The differently-abled hero: What to make of Tollywood's new love for disability and disorders

Many Telugu films in recent times have a differently-abled character as the hero but is this inclusiveness superficial?
The differently-abled hero: What to make of Tollywood's new love for disability and disorders
The differently-abled hero: What to make of Tollywood's new love for disability and disorders
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A slew of Telugu films these days have actors playing differently-abled characters or those suffering from rare disorders, both physiological and psychological.

A few days ago, when the first look of Ravi Teja's Raja The Great was unveiled, the poster raised quite a few eyebrows. The reason? Ravi Teja is playing a visually-impaired person. And given how conscious most Telugu film actors are about their image, Ravi Teja's decision was seen as a bold move.

Anil Ravipudi, the director of the film, says, "The moment Ravi Teja knew that he was going to play the role of a blind person, he got completely immersed into the whole set-up. And as I kept explaining everything, he kept thinking how he is going to pull it off. It's an interesting idea to work with for both of us. I got a lot of kick out of that and I'm confident that this excitement will prevail even when we shoot the film.”

Admittedly, he was inspired by films like Mohanlal's Yodha and SS Rajamouli's Eega to conceive the idea behind Raja The Great. "Eega might sound like an improbable idea, but Rajamouli turned it into a thrilling film. Every scene is exciting when you empathise with the fate of the protagonist (a fly, in this case)," Anil adds.

Ravi Teja isn't the only actor who has chosen to do such a 'hatke' role, so to speak. Raj Tarun's upcoming film Andagadu, directed by Veligonda Srinivas, also has him playing a visually-impaired character. And Kanupapa, the Telugu dubbed version of the Mohanlal-starrer Oppam, has a blind elevator operator as the lead character.

There's a whole bunch of psychological issues that have been used as an intrinsic part of an actor's characterisation, too.

Take the Mahesh Babu starrer 1 Nenokkadine. Gautham, the character played by Mahesh Babu, suffers from a type of sensory integration disorder which limits his ability to distinguish between what's real and what's a figment of his own imagination.

And in Bhale Bhale Magadivoy, Nani played a character who has transient global amnesia, a condition which, more often than not, lands him in trouble.

Then there was Anushka starrer Size Zero, in which the entire story was woven around obesity and how society treats obese people. Although not a disability, the bodies of obese people come under the same scrutiny as the differently-abled for not conforming to the “ideal” body standards.

The latest entrant to the list is Neha Hinge, who will be making her debut in Vijayendra Prasad's sci-fi drama Srivalli. In the film, an experiment goes terribly wrong and Neha Hinge's Srivalli ends up losing track of dream-reality and past-present.

"It's a combination of a lot of things. I don't know if there is a term for this sort of disorder," Neha avers, adding, "It was mentally, emotionally and physically challenging to do this role. I didn't have a reference while playing this role and many a times, I used to wonder how a person suffering from this condition would behave. Since the experiment had a lot to do with brain waves, her experiences and actions change depending on her state of mind," she says.

So, why is this trend significant? For far too long, most lead actors in Telugu cinema have played characters which are near perfect and aspirational in every sense.

Be as handsome as Mahesh Babu. Be as ageless as Nagarjuna. Be as macho as Prabhas. Be as stylish as Allu Arjun. Be as beautiful as Samantha. So on and so forth. The moment one of these actors plays a character who is “different”, it brings in a paradigm shift.

There's a reason why people still talk about Nagarjuna playing a quadriplegic patient in Oopiri. It's an unusual choice for a star of his stature, but the gamble paid off. Similarly, when Samantha was shown as a diabetic in S/O Satyamurthy, many appreciated director Trivikram Srinivas for acknowledging the severity and widespread nature of the condition.

But what explains this trend? In the past few years, when filmmakers and actors began choosing urban-centric stories over rural themes, it heralded a new wave of characters searching for their purpose in life. They needed something to fight against.

As a result, corruption, land mafia and evil politicians became the symbols of villainy for the hero.

And then, there was a reversal in the trend - a hero, who's born and brought up in an urban setting, goes to a village and becomes their messiah, a classic case of 'White Man's Burden'.

The moment you bring in another element like visual-impairment or any other disorder into the picture, it catches both the actors and the audiences off-guard. How is the character going to overcome this disability becomes a driving factor. Thus, the character himself/herself steps into a dark zone, figuratively, which keeps the audience on the edge of the seat.

Nikhil is one such actor, in recent times, who has stepped into a dark zone, taking a break from the tried and tested formulae. In Surya Vs Surya (2015), he was shown as a guy who suffers from porphyria. He's extremely sensitive to light and so, he's forced to live his life only after sunset.

And in his latest film Keshava, a revenge drama, he's rumoured to be playing the role of a person who has a rare medical condition – his heart might stop beating if he gets tensed. "I like experiencing new characters. It's like living different imaginary lives. Keshava has a lot of physical action and also, I need to carry forward the emotion throughout the story," Nikhil confesses, without going into the details about the film.

The list of disorders runs long and at times, it's also used for comic effect. One such upcoming film is Raj Tharun's Kittu Unnadu Jagratha, in which the character has a habit of stealing dogs. It's a form of kleptomania. For the record, he's playing a similar role in another untitled film, directed by Sanjana Reddy; however, the film is still in progress.

Blood cancer has been a recurring trope for decades now. It's a metaphor for imminent death and hence, there's a certain sense of urgency in the storytelling to accomplish a task before the protagonist dies. Lest you think that every disease or disorder is acceptable, there's a catch. You'll rarely see a character suffering from AIDS, because it's still a taboo.

For all the 'experimental' characters that have caught the attention of some actors of late, the main objective doesn't seem to be to spread awareness about the condition. More than anything, it poses a new challenge for the actors who still operate within the confines of commercial cinema.

Anil Ravipudi puts it in perspective saying, "No matter what you do, you need to stick to a formula if you want to reach out to a wider audience. Avatar is just another story of a man saving a tribe from the tyranny of a warlord, but the moment you set the whole story in 'Pandora' it turns into a different experience altogether." It's true what they say - the characters might change, but the formula won't. Dot.

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