of circumstances. They are rarely shown as mischievous, witty (Stephen in Beautiful was an exception) or full of beans.
Bibin George, the successful co-writer of Amar Akbar Anthony and Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan (2016) has lived with polio since the age of three. He recently made his debut as a hero in Oru Pazhaya Bombu Kadha (2018). He dances, romances and does everything reserved for a hero.
“It’s not a film based on a physically disabled person. Shafi sir has made me do everything a regular hero would do,” said George in an interview to Times of India.
In the Sibi Malayil directed Akashadoothu (1993), they showed the societal stigma against such a disability, when all the children, except the one affected with polio, are adopted.
Says Preetha,“There is a scene in Oru Pazhaya Bombu Kadha where he is beaten in the police station and I had tears. I could feel everything he was going through—helplessness, humiliation. Since it’s performed by such an actor, it instantly touched a chord.”
Understand, observe and perform
When actors fail to comprehend the nuances they should bring to their performances while enacting such characters, they end up as caricatures. It happened with Vineeth Sreenivasan, who played a character with special needs in the Srikant Murali directed Aby (2017). Wile the narrative tried to project him as a "mad genius", the actor seemed unsure how to play the role.
“With all due respect to Mohanlal, who plays a character who has Asperger syndrome in Alexander the Great (2010), neither he nor the director (Murali Nagavally) tried to understand or study the character and it showed on screen. That’s what Dustin Hoffman tried and succeeded in Rain Man, where he plays a character with autism. He spent time with them and did his homework thoroughly, understanding them,” says Dr Samuel Mathews.
Six highly recommended films where the directors and actors have clearly done their homework:
1) Sparsh (1980): Directed by Sai Paranjape, the film has a visually impaired man as the lead, who falls in love. But the two are unable to get past their own insecurities and establish love in their relationship. With nuanced performances (Naseerudin Shah and Shabana Azmi) the film explores the complexities that can occur in such a relationship.
2) Peranbu (2019): This Ram directorial narrates a complex, emotional and poignant bond between a father (Mammootty) and his autistic daughter (Sadhana). It’s one of the few films which discusses the sexual desires of people with disabilities.
3) Koshish (1971): A sublime love story between a deaf and mute couple with beautiful performances by Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri.
4) Rain Man (1988): Brilliant performance by Dustin Hoffman who has autism. It about a selfish young wheeler-dealer Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), who discovers that his estranged father has died and bequeathed all his multimillion-dollar estate to his other son, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant, of whose existence Charlie was unaware.
5) Margarita With a Straw (2014): It addresses cerebral palsy and the protagonist (Kalki Koechlin) is a rebellious free-spirited woman who falls in love and discusses her sexuality.
6) Silver Linings Playbook (2012): In this American romantic comedy, Bradley Cooper plays a man with bipolar disorder who is released from a psychiatric hospital and moves back with his parents.
7) Scent of a Woman (1992): Al Pacino plays a blind, irritable, medically retired Army officer who has a preparatory school student as an assistant. Watch out for Pacino’s intense performance which is equally entertaining.