Having once reduced them to clowns, is cinema finally doing right by dwarf persons?

For a long time, Malayalam and Tamil movies have resorted to using dwarf persons for humour, which often borders on the cruel. Are we any better now, TNM explores.
Actors Guinness Pakru, Arumughan Alappuzha, Liliput and Jaffer Sadiq
Actors Guinness Pakru, Arumughan Alappuzha, Liliput and Jaffer Sadiq
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More than 40 years since its release, veteran Malayalam director KG George’s 1980 film Mela has proved to be a milestone in many ways. Adapted to the screen from a book of the same name, written by circus artist and writer Sreedharan Champad, Mela tells the story of a 27-year-old dwarf person, who struggles with jealousy and insecurities after his marriage to a woman almost double his height. In his book ‘An Album of Indian Big Tops (History of Indian Circus)’, Sreedharan refers to Mela as the first film in the world to be made with a dwarf person as the hero: Puthenveli Sasidharan. Sasidharan eventually came to be known as Mela Raghu — a beloved screen name he received thanks to his stint as the protagonist in the critically acclaimed film.

That said, there is another reason to hand Mela the status of a ‘landmark movie’. The film was also the first big break in the industry for Raghu’s co-actor Muhammad Kutty or megastar Mammootty, as he would later come to be known. In an ironic twist of fate, however, even as his co-star of 5-ft 10-inches went on to rise through the ranks and climb new levels of stardom, the Mela hero was left behind to become a little known name. Raghu, who passed away in May last year, had played small roles in a handful of movies after Mela, including popular Malayalam films such as Albhutha Dweepu (2005), Mohanlal’s Drishyam franchise (2013 and 2021), and even Kamal Haasan’s blockbuster Tamil film Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989). Yet, none of them have done justice to his debut, or even stood out enough to leave a mark.

This is not to say that people of short stature do not enjoy stardom. With a height of 2 ft 6 inches, Ajay Kumar – popularly known as Unda Pakru – is a household name in Kerala. Following his portrayal of prince Gajendran in Vinayan’s Albhutha Dweepu, Pakru even made an entry into the Guinness World Records for being the shortest actor to play a full-length character in a film, earning him another moniker, Guinness Pakru. The film – which tells the story of the fantasy island kingdom Vamanapuri where all the men are dwarfed due to a celestial curse – had also received an entry into the Guinness Book for casting the most number of dwarf persons in a single film. Pakru went on to portray the protagonist in a number of other films including My Big Father (2010), Swantham Bharya Zindabad (2010), Fancy Dress (2019) and Ilayaraja (2019), besides playing important roles in several prominent films. He also took on the role of a director for the 2013 film Kutteem Kolum, and of a producer for Fancy Dress (2019).

Both Raghu and Pakru, however, are exceptions than the norm. Not many dwarf actors have had the opportunity to play such rich protagonists. In fact, across the country, it is rare to find people of short stature donning serious character roles in films, with a majority of them simply being relegated to comic relief or objects of amusement.

Dwarfism as a source of humour

A person with dwarfism is stereotypically seen as a perennially happy and entertaining person, a prejudice that has likely taken shape due to the way in which they have been portrayed in popular culture over the years — from jesters in royal courts during the ancient times to circuses much later. Though they have thus been seen as entertainers throughout history, it has unfortunately rarely been due to their talents. They were on display because of their distinctive appearance — their height, to be specific. 

Circuses have almost vanished now, but this historical link between dwarfism and entertainment remains unbroken to this day, with people of short stature deliberately and frequently inserted into contemporary humour in a way that other minority groups are not.

Indian cinema too has frequently resorted to using dwarf people for humour, which often borders on cruel, even when it has no bearing on the film’s plot line. Take for instance this ‘comedy scene’ from the 2002 Malayalam film Kunjikoonan, in which the protagonist Kunjan arrives at a house for a ‘pennu kaanal’ (bride-seeing) ceremony, and sees a young woman of less than 3 ft height walk out. As comic music plays in the background, the camera pans to reveal the face of the woman, Suhasini, played by Pakru. Kunjan is immediately offended by Suhasini’s appearance, side-eyeing his friend Thoma (Cochin Haneefa) who had mediated the alliance to convey the threat of retribution. But when Suhasini takes a look at Kunjan and rejects him due to his hunchback, the tables have turned. The audience is now supposed to feel bad for the hero, who was rejected by a woman of little height — a luxury not afforded to the latter.

Another example of such ‘comedy’ is a scene in the 1993 Tamil film Band Master starring Sarathkumar, in which one of the heroines (Ranjitha) can be seen denying food to two dwarf people because, you guessed it, humour. When one of the men asks her for food, she responds by taking back the banana leaves placed in front of the duo, instead proceeding to extend a spatula to them and asking them to sniff the food, because “a sniff would be enough for their size”.

The ‘eternal children’ trope

Another prominent way in which popular culture has stigmatised dwarf persons is by portraying them as a source of amusement due to their ‘childlike cuteness’. Case in point is the Jayaram starrer My Big Father, the entire second half of which derives its comedy from Pakru’s transformation to a childlike character after a head injury causes him to lose his memory. 

Even so, a number of dwarf actors – including Tamil’s Thavakalai Chittibabu, Malayalam’s Vettoor Purushan and Pakru himself – have successfully taken advantage of these prejudices against their physicality and layered them with their own innate sense of humour, creating a formula so unique to them that it catapulted them into household names. If Vettoor Purushan is the childlike Lambodharan in Naradhan Keralathil (1987), he is Prem Nazir’s sober and trusty sidekick in Oru Naal Innoru Naal (1985), and the cunning Rajaguru who pulls out all stops to hold on to his royal position in Albhutha Dweepu.

Thavakalai – who is nothing less than an icon among people with dwarfism in Tamil Nadu – has gone from a naughty boy who gets his little head stuck inside a pot for a comedy sequence in one film (Aan Paavam), to a spurned lover who wallows in humorous self-pity in another (Cheran Chozhan Pandian). Another Tamil actor, Shankar Ezhumalai, known by his stage name King Kong, had turned into an internet sensation and garnered global appreciation after a clip featuring his dance sequence from the Rajinikanth starrer Adhisaya Piravi went viral. Yet, it has to be noted that most of these actors were consistently limited to their roles as comedians, having rarely found an opportunity to venture into ‘serious acting’.

When the taller ones take over

In the meantime, a number of taller stars have pulled off full-length roles as people with dwarfism, sometimes going to extreme lengths, like shooting an entire film on their knees, to appear as a person of short stature. The most recent example is the 2018 Hindi film Zero, in which Shah Rukh Khan plays a dwarf person involved in a love triangle. But not everyone was enthused.

Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan plays a dwarf person in the 2018 film Zero. Credit: YouTube/ Red Chillies Entertainment

Veteran Hindi actor MM Faruqui, popularly known as Liliput, expressed his displeasure with Zero, which he thinks failed to address the emotional and social problems faced by the community. “While dwarfs are physically short, they too live and think like everyone else. They understand life and politics, they react, they get happy, sad and angry. But what difference would a taller actor make when they act as a person of short stature? If anything, it is the special effects that have to be lauded,” says Liliput, who was most recently seen playing a dreaded terrorist, Umar Farooq, in the Vijay starrer Beast.

Actor Liliput plays the role of a terrorist, Umar Farooq, in Beast (2022). Credit: Netflix

The actor, however, refrains from criticising Kamal Haasan’s Apoorva Sagodharargal, which had created history in India by becoming the first feature film in which an average-heighted actor plays a full-length hero role as a person with dwarfism. “Kamal Haasan is a genius. He was successful in bringing to life the lived realities of a dwarf person,” Liliput tells TNM. “His face captured the inferiority complex and the trauma a person with dwarfism undergoes. But now other actors are also trying to do it just because Kamal Haasan did it,” he adds with a chuckle.

Kamal Haasan played a dual role, one of them a dwarf person who works at a circus in Apoorva Sagodharargal of 1989. Credit: YouTube/ Bollywood Classics

Even in Albhutha Dweepu, one of the main characters (the Maharaja) is played by popular comedian Jagathy — a man of 5 ft 5 inches made to look shorter. Arumughan Alappuzha, a dwarf actor who plays the protagonist in the 2018 Malayalam film Moonnara, says the process of casting is mostly about star value. “If Rajinikanth is playing a dwarf person in a movie, surely more people will go and watch that film over something I have acted in, despite the fact that I am actually a person with dwarfism. Pakru bhai (brother) was the hero in Albhutha Dweepu because he is a star,” he points out. However, taller actors’ attempts to turn into dwarf people often comes at the cost of originality, he admits.

Popular Malayalam actor-comedian Jagathy, with a height of 5 ft 5 inches, donned the role of the Maharaja in Vinayan's Albhutha Dweepu. Credit: Disney+ Hotstar

A systemic problem

Dwarfism has frequently been referred to as a social disability, considering the way in which those affected are forced to remove themselves from the public eye due to the unwanted attention they receive, including staring and verbal abuse. Manju Raghav, a dwarf actor who portrays the character of Arumughan’s wife in Moonnara, says she is used to being stared at while outside. “People look upon those with visible disabilities with derision and disdain. We walk out of our home, and a hundred eyes turn to us. Our opinions and talents are ignored, and we are defined by our physicality instead.”

Arumughan Alappuzha and Manju Raghav were the protagonists of Soorajj S Kurup's 2018 film Moonnara. Credit: YouTube/ Celluloid Magazine

Arumughan also feels that a majority of people with dwarfism choose to stay away from public spaces. “I eventually found the courage to venture out of my comfort zone and enter the art field because of my father’s encouragement. But not everyone has this privilege,” he says. During the shooting of Albhutha Dweepu, more than 300 dwarf people turned up. But they were asked to stay back without guardians. “For a majority of them, this was intimidating. Almost one-fourth of them left because of this, even before the shoot began,” he recalls.

He also explains the reason for this: “A person with dwarfism, even if they have grown up to be 20 or 40 years of age, is often treated like a child by their family. They are not allowed to go outside alone, and hence often do not develop the courage to do so.”

Where the onus lies

Albhutha Dweepu, which has received significant acclaim for the visibility it afforded to people with dwarfism, offered a rare chance for them to come together on a film set. However, despite its ambition and likely intentions, the film is not without problematic elements. Even if one overlooks the fact that the ‘hero’ (Prithviraj Sukumaran) and ‘heroine’ (Mallika Kapoor) were people of average height, the way in which Albhutha Dweepu depends on the physicality of dwarf people is a bigger problem. If Pakru gets to show off his biceps in one scene and Arumughan has a stunt routine dedicated to himself in another, the little people are tossed around by narabhojis (cannibals) during the film’s climax, with dialogues and background score peppered on in a manner that seeks to evoke laughter.

Guinness Pakru and Sajan Sagara were among the prominent dwarf actors to star in Albhutha Dweepu. Credit: Disney+ Hotstar

But despite what the critics have to say, Arumughan feels the film paved the way for an open conversation surrounding dwarfism in Kerala. “After Albhutha Dweepu, we began to be seen as film stars. We started to be welcomed even more warmly by moviegoers everywhere in Kerala. Many of us even got married as an after-effect of the film.”

According to Liliput, the onus primarily lies on the writers. But unless writers are dwarf persons themselves, it will be difficult for them to understand what they have gone through, says Liliput, who has a script that tells the story of people like him. “There is no one in the Hindi film industry who has the guts to bring it alive on the screen, without fearing losses,” he adds.

Soorajj S Kurup, who directed Moonnara with two dwarf actors in the lead, says making profit was not a priority. “Moonnara was inspired by a dwarf couple I met at a circus. Arumughan’s character in the film is an out-and-out hero who goes on a revenge rampage. His height does not take away the film’s heroic element,” he says.

Small but significant changes

Unlike Hollywood, which has given dwarf persons greater visibility, those in Indian cinema have for years struggled to find roles that break free of stereotypes. But things are slowly but surely changing, vouch the actors TNM spoke to.

“People with all kinds of disabilities are getting their share of the limelight now, in arts and sports alike. This change has been stark over the past 10 years or so, because education and exposure are helping people with disabilities realise that we too can do all that supposedly ‘normal’ people are doing,” says Manju.

The actor, who recently got married to the love of her life, says that she too was once a girl who refused to leave her room because she was scared. “But now I am no longer that person. I am accepted for who I am, and my talents are recognised for what they are. I am happy with my body. I do not cry over it anymore.”

Arumughan too has experienced a similar trajectory in life. “When I was younger, I used to be called joker, Thavakalai, Vettoor Purushan, etc. We could decipher how they saw us just from the names they called us. With time, the way people look at us has definitely changed,” he says, further citing a character in the Lokesh Kanagaraj film Vikram as an example of this change. He is talking about the role played by Jaffer Sadiq, who stands at 4 ft 8 inches, now a veritable action star in Tamil cinema. Before he played the audacious gangster in the Kamal Haasan starrer, he had come to limelight by playing the antagonist character Narikutty in Vignesh Shivan’s Love Panna Utranum, which was a part of the Netflix Tamil anthology series Paava Kadhaigal.

Jaffer Sadiq, who stands at 4 ft 8 inches, played the role of the antagonist Narikutty in Vignesh Shivan’s Love Panna Utranum, a part of the Netflix Tamil anthology series Paava Kadhaigal. Credit: Twitter/ Cinephile05

Even Beast, despite its several problematic elements, makes no apparent reference to Liliput’s height – a positive step towards showing that a person with dwarfism should ideally be able to play a variety of roles.

Over the past few years, a number of films in both Tamil and Malayalam cinema have challenged the belief that dwarf actors can only play roles specifically crafted for them. Sooraj Thelakkad was invisible but memorable as a robot in Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 (2019). His roles in films like Udhaharanam Sujatha (2017) and Charlie (2015) have also won hearts. When U Turn, originally a Kannada film, was remade into Tamil and Telugu, a person with dwarfism was cast as an important character in the film. The actor, Ranga Nayka, with his remarkable resemblance to American actor Peter Dinklage, plays a homeless man who lives by a flyover — a role crucial to the film’s plot.

Sooraj Thelakkad played the robot in the 2019 Android Kunjappan Version 5.25, starring Suraj Venjaramoodu and Soubin Shahir. Credit: Facebook/ Sooraj Thelakkad

Where are the women?

But still, there is an important factor that remains missing in the representation of people with dwarfism – the women. This is despite the fact that dwarfism, as a medical condition, has the same rate of occurrence across all genders. Even in Albhutha Dweepu, a film featuring over 300 dwarf persons, not one of them was a woman. The island’s curse was used as a plot device to leave the women out.

Manju points out that she is arguably the first heroine of short stature in the Malayalam film industry. “In the cinema field, they always have certain requirements, especially for women. The actor’s glamour, skin colour and all are important to them. Though my height is less, I do not have a disproportionate body, which is not the case for many women with dwarfism. Even so, while in school, my classmates used to call me ‘unda pakri’ and other names, mock me and laugh at me. These prejudices might be the reason women tend to hide themselves from the world,” she says.

Soorajj, the director of Moonnara, concurs. “Whatever their height, men always expect a certain kind of beauty from women. Even a viewer who has no issues looking at a man of short stature as a hero is unlikely to accept it when such a woman takes centrestage,” he says.

Arumughan opines that the reason Albhutha Dweepu featured women of average height was the framing quotient. “If you take a single-shot frame with me, and then another of an average height person, the difference in our physicality is not likely to reflect on the screen. It is because the woman is taller in the film that we can see that the man is shorter.”

But he is hopeful that this too might change. “We have a Manju now. It is not unlikely that we will see more women with dwarfism as serious actors in the near future. What people like us can do is hope.”

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