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Can We Change How People With Disabilities Are Portrayed In Movies?

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In olden times, impairment was seen as a punishment, or as salvation from guilt-ridden feelings. In Cinderella, the stepsister was punished with her eyes being poked out for the cruelties she inflicted on her sister, (ending in disability); Oedipus blinded himself after he killed his father, and married his mother (ending in disability). And, the common belief is that if a disabled person performs an act of what we appreciate as divine or human, he is cured of his impairment.

People with impairments are often looked at with sorry faces and it is assumed that they have sinned in their past life, and consequently, they are living with a disability. Two years back, when I was on the train to Delhi, a man outrightly told me that God was happy with me because he has compensated for what I had done in the past. Obviously, he was referring to my past life, about some sins. I came to know this as our discussion developed.

How Movies Portray People With Disabilities

A few films have portrayed disabled people as having a positive feeling for their able counterparts. More of them have disabled people conspiring or hatching a plan. Omkara, a Shakespearean play turned movie (Othello), has Langada Tyagi (Iago) conspiring against Omkara, (Othello), leading him to kill his beloved wife. In Bahubali, Bijaladeva conspires to kill his niece in order to make his son king. Both of them have a disability.

A 1972 Indian movie, Koshish, portrays the life of a couple who could not speak and hear. Kanu, Aarti‘s brother in the film, always pranks and cheats her. He steals money she had saved to buy jewellery and even becomes the cause of her first son’s death. He meets with an accident, and later he is seen on crutches, earning his daily meals and accepting his condition because he did ‘worse’ to his hearing and speech impaired sister.

Koshish is a good attempt to portray the exemplary lives of visually impaired people and how contemporary society treats them. However, the movie depicts a bad fall for those who treat people with disabilities poorly. Because they are helpless and find it hard to lead a normal life, it is believed that God will take revenge on account of them, (the impaired persons) by making the perpetrators like them (as happens with one of the characters, Kanu).

Kaal, the villain of the third series of Krrish, was born in a laboratory, illicitly. Consequently, the experiment failed, and he was born impaired, and, thus, discarded. Anguish and hatred accumulate inside him, and later, he kills his own father for bone marrow that cures him of his impairment. His mission is to take over the world but he is killed by Krrish, the superhero. Not all persons with disabilities are villainous, but they could turn into villains. This is the prevalent thought in society. Kaal is a metaphor for all negativities; either he was subdued and bore with them or he inflicted them on the world.

Vijaypath, 1994, shows ample examples of disability, enough to extract the stereotypes prevalent around us. The lead character becomes visually impaired, and because he had to take revenge, the director leads the event in such a way that he is cured of his vision. It’s as though a disabled person cannot be someone who fights the goons, he can’t be the hero.

Rajesh Saxena, another character, an inspector, also becomes impaired in the legs, and he uses crutches that can shoot! These became so viral that people mocked him saying “don’t mess with him, he has crutches that shoot”. Sometimes, people would playfully pick up my crutches, as if they were a riffle and aim to shoot.

The use of words like ‘Dritrashtra’, (an epic character in Mahabharata who is blind), ‘Surdas’ ,(the 16th century blind poet), ‘Langada Tyagi’(langada, a word used to refer to people who lames), ‘Baisakhi Vs Barood’ (Baisakhi is crutches, Barood is bomb), etc. troubles people with disabilities as much as a man in a war-ridden country fears a torpedo may fall on him, anytime.

But the truth is, what kind of language can we expect from bad guys? It is not that movies are made to propagate bad attitudes regarding a particular class. Millions of people do not watch movies to get a lesson but to entertain themselves, to free their bad mood, etc.

A new perspective could have been born, like in G-Force, a Hollywood movie, where Speckles, a mole, contrives to eliminate humans from the earth because humans eliminated his whole family to get rid of moles. He harbours a grudge against human beings his whole life, preparing himself to retaliate for the wrongs humans did to his family. Finally, like Kaal, he stands alone, armoured with machine-turned robots to destroy the world. But he didn’t meet his end. His friends who raised him convinced him to get over his murderous idea, accepting him again, as one of the superheroes. Luckily, Sparkles is not disabled. And if he is disabled, he must meet his end!

When Will The Stigma End?

Time is changing fast. What was earlier true is no longer so now. What makes me lament more is when I hear people whispering among themselves, and even sometimes speaking to my face, “you are so crafty; people often think so of the people like you.”

To love, they have no right; in marriage, they have nasty breaks. Does fate always revenge against wrong-doers by making them lame, blind, or of strange appearance? Maybe this was done so that people believed that disabled people were ‘God’s mistakes’ or the ‘incarnation of evil’. Those who dig into disability know that in most of the cases, it might be caused, to a certain extent, either by a human’s mistake (mother’s inappropriate habit in pregnancy period, leading to physical or cognitive disability, inappropriate delivery process, etc.) or outbreak, and mishandling of microorganisms. Malnutrition, diseases, congenital conditions due to gene disfiguration, also add to the origin of a disability.

During class, I often try to steal opportunities to speak about the concerns of individuals with disabilities. Blind, lame, deaf, dumb, retarded are the words nobody likes to be called. They have become metaphors. Even calling someone poor would fetch some kind of troubles. ‘Jahil ‘(illiterate) is also considered as having a negative connotation.

‘People with insufficient means’, for the poor, and ‘people with no literacy’, for the illiterate, would be acceptable. When anyone walks over or pushes someone accidentally, the latter is likely to yell at the former, blaming him, as if he is blind; not watching his way. The former would take the blame as personal and it may be possible that he gets furious and probably punches him. A person fit in all respects, hates being called blind, not because of the meaning, but more because of the social stigma attached to being blind. A blind person is always pitied, helped.

No god is disabled, every devil is in form. If the former happens, handicapped people would get some grace.

Not that attitudes are not changing. I never feel left behind because of my physical impairment among my friends. But that’s not true with everyone. I had my turns, my words, and my filters. The silver screen has drastically changed in depicting characters with impairments.

After 45 years, Kaabil, an Indian movie, tried to establish an attitude against what Koshish set in the character of Kanu. Here, the culprit was not let free to be punished by fate. This movie also sketches the life of a visually impaired couple. When the lead female character, who was blind, found herself helpless in front of a perpetrator, she killed herself. She did this knowing that her husband, a visually impaired person himself, would suffer later; fate did not avenge the person by making him disabled, as was done in Koshish in 1972.

We are not demons; we are neither gods. We worship; we don’t want to be worshipped. We are good; we are bad. We are you, the abled-bodied. Fate runs with us as it runs with you. We do not want anyone to be Gandhari, the obedient wife of Dhritrashtra, who, because Dhritrashtra cannot see, blindfolds herself in order to feel her husband’s struggles in life. We want promises kept; we want love felt. We want roads spread to infinity; we want building access. We want air immunised; we want soil acknowledged.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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