Hindi Cinema is a giant cauldron of narratives, including those which question societal norms and reflect awful realities we generally ignore. However, in the haste of moving towards idealism to show how societies should function, some films tend to overlook the non-glamourous and neutral side of certain characters.
This brings me to the gamut of films which have characters with some kind of disability. Such characters are either depicted as god-like figures in the films who say nice things all the time or as clownish props to make the audience laugh.
The films revolving around the life and journey of a character with disability focuses more on their conflict with society’s normative structures and less on their individual journeys. The stories of these characters need to be centred around the human beings they are, and not just the disability that they have. We never see them coping with daily struggles, nor do we get to see these characters in different shades (not just a positive shade).
We, the audience, are made to believe that such a person can either be a god-like figure who always does good things (for example, Ramu in “Dosti”) or the insignificant comic prop (the three lead actors in “Houseful 3” who pretend to be disabled). But, we rarely get to see such characters leading normal lives, as normal human beings who are capable of making mistakes, believing in wrong ideologies and then exploring themselves.
It is not always necessary to show such characters saddled on an old armchair imparting inspirational quotes all the time.
However, some films like “Fanaa”, “Koshish” and “Barfi” have, to some extent, broken these conventions associated with characters with disability. We see these characters fall in love, be chased by policemen and dance to their heart’s content at an independence day event. Cinema, indeed, has come a long way, in its portrayal of persons with disabilities. We have films like “Arzoo” and “Margarita with a Straw”, the latter being the first time a person with disability was seen having sexual desires.
However, the above-mentioned films are merely featured as ‘art films’ and thus do not reach out to the mass audience who continue to watch the stereotypical depictions in mainstream cinema.
On the other hand, we cannot deny the fact that differently abled people have had to face ableism at various instances in their lives and this needs to be addressed through films. But this doesn’t mean that the entire focus should be on their fight against that. Just because the film is about a person with disability doesn’t mean that the story should only try and evoke pity for the character.
If we intend to give respect to differently abled people by giving them space on screen, we need to treat them as human beings and not portray them as one dimensional – either as gods or as comic props – in our storylines.
We need to see them catching butterflies, coming back home frustrated and tired from work, going to movie theatres and malls, fantasizing about their favourite movie character or maybe as a cunning detective. We need to see them the way they are.