Phalanx Spacer Phalanx Logo Phalanx Slogan Phalanx Spacer
Contact | Subscribe | Site Map
  Phalanx Logo Phalanx Logo Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx SpacerCurrent Editorial
The Trajectory of Cricket as a Metaphor for National History:

Cricket has been transformed after the advent of the IPL. Strangely enough, the history of cricket in India runs a close parallel with the Nation itself.
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Read
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx SpacerReview

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
(Mira Nair)
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Read

Ship of Theseus
(Anand Gandhi)
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Read
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx SpacerArticles list of Issue
Home > Contents > Article: Joyojeet Pal
Phalanx Spacer
The Portrayal of Disability in Indian Cinema: An Attempt at Categorization
Joyojeet Pal
Phalanx Spacer

The 2009 film Lafangey Parindey was centered on a dancer played by Deepika Padukone who loses her sight before a major competition, briefly loses her faith in her abilities, and then is mentored back to excellence on the dance floor by a prizefighter, Neil Nitin Mukesh, who specializes in blindfolded freestyle fighting and happens to cause her to lose her sight in an accident. The film has an interesting mixed message. On the surface, the film emphasizes the point that people with disabilities can achieve, and overachieve in what may be considered mainstream activity for the able-bodied. At the time of its release, it was lauded by the popular press for the lead actress’ attempts at method acting by the actress who spent several months and had to “observe a lot of blind people” to prepare for the role (1). But not far beneath the surface of the plot is a hodgepodge of stereotypes cloaked by a story of the blind protagonist’s determination, delivered as part of a fast-paced romance. After the accident, Padukone broods gently over her shattered dreams of being a prize dancer, and the guilt-ridden thug responsible for her condition decides to turn Bodhisava by leading her to redemption. He starts by beating her and nearly drowning her in a vat of water, emphasizing that her desire to overcome her disability needs to be as desperate as the desire to breathe she felt when he was shoving her head underwater. The argument appeals to Padukone who proceeds to rectify her disability by sharply honing her listening skills, with the repentant thug who more or less eliminates any need for sight by giving her an A-grade Shaolin-temple-esque training on navigating only with sound. The film ends on a note that not only suggests that the rectification of disabilities is largely at the will of the individual, but more importantly, that the path can be revealed to the weak woman by an enlightened man.

Disability on Indian screen is not nuanced by mixed message. From the occasional portrayal of deaf lip-readers and blind people with near-sonar ability to sense objects, to discourses of dependency around the pathos of disabled life, Indian cinema seemingly encompasses the range of canonical globally prevalent stereotypes. Our goal in this article is to examine screen disability in India and propose thematic buckets that these could be understood through. Mass media has a strong impact on peoples’ imagination of disability, and this in turn makes our study of disability a complex examination in which the lines between what is derived from traditional social imaginations of disability are easily blurred by what is a contemporary social belief influenced by screen portrayals. Thus, while the ideas of sensory superiority such as blind crime fighters dodging swords could arguably attributed to the latter, a number of other portrayals such as disability being punitive, or deserving of charity are attributable to a reinforcement of patriarchy that has traditionally come from Indian literature and tradition. In this article, we focus mainly on three particular trends in cinema – disability as punitive, disability as dependence, and disability as maladjustment. We explore the roots of these traditional representations and discuss them as portrayed in cinema down the years. In conclusion, we consider some contemporary cinema that has departed from the trends we outline and discuss what this may hold for the future of on-screen depiction of disability.

Disability as punitive
In the climactic scene of Malayalam action film Roudram (2011), the protagonist Mammooty wraps up the film by maiming the chief villain Saikumar by nailing his legs under a car. He explains that death would be too easy a resolution. He says, “You deserve a life filthier than death. To repent for the sins you have committed, you must live with this half body, to crawl and feel the hell of life before you die.” The scene represents an important punitive theme related to disability across Indian film and literature alike. The villain cannot pay for his misdemeanors only through a simple death, or in the words of the protagonist, he must first be subjected to a fitting ordeal.

Perhaps the most enduring portrayal of dismemberment as punitive is that of the ‘Thakur’ the protagonist from possibly the most-watched film in India, Sholay (Sippy 1975). In this film, Thakur, the police officer (Sanjeev Kumar) has his arms amputated by the bandit Gabbar (Amjad Khan). Unable to avenge himself, the Thakur employs two mercenaries to destroy the bandit’s gang, but sets up a climactic duel between himself and Gabbar. He begins the duel by noting that even without his arms, Gabbar is no match for him, and concludes it not by killing Gabbar, but by crushing his arms with spikes. The punishment for the evil is not a swift bullet, but an enduring disability similar to the one imposed on him.

Perhaps the most important reason why the Thakur is a critical starting point in the discussion of disability in Indian cinema is the ridicule of his disability on a range of public forums. There have been entire television comedy shows that mock the character without arms, a popular MTV joke which features other characters also losing their hands in the film, viral videos often put together by groups of friends, and even national advertisements by major corporations. Airtel, the country’s largest cellular network, has an advertisement that mocks the Thakur’s inability to type text messages,, the international job search features the Thakur as a sports umpire who cannot raise his arms to make signals, followed by the catchline “Caught in the wrong job?”, and Channel [V] India’s music television channel which spoofs Thakur’s inability to make a “V” sign for a group photo.

One of the earliest films to use the disability as punishment outside of the pure mythological context was the 1936 Bombay Talkies film, Jeevan Naiya. The film, written by Niranjan Pal (who earlier created a blind character as the designer of the Taj Mahal in the Orientalist classic Shiraz), was driven by an idea of social justice in film, and used his screenwriting as a means of highlighting problems with traditional beliefs, specifically those related to Hindu orthodoxy. In Jeevan Naiya, the lead character who abandons his wife on finding out she is from a family of dancers (thus impure), but he is eventually blinded in an accident, loses his resources, and nursed back to health and happiness by the woman who, unknown to him, is the same devoted wife he abandoned. Thus, the character’s path to enlightenment away from his flawed social conceptions is engineered by means of the ‘punitive’ blindness which sets him at the same level of social exclusion as the woman/wife of ignoble parentage.

One of the most important mainstream films on disability, and perhaps among the first that combined a narrative interspersed with some basic discussion of sign language and independent living for the deaf was Gulzar 1971 film Koshish. The film has four disabled protagonists, two deaf, one blind, and a fourth who loses a leg in the course of the film. We examine this film in much greater detail in our discussion of dependence and disability, but one important aspect of the film is its troubling turn when the chief antagonist, Asrani, who plays the female lead’s brother, pays for his sins towards the deaf couple by finding himself disabled. The focus on the character’s remorse as coming out of his experience of disability is clearly an attempt to calibrate the narrative to some conception of popular appeal, but the use of disability as punitive in a film about disability is ironical.

This idea of disability as the ultimate punishment for a range of sins is seen across Indian cinema. In Netrikkan (1979), the philandering Rajnikanth ends up on a wheelchair at the end of the film, suggesting animpotence that offers a fitting outcome for his lascivious ways through the film (and therein also highlights the de-sexualization of the disabled). The wicked father-in-law Pran is blinded in Aadmi (1968), in Kasam (1988), again Pran as the chieftain of a village of criminals is disabled in a police attack, in Jalte Badan (1973), the drug addict Kiran Kumar is blinded, in Koshish (1972) the evil brother Asrani whotorments his deaf sister and brother-in-law is himself crippled, which he takes as punishment for his acts, in Dhanwaan (1981) the rich, arrogant atheist Rajesh Khanna is blinded and unable to buy a new pair of eyes for himself and eventually finds a benevolent donor only when he repents and turns to god. In Mehboob ki Mehendi, when the protagonist Pradeep Kumar comes to kill his nemesis Iftikar, he finds him on a wheelchair, and decides then that he is not worth stabbing since he is already disabled and allowing him to live would be worse punishment than death, echoing the theme of Sholay that the disability trumps death.

The use of disability in terms of physical disfigurement has gradually reduced in cinema, but the theme was used when leprosy was more socially prevalent in India. A landmark Tamil film, Ratha Kaneer (1954) deals with this theme in an interesting juxtaposition of western debauchery with consequent traditional punitive reprisal. In this film, the foreign-returned protagonist MR Radha represents the depravity of western ways – alcoholism, sloth, pride, hatred for traditional values, and sexual promiscuity. His eventual end in the film comes through leprosy, disfigurement, and disablement, which he accepts as a punishment for a life lived poorly, and magnanimously hands over his wife (who he can no longer have sexual relations with) to an upright friend. The film ends with the erection of a disfigured statue of Radha as reminder to all those that may choose to the path of debauchery. The story of Ratha Kaneer interestingly mirrors that of Samba, son of Lord Krishna from Hindu Mythology, who became a leper in part because he was extremely handsome yet dissolute, and was cursed with leprosy by his own father for his sexual debauchery.

The relationship of disability with punishment in Indian cinema is a complex set of equations where disability can either be seen as punitive, or where the tolerance of a disability is a form of self-abnegation that emerges as an act of therapeutic righteousness. Both these ideas have strong mythological roots. The idea of self-abnegation most strongly resonated with Gandhari, the queen of Kurukshetra and wife of the blind king Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata. Gandhari’s father, King Subala of Kandahar (in present day Afghanistan) was received an alliance from Bheeshma, the head of the Kuru dynasty, an alliance that could not be refused. When Gandhari found out that her soon-to-be husband was blind, she blindfolded her eyes, and never took it off except once throughout the rest of her life (the reasons for which are debated). Gandhari’s act of ‘disabling herself’ raised her in the epic from a mere human to someone with extraordinary powers (Mahabharata, Book 1, Chapter 103, Verses 12 &13) – she is able to grant a boon of near invincibility to her son, she curses Krishna (an avatar of the Lord Vishnu) and eventually causes the annihilation of his entire clan. Her ability to do this is attributed back to her status as an ultimate example of a ‘sati’ who takes on an ultimate sacrifice for her husband. In perhaps the most Gandhari-esque moment of Hindi cinema, the heroine Sadhana the film Arzoo (1965), in an attempt to equate herself to the hero Rajendra Kumar, who has an amputated foot, places her own foot on a chainsaw.

The pure standard punitive view of disability in Indian cinema has roots multiple sources in mythology and folklore. Among of the most important and enduring are the sage Ashtavakra and the demonesses Surpanakha and Ajamukhi. In all cases, the disability is caused by some infraction, but the distinction between the two is very interesting and goes to the root of how disability can be seen as punitive. Ashtavakra, whose name literally means ‘eight deformities’ is mentioned in the scripture, the Chāndogya Upanishad, and was born disabled. However, the disability came from a curse when he was still in his mother’s womb. The young foetus, already very learned because his mother listened in on lectures by scholars during her pregnancy, made the error of ‘correcting’ his father, the sage Kahola when he mis-stated some scriptures. For this act of filial impiety, Kahola cursed Ashtavakra with the eight deformities for the eight times that he had, as a foetus, corrected him. Several years later he is born and grows up, Ashtavakra eventually redeems himself by proving to be a stellar scholar, following which his body is ‘restored’ to one of perfection. This idea of redemption and the consequent ‘restoring of the able body’ is a persistent theme in Indian cinema. We discuss this further in the section on disability as reversible.

In Puranic myth, Ajamukhi, the sister of demon Surapadman is amputated when she attempts to seize Indrani on behalf of her evil brother. Ajamukhi is the reincarnation of Chitralekha, a lovely but debauched Brahmin’s wife, who is cursed for her lust by a sage Durvasa to be reborn with the face of a goat. Thus the lustfulness and demonisation of Ajamukhi serves as a setup that strips her of the qualities of ideal womanhood at the point of her amputation. The second character in Hindu mythology with an amputation is Surpanakha the widowed sister of Ravana, the antagonist of the Hindu epic Ramayana. North and South Indian versions of the Ramayana differ on the physical description of Surpanakha (the North Indian variants note her as having thinning hair, a dissonant voice, being cross-eyed, and having oversized breasts) whereas the Kamban’s south Indian version of the epic notes her as extremely beautiful. Surpanakha’s key role in the Ramayana is her spurning by Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and her subsequent disfigurement by Rama’s brother Lakshmana who cuts off her nose in the events that follow her rejection. Surpanakha’s fate ultimately leads to the war between her brother and Rama. Surpanakha’s disability represents an intersection of both disability and punishment, and gender roles. Her condition is specifically attributed to lust and vanity, a theme that repeats itself in films where women who act against social rules are rewarded through some form of disfigurement. Disability and disfigurement as sexual punishment thus represents the idea of the opposite – a ‘perfect body’ – as the trope of desirability. The punishment for departures from the social norm, especially for female characters, can often be some form of disfigurement.

One of the early films to pointedly use the disfigurement as punishment was Sohrab Modi’s 1958 film Jailor. In this complex film which deals with disability in multiple ways – Modi is himself a disfigured jailwarden, whose wife leaves him for a doctor. The wife and doctor are then aptly punished. The doctor loses his eyesight, and the wife suffers facial scarring (2). Tamil filmmaker K. Balachander used the ‘disability as punishment’ theme for women a few times in films like Moondru Mudichu (1976) where Vijaya, a woman who lives by her looks is disfigured in a fire and in Arangetram (1973) in which the protagonist Pramila, a prostitute, eventually loses her sanity. Likewise, in Vazhayadi Vazhai (1972) Pramila (who came to be typecast in ‘bold’ roles) replayed the character of a wife who refuses her husband (and motherhood) to preserve her good looks. The specific use of actresses known for playing the roles that went against social convention is an interesting comment on the distancing of the ‘punished disabled’ from the desexualized Polyanna-ish representaon of the faultless demure woman, usually the hero’s sister (Naan Vaaza Vaippen 1979, Saccha Jhootha 1970, Vishwanath 1978).

The idea of disability in Hindu mythology is not solely related to individuals’ sins in the current birth – a disability can also be ‘deservedly’ acquired at birth. Thus Ashtavakra ‘deserved’ his disability from his scholarly vanity as a foetus, and Ajamukhi’s fate as a goat-faced woman came from her sins as a lustful beauty Chitralekha in a previous birth. In Surpanakha’s case, she is reborn as Kubja, a penitent hunchback. Similarly, the imputation for the punitive view of disability in cinema is often projected as an outcome of transferred punishment; thus the righteous are disabled for the sins of the evil. The consequent disability then becomes the moral mirror through which the evil eventually repent, seeing the plight of the righteous who bear the punitive consequences of their acts. The classic mythological case of this of course was the blind Dhritarashtra himself, who was born blind because his mother Ambika, was so repulsed by the looks of the sage Vyasa, Dhritarashtra’s father, that she closed her eyes during intercourse – which resulted in Dhritarashtra being blind.

One of the earliest films to deal with the issue of disability with a derivative punishment was the Manilal Joshi’s 1925 historical film Veer Kunal, featuring action star Raja Sandow. In this, Kunal, the righteous son of Mauryan emperor Ashoka, is blinded because of court intrigue involving his step-mother, but the film ends with Ashoka realizing that his own sins brought risk to his son’s eyesight. Likewise, in the Hindi film Upkaar (1967), a wayward brother is eventually moved to regret when his upright brother loses his armsfor his sins, in Kaalia (1981), in which the responsible elder brother Kader Khan loses his arms, which turns out to be a symbolic punishment for the slacker younger brother Amitabh who gets his act together thereafter, and in Sone Ka Dil Lohe Ke Haath (1978), a father’s act of murder causes his son to be blinded. In each case, the narrative resolution is that the act of disablement that brings about equilibrium.

The corollary to the idea of disability as punitive is the idea of service for the disabled as a means of repentance for penitent sinners. The redemption of the thug from Lafangey Parindey follows a long tradition of some of India’s top leading men playing roles in successful mainstream films that use this theme. In Prince (1969), an alcoholic womaniser Shamsher (Shammi Kapoor) is reformed when he has to pose as the son of a poor blind woman, in Dushman (1971), alcoholic, foul mouthed Rajesh Khanna is turned around by the experience of serving the disabled parents and family of a man he kills, in Dada (1979) murderer Amjad Khan is reformed by having to take care of a blind child, in Mera Dost Mera Dushman (1984) having to live with a blind woman reforms a dacoit, and in Satte Pe Satta (1982) an assassin is unable to bring himself to killing his target – a woman on a wheelchair, which eventually brings him around to being a good man. If the burden of sin is well and truly too high, deliverance can come in death – like in Hawas (1974), in which the lustful criminal Bindu gets her redemption by donating her eyes to the hero’s virtuous blind sister. In Suhaag (1979) an errant father (Amjad Khan) who is the villain of the piece through the whole film donates his eyes to the blind hero (Shashi Kapoor) at the end of the film, and becomes blind himself.

Disability as dependence
The 2010 Premlal film Athmakatha has two blind protagonists who work at a candle factory. The film has its moments of tragic romanticization around the death of one of the protagonists in a road accident that seems to highlight the dangers of being blind and travelling independently on Indian roads. However, overall the film notes the protagonists as relatively independent, and highlights one important thing that most films about vision impairment do not – the protagonist, Sreenivasan, has no particular desire to be sighted. As the film progresses, we find that his daughter also shares his genetic condition that will lead to a loss of sight and while her adjustment to this eventuality forms the crux of the film’s narrative, the film ends with her losing her sight completely, but being entirely at peace with it. Through a range of strategies including the use of benevolent characters, stereotypical situations (the protagonist is a candlemaker – a job real life vision impaired people are frequently ‘channeled’ towards in training institutes for the blind in India), the audience is nonetheless introduced to the variety of means by which the vision impaired may fashion their daily activities, several of these for effect, but focusing consistently on the idea that someone who is blind may live a full life. That the filmmakers felt that this in itself needs to be said and is a premise for a film is a good indicator of just how poorly the idea of independent living by the disabled has been portrayed in Indian cinema.

Arguably, the persistent portrayal of people with disabilities as unable to live independently has been a very important setback to the independent living movement for people with disabilities worldwide. In Indian films, the idea of dependence on charity or the largesse of heroic characters is quite typical – thus the 1964 Rajshri classic Dosti features two disabled protagonists, Mohan, who is blind and Ramu, who uses crutches to walk. At the start of the film, we see Ramu distraught – everything about the state works against him – cars cause him danger on the street, water tanks on the street have no water, and people don’t respond when he speaks with them, and the only person who does speak to him insults him when Ramu asks him for work by saying “What work can be done by someone like you?” referring to his disability. Mohan, the blind youth likewise enters the film asking people to help him cross the street to no response. For most of the remainder of the film, the two youths are shown as being in situations where their disability makes them deeply dependent for their basic existence.

The plot is very interesting from the dependency perspective, but also in the distinction made between the two disabled characters. The duo makes a living begging on streets – Mohan sings while Ramu plays the harmonica. Throughout the film the two youngsters are humiliated for their disabilities; students refuse to accept that a disabled boy can study in a school; crowds laugh when the blind beggar claims his sister is a respectable nurse. The film hits a turning point at which the blind youth concludes that his friend has a future – since he can see, he can study and potentially have a career of some kind, so he goes forth and ‘ramps up’ his begging activities, eventually supporting his friend through his studies and helping him be successful in life. The film distinctly creates a contrast between the respective disabilities of Ramu and Mohan – while the former slowly edges ahead in life, the blind Mohan’s condition worsens as he is abandoned by his own sister and Ramu alike. The importance of the film Dosti cannot be overstated. Not only because of the importance of its narrative and two lead disabled characters, but more because of the timeless appeal of its music. Songs from the film are regularly heard in commuter trains and streets where people perform for spare change, particularly common is the song the Mohan sings for change, “Jaanewalo zara mudhke dekho mujhe, ek insaan hoon, main tumhari tarah” which means “Passers-by, turn and see me for a moment, I am also human, like you.”

While mental illnesses have frequently been exploited in crude terms in Mumbai and South Indian cinema alike, physical or sensory disabilities, especially of male leads, has seldom been the central theme of mainstream films. Gulzar’s Koshish from 1972 was one such film in which the male and female leads – Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri respecvely are deaf-mute, and the third main character, Om Shivpuri, is blind. The film, often seen as a landmark in the portrayal of disability in Indian cinema, opens with sign language alphabet in its credits, and at several points in the film takes what may be called an ‘educational’ stance to its audience by instructing one or another character in the film how a deaf person may communicate, participate economically etc. Though the protagonists in the film live independently, at several points their ability to do so is threatened by society and the people around them. An exploitative brother-in-law cheats and steals from them, their own infant child dies because they do not hear him cry; they are frequently hard-up and generally depicted as kind hearted unfortunates. Two situations in the film are particularly troubling – when the couple have a child and the parents watch the infant cautiously to find out if he can speak and hear, and are much relieved when an aunt tells them that he can. They run into a panic later when they think he is deaf as well, only to find out to their delight that he is not.

At the film’s climax, we find that Sanjeev Kumar’s boss at work invites him home for dinner and asks him to bring along his son. The scene unravels in the boss then offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to Sanjeev Kumar’s son. Sanjeev Kumar is shocked at first, and signs that there is a huge class schism between the two, at which the boss confesses with tears that his daughter is deaf-mute and he is looking for a patient man for her. As he says this, his face reclines in shame his body language changes, and the camera focuses on the girl’s ears and mouth – ostensibly defective. At this point, Sanjeev Kumar puts aside the class issue and agrees to the marriage, but the son refuses emphatically, because he does not want to be with a deaf person. The ending is particularly disturbing for its combination of class with disability, implies that for a disabled girl, a small class adjustment is reasonable. The boss’ search for a patient man reinforces the idea of dependence on a hearing person for a successful life.

The three films are very important because they underline the pervasiveness of dependence as a theme of disability, even among characters who are central to a story. Perhaps the most important disabled character from Hindu mythology is Dhritarashtra, the blind king in the Mahabharata, and central character in the war between his sons, the Kauravas and his nephews, the Pandavas. Dhritarashtra is a complex character because he has some of the traits that are atypical for disabled characters. First, he is incredibly strong – at one point in the Mahabharata, he crushes a metal statue to powder. He is also not desexualized as is typical – he sires 100 sons and one daughter. However, Dhritarashtra remains deeply dependent through the entire epic, on his wife, his sons, and his advisors. For the most part, the critical events in the story emerge from Dhritarahstra’s dependence on the judgment of his advisors rather than his ability to make his own. Arguably the entire conflict in the Mahabharata hinges on one key factor – Dhritarashtra’s incompetence as a king, his inability to do the righteous thing as he is blinded both physically and metaphorically, and only experiences statecraft through his advisors. Thus, despite being the regent whose kingdom is fought over in the epic, he is sidelined as a supporting character to the battery of stronger players – his uncle, brother, sons, and nephews.

Besides Dhritarashtra, the other key mythological character representing dependency in disability is Shravan. The slaying of Shravan is a particularly emotive tale in Hindu mythology, typically invoked to underline the importance of filial piety, but more specifically for the importance of the family in caring for the disabled. Shravan, while not being disabled himself, was the child of Shantanu and Gyanavan, blind parents. As a dutiful son, Shravan spent most of his me caring for his parents, carrying them on his shoulders and tending to their needs. Shravan is eventually killed accidentally by Dasratha, the father of Lord Rama of the Ramayana, leading his dismayed father to hand Dasratha a curse for having taken away their only support system. This curse eventually triggers the events that lead to the Ramayana.

Disability is most commonly characterised in terms of dependence – particularly in those films where a disabled character is not the lead player like in Atmakatha, Dosti or Koshish. Such characterizations include the disabled parent, who depends on the goodness of their others to survive, such as their children (Laadla, Avtaar, Allah Rakkha 1985, Jaydaad 1989, Zordaar 1996), daughters (Pata 1953, Apradhi 1947, Biradri 1966, Aai Phirse Bahaar 1960, Dil Tera Diwana 1962, Sharaabi), siblings (Payal,1957, Apne Dushman 1975, Brashtachar 1989), romantic interests ( Barsaat Ki Ek Raat 1983) or are purely dependent on the goodness of random do-gooders for their survival (Deedaar 1951, Bharosa 1963, Marte Dam Tak 1987). In some films, the disability/dependence relationship is the main frame through which the faults of modernity implode. Typically when an older male suffers a disability, such as in Bharosa, Avtaar, and Aap ki Parchaiyaan, there is an immediate effect of their perceived usefulness in the family reduced, followed by their dependence, marginalisation, humiliation and eventual ejection from their homes, usually by their own children. Such films, part of the extremely popular ‘family melodrama’ category aimed at mixed-gender audiences, a disabled parent is abandoned by ungrateful parents, and reduced to penury and dependence on random benefactors. These films stress on the disintegrating traditional values, using the helpless disabled elder as the tragic indicator of decay and usually the onslaught of westernising values.

Disabled women are particularly at risk. First, there is the recurrent theme of the burden of marriage for a disabled person, especially on the males immediately around the subject Thokar (1974), Saccha Jhutha (1978), Santhi (1965), Naan Vazhavaippen (1979), Bhairavi (1996). Such narrative is often accompanied by the man needing to take unusual risks to rectify it, like committing crime for the ‘larger’ dowry, leaving a traditional home to move to urban locations for jobs etc. In the unmarriageable disabled person theme, films often justify some unusually callous action such as in Tamil-language Santhi (1965) remade in Hindi as Gauri (1968) – where a concerned father gets his blind daughter married to a man without telling him that she is blind. The daughter is abandoned and considers suicide, though she eventually gets her vision back. Where such a parent does not exist, the alternatives could be worse – such as in Dhoop Chhaon (1977) in which Hema Malini loses her eyesight and is thereafter abducted and sold into
prostitution or in Jheel Ke Us Paar (1973) a blind woman is sold off as a wife to an evil man, though she eventually has her sight restored, at which point it is possible for her to marry the kind protagonist who arranged for her sight to be restored. On the ‘good’ side are films in which a pity-based marriage happens with a desirable groom, which like in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat (1983) happens right after a girl’s parent delivers a speech on the subject of ‘who will marry my disabled daughter’.

The importance of a male presence for women with disabilities is commonly done through highlighting the risk of sexual exploitation. Such exploitation of disabled women is frequently dealt with crudely, to highlight the need for adequate male protection for women with disabilities. In films like Imaan Dharam (1977), Insaaf (1987), Brashtachar (1989), Khuddar (1994), Humko Tumse Pyaar Hai (2006) blind women are aggressively pursued or sexually assaulted when a man is not around to look out for them. Perhaps the most egregious plot belongs to Kannada classic Katha Sangama (remade in Tamil as Kai Kodukum Kai) in which a blind wife who is married out of sympathy by a rich man is raped by a thug (Rajnikanth inhis first Kannada role). The thug then goes on to blackmail the woman, but all ends well when the husband forgives the wife and they live on. The bizarre interpretation of virtue signals two important themes which are remarkably common. First, that the act of being with someone who is disabled is essentially an act of social service. Second, that disability allows certain well-fought concessions – the pollution of a wife’s virtue by another man can be forgiven, but it takes a particularly heroic man to do that.

Women who are disabled are frequently the object of a man’s sympathy or protection, a disabled man has a much more complex fate in terms of dependence. Disability is typically a proxy for a male character’s failure to provide or protect. The underlying theme thus is that of the society and system being one that is inherently exploitative and dependent on a man’s ability to act to his fullest, and that the disability as an inhibitor thus makes the character less able to fulfill his dues to his immediate family or society. For male character, the loss of arms has been a very important theme in Indian films has often represented the loss of the ability to fully perform a man’s duties, and films with such characters highlight their inability such as the farmer Raaj Kumar in Mother India (1955), woodcutter Suresh Oberoi in Lawaris (1981), mill worker Kader Khan in Kaalia (1982), or cab driver Farooque Shaikh in Toofan (1989). In each case, the character dies shortly after the disability – Raaj Kumar and Kader Khan both suffer amputaons, are thereafter shown as unable to provide for their respective families, and eventually perish. In Lawaris and Toofan, the hero’s respective sidekicks Suresh Oberoi and Farooque Shaikh likewise perish but for different reasons. In both cases, the amputees are unable to protect women from the lecherous gaze of respective villains. Both Lawaris and Toofan feature the often repeated theme of a male star who plays role of social protector and avenger, and the absence of Amitabh to ‘protect’ the sidekick is critical to their demise. In Toofan, specifically, the theme is taken to an extreme – where Farooque Shaikh’s wife is molested and murdered in front of his eyes, and his ten-year old son is le the task of protecting him from the attacking villains, who manages to do this relatively effectively for a few minutes before he is finally overpowered. Thus even the child becomes the ‘man of the family’ replacing the disabled male.

The gendered aspect of what happens to a woman when a man is disabled is also intriguing. A disabled man dependent on his spouse represents the worst form of dependency in most films, especially in those cases where the disability is acquired. The man is removed from his role as provider and protector, and the consequence is often catastrophic for the family. Thus in Mother India (1957), the disability of the protagonist Raaj Kumar leads his wife to the fields to do manual labor and the shame and penury to the family is resolved in his mind only when he removes his burden from the family by running away from home. In Kasau, the disability of Bharat Bhushan leads his wife to take the role of provider, by turning to sex work. In Pa Patni (1966), Zameen Asmaan (1972), Vakil Babu (1983), Qatl (1986) and Vaada (2006), the protagonist’s blindness leads to dependence on a wife who eventually has (or issuspected of having) an affair. The gendered complexity with a dependent disabled person likewise extends to all female support structures in films like Pata (1953) Waqt ka Shahenshah (1987), Sharaabi (1981) in which supporting a disabled parent reduces a daughter to being the provider in a household, something that of course comes with a whole set of issues of its own in the film’s subtext. The desexualizaon of people with disabilities is part of this discourse of dependence – in various films, a disabled person often tries to engineer a break-up of his/her own relationship with a non-disabled person out of apparent consideration ( Deedar, Jal Bin Machli Nritya Bin Bijli, Saajan, Kannan en Kadhalan, Arzoo). The desexualization cuts both ways, but is particularly sharp in the man’s being neutered both sexually and socially – thus in Joshila, the disabled Thakur’s wife, Bindu, quite openly flirts with other men, whereas in Khandaan, when a disabled older brother is unable to get married, it is suggested that he commit suicide so that the younger brother can marry out of turn without trouble.

Perhaps one of the most problematic portrayals of disability in terms of dependence is that of begging. The idea of disability and charity is perhaps inherent to all the key religious traditions of India and the films’ use of disabled people as beggars have aimed to underline the idea of social responsibility. The blind singer/mendicant character derives from the a popular folklore character, the 15th century Braj region singer/saint named Surdas who was a wandering musician for much of his young life. Right from the earliest days of talkie cinema, singer/actor Krishna Chandra Dey (uncle of playback singer Manna Dey, and mentor to musician S.D. Burman) sang for films. Since it was typically required that he be given some kind of a role, he was slotted to being a blind beggar on screen, often in films where his only scene would be a song. Dey played Surdas, the mendicant musician saint of medieval India a few times, and found much popularity in the industry for his music and set the stereotype for the on-screen blind singer/beggar that has been replayed consistently over the decades (Insaan 1944, Deedaar 1951, Parineeta 1953, Cha Cha Cha 1964, Bahaaron Ke Sapne 1967, Pyar Ka Mausam 1969, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar 1975, Sapnon Ka Mandir 1991, Kaasi 2003).

One rather unusual factor about the actors who played the roles of people with disabilities was the high degree of typecasting. Blind characters were often played by a few character actors who had built reputations for tragic roles. This helped reinforce the pitiable state of being disabled – thus Nazir Hussain (Kashmir ki Kali 1964, Aap ki Parchhayiyan 1964, Prem Pujari 1970, Pandit aur Pathan 1977, Abdullah 1980) and AK Hangal (Sholay 1975, Sharaabi 1984, Ek Chaddar Maili Si 1986) both got typecastplaying disabled father-figures in tragic roles, and Bharat Bhushan reprised roles of a blind destitute person (Pyaar ka Mausam 1969, Kasau 1974, Shravan Kumar 1984, Dariya Dil 1988). The trend reinforces the idea of someone who is disabled as being dependent and pitiable.

In Tamil cinema, an early examples of disability as dependence which has important political implications was the Parasakhti (1951), one of the Dravidian movement’s key propaganda films, written by politician M. Karunanidhi. The film features a number of disabled beggars who with the assistance of one of the protagonists, an amputee (SS Rajendran) starts something called Unamutror Maruvazhvu Nilyam(disabled rehabilitation centre). One reason this is particularly interesting is when Karunanidhi eventually became chief minister of Tamil Nadu, he started a program Pichaikarar Maruvazhvu Nilyam (beggar rehabilitation centre), in much the same vein as in the film.

There is also a gendered aspect to disability and begging – most disabled beggars in Indian films tend to be male. When films show females in begging roles, there is the additional aspect of an unprotected sexual object, as seen in Sahara (1958), where the protagonist is a beautiful orphan turned blind beggar. Here, the sexual risk is offset by having her sing at temples and with objects typically associated with pious mendicancy such as the ‘Iktara’ instrument typically used by itinerant Hindu and Buddhist monks.

Perhaps the most problematic portrayal of a female in a role of begging was the Tamil director Bala’s film Naan Kadavul (2009). Bala, known for a unique brand of violent realism of life in rural and small townTamil Nadu is centered around the lives of disabled commuter train performers and mendicants. The film is a particularly grim view of the begging industry, but is also grimly voyeuristic in the vein of the Hollywood 1931 classic Freaks where the body is used as an artifact to underline incompatibility, and ultimately pathos. The film uses disabled individuals, several of them performers in real life, in the depiction of particularly cruel exploitation by begging mafia. The film, while widely cited in popular reviews for its ‘realistic’ depiction of disability, does not offer much agency to any of the disabled characters – and in its chilling climax, features the blind lead female ritually murdered by the protagonist who offers her ‘moksha’ or release from her disabled life. The portrayal of a disabled life as not being worth living is repeated both in films where a supporting character is disabled ( Mother India), but more typically in films where a female lead is disabled in the process of the film, making her choose to attempt suicide or banishment over being a burden on the male lead (Do Badan 1966, Basant 1960, Kannan en Kadhalan 1968). In more recent times, a complex view of disability in terms of euthanasia comes from Guzaarish (2010), a film we discuss in detail in the last section.

Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the portrayal of disability is the pointed use of pathos. Tamil Director Bhimsingh made a series of films with a disabled lead character (Baga Pirivanai 1959, Aadmi 1968, Santhi 1965, Palum Pazhamum 1961, Parthal Pasi Theerum 1962), films that often ended with the disability being ‘reversed’. Other directors who have repeatedly made films with characters with disabilities include Vinayan ( Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum 1999, Karumadikkuan 2001, Oomappenninu Uriyadappayyan 2002, En Mana Vaanil 2002, Meerayude Dukhavum Muthuvinte Swapnavum 2003, Athbhutha Dweepu 2005), and Sanjay Bhanshali, whose work we discuss in detaillater.

While Bhimsingh’s motivations were not clear, the importance of his films as commercial successes is key, since most of these films, first made in Tamil, were remade in Hindi, also successfully. One of the most successful Baga Piravanai, remade as Khandaan, has the lead character Ramu who is paralyzed on one side because of a childhood accident. Ramu is depicted as a pathetic fawning simpleton, intended as an object of the audience’s pity. He is repeatedly insulted by other characters in the film. In the film, Ramu is constantly contrasted with his brother, who is non-disabled, and is sent to the city to study further study, whereas the disabled brother is relegated to working the fields.

The depiction of disabled characters as fawning unfortunates is common not just when the key characters are disabled, but even when there is a broad theme of the disabled as a group – such as films which have blind schools in the narrative somewhere. In Parvarish (1977), a group of blind musicians are rounded up by their teacher Vinod Khanna (whose characterisation in the film as a blind school teacher is used to emphasise his generosity) to sing the popular song “Band aankh se dekh tamasha duniya ka” which literally means “See the comic irony of the world through closed eyes.” Anuraag, (1972) another film to show a blind school, likewise caricatures and openly waves the pity card, when a local politician Madan Puri, gives a speech at the blind school.
“Serving these poor young women is a sort of national social service. I ask, what is their fault for being blind? This is God’s mistake, which we humans can fix. To remove the darkness from their life, I urge the young men of this country to come forward and make them their life partners.”

Immediately following this, the minister himself refuses to let his own son marry a blind girl. That girl, Moushumi Chaerjee, the film’s protagonist, is a blind student at the school and the romantic interest of his son, Vinod Mehra. The only way for her to marry him is if she were no longer disabled, for which she would need a cornea donor. A candidate appears in the terminally-ill cherub of a boy, Mehra’s nephew, who ties all the ends together. The story is resolved when the tragedy of the child’s passing is ameliorated by Moushumi’s restored sight. A very similar plot was repeated in Neel Kamal (1984), where the hero’s kid brother, also a dying cancer patient, donates his eyes so that the heroine can see, and Anuraag was itself remade in Bangla as Aloy Phera (2007).

Disability as disequilibrium
While the idea of disability as ‘curable’ is not unique, the frequency with which disability is proposed as a state of disequilibrium is fairly significant. In most Indian cinema, disability is either marginal (thus affecting one of the less important characters in a film) or when it does impact a protagonist, it is almost always related to some punitive act or stroke of ill luck, and it is typically temporal. In other words, the disability will go away. In no case is this more of a guaranteed fact than when a protagonist is either blinded or paralyzed.

The idea of disability as disequilibrium is ed to the Hindu concepon of disability as related to virtuous suffering, which is a key part of the characterisaon of Gandhari, one of the key characters in the Mahabharata, wife of the King Dhritarashtra who willingly takes on a blindfold all her life to ‘virtuously suffer’ with her blind husband King Dhritarashtra. Thus disability is her choice, one which she chooses consciously never to reverse. More important are the cases where the reversal of disability comes through some effort – thus in the case of mythological Ashtavakra, the disability is a temporary state of disequilibrium, which is eventually rectified when he earns back his perfect body after he excels as a scholar, and with the sinful Samba, son of Krishna, his disability is likewise reversed when he works off his leprosy by penitent prayer to the Sun God at the Chandrabhaga river.

In both cases, the message is important – repentance and/or hard work can reverse a disability. This seemingly fantastic message has a remarkable number of takers in Indian cinema. In countless films, some act of extreme will, or sudden shock makes a person on a wheelchair start walking or even running right away (Basant 1960, Aaj Aur Kal 1963, Kannan en Kadhalan 1968, Naan yen Piranthen 1972) or a person with a speech impairment start speaking (Sangeet Samrat Tansen 1962, Karma 1986, Shor 1972, Khol de Meri Zubaan 1989, Koyla 1997) or even the more surprising cases where the disability is reversed, such as paralysis reversed through an electric shock (Baga Pirivanai 1959, Khandaan 1965) or through a near drowning experience (Aalaymani 1962, Aadmi 1968), or getting vision back through some impact such as an accident (Nau Bahar 1954) or even hitting one’s head on a rock ( Amar Akbar Anthony 1979) or falling down stairs (Saajan ka Ghar 1994) or through a snakebite (Bairaag). In addition to all of these, there is an entirely different genre of mythological or fantasy film, which have vast numbers of examples of the disabled being cured through some form of magic or divine intervenon ( Devta, Ajooba, Shirdi ke Sai Baba).

The reversal of the disability trope is particularly relevant when the disability is noted as being the fault of another. In such cases, the primary penitent responsibility is often that of the perpetrator, such as in Thulladha Manamum Thullum (1999), where the hero Vijay causes the heroine Simran to lose hereyesight. This is eventually reversed when the hero sells his own kidney to get her the eyes of his own recently deceased mother. The successful film was remade in Telugu as Nuvvu Vasthavani.

This idea reflects the mythological story of Sukanya from the Bhagawata Purana. Sukanya, the beautiful daughter of the Shraddhadeva Manu poked two shining objects in a termite’s nest, which turned out to be the eyes of a meditating sage Chyavana, who was so rapt in his meditation that he was covered in termites. The sage was blinded, and Sukanya was offered in marriage by her father to the sage to make up for the loss of his eyes. Sukanya remained a faithful wife who nurses and serves her husband through his disability. At a critical juncture, Sukanya is approached by to suitors, the divine twins – the Ashwins (the fathers of Nakul and Sahadeva from the Mahabharata) who offer themselves in partnership instead of the old and blind husband Chyavana. Sukanya rejects their overtures and chooses instead to serve her husband. The Ashwins, pleased with her chastity, give her a small test, and offer that if she passes it, her husband’s disability will be reversed. The story ends with the Chyavana’s restored eyesight and youth. The story thus represents the exemplar for the Indian woman, who selflessly serves a disabled husband, and through her selfless service, gains his able body back – thus Sukanya is referred to as ‘Sa Sukanya’ as a standard-seer for the ideal woman. The Sukanya saga has been filmed multiple times and dubbed in various languages in India (Saanya            1959, Punyam 2001)

Thus we see in Paalum Palamum (1960) and Saathi (1968), the blind protagonist is nursed by a devoted and persevering female partner, and eventually regains his sight. While this theme of a dedicated, chaste woman nursing a disabled man back to health is most common in films dealing with mental illness which we do not discuss much here (Khamoshi 1969, Khilona 1970), it has also been used with paralysis as well. Thus in Anjaam (1996), a woman seeking revenge on a disabled man decides that it is necessary first to pretend to be his devoted wife/nurse until he is well again before wreaking vengeance.

But while the woman’s service of a disabled man is well in keeping with her role as the ideal woman, the other way around is a bit more interesting. When a man nurses a disabled woman to good health, the objective is undeniably to highlight his heroism such as in Aaj aur Kal (1963) a heroic young doctor/ psychiatrist, Sunil Dutt, cures the grieving heroine Nanda of her paralysis by using his wit and love. Sometimes, even when the doctor removes the disability, it is the one who gets the patient to the table that is the hero of the piece, as with Jheel ke us Paar (1973), Sunayna (1979), and Humko Tumse Pyaar Hai (2006).

In no case is the heroism of the ‘disability curer’ in greater focus than when MG Ramachandran (MGR) cures Kanchana, who is paralysed waist down; she is so enthused by his song that she gets out of the wheelchair and starts walking. The scene (the reprise of an earlier scene from Kannan en Kadhalan in which a twisted Jayalalitha gets out a wheelchair and starts dancing vigorously) came at a time when MGR’s popularity was at an unimaginable high. At this point, MGR was already a two-time legislator, his populist films were thoroughly propagandist and pushed the idea of him being a larger-than-life man who looked out for the poor, weak, aged, women and children, and every other group excluded economically and socially. Thus caring for, or in this case curing, a disabled person becomes the means to reinforce the heroic persona of the star.  

An interesting parallel is the curing of the young polio-afflicted boy Rahul (Master Tito) in Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1974), by the upright Dr. Amar (Shatrughan Sinha). In the film, the doctor takes on the challenge to cure the boy, and eventually, does so by beating him repeatedly in a closed room till in desperation the young boy gets out of the operation table to run towards the door. The weak mind of a child, thus strengthened by a Dr. Amar who understands the right time for ‘tough love’, just as MGR plays the gendered card of taming the child-like woman who does not understand that the disability is finally in the mind of the ‘patient’.

The other stereotype of curable disability tends to be the cure as a prize for good behavior. Much in the vein of the mythological Ashtavakra or Samba, righteous people who suffer some form of disability are inevitably relieved of the disability by the end of the film. Typically it is easiest for the virtuous blind (Deedar 1951, Nau Bahar 195, Raji en Kanmani 1954, Santhi, Gauri 1968, Amar Akbar Anthony, Perazhagan), but more importantly, it is almost necessarily true, is the need for a disabled hero’sreversion to an able body. For the most part, if the lead character in an Indian film – either male or female, is disabled for some reason, this is inevitably reversed. For a male lead character, often featured as the perfect male, the state of being disabled is inevitably one of disequilibrium that either needs to be reversed (Aalaymani, Prem Patra, Suhaag, Vijaypath). Usually the only exception to these is when the disability is due to some act of valour, specifically such as war wounds (Hum Dono, Prem Pujari 1970, Major Chandrakanth, Suhaag Raat 1968, Kandukondain Kandukondain 2000).

In contrast, for a female character, the disability, while a means of reinforcing the hero’s heroism, is still an element of disequilibrium. In Kannan en Kadhalan, MGR agrees to marry an apparently disabled Jayalalitha out of pity, but she is desexualized as unworthy of a good man. Likewise, in films like Sunaina, Basant, Aaj aur Kal, Santhi, Jheel ke us Paar, and Humko Tumse Pyaar Hain, the consummation of the relationship of the heroine with the hero comes only after the woman has lost her disability. A happily ever after ending cannot have one incomplete body.

Disability as social maladjustment
The stories of Shakuni and Manthara from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are important markers of the idea of disability as a form of social maladjustment and a pathway to evil. Manthara is the evil hunchbacked maidservant of King Dashrath’s wife Kaikeyi, who constantly schemes and feeds negativity into the mind of her mistress. She eventually instigates Kaikeyi to manipulate her husband into banishing her stepson (and Dashrath’s heir to the throne) Rama, into exile so that her own biological son Bharat can be king. Rama’s exile is the turning point in the epic.

Shakuni is a somewhat more nuanced character. Shakuni is the son of Subala, father of Gandhari, the mother of the Kaurava clan and is famously known as the crippled, scheming uncle who cheats in dice, and causes the Pandavas and Kauravas to go to war. In one version of the Mahabharata’s retelling, Subala and all his sons are imprisoned by the Kauravas and starved to death. Subala and all his sons were each given a grain of rice while imprisoned, and Subala made the decision that all their rice would be handed over to a single son, the youngest, who would live at the cost of all the others, grow up, and avenge them with the Kaurava clan, using dice with magical powers made from the bones of Subala himself. This youngest son was Shakuni, who grew up both crippled and scarred by the experience of his family’s decimation. As a result, he undertakes the goal of bringing about the downfall of his own sister’s clan by marriage, which he eventually succeeds in by taking them down the path of evil.

Both Manthara and Shakuni are frequently used as frameworks for characters in Indian cinema. The classic Manthara in the televised version of Ramayana was played by Lalita Pawar. The casting of Pawar is particularly significant, since she herself had a squint eye condition because of which she was frequently typecast as an evil woman in cinema. Pawar’s stereotyping in Hindi cinema was so powerful, that the squint in cinema rather than a disability came to be seen as an indicator of evil.

The Shakuni stereotype has usually been employed for wicked supporting characters, such as the scheming crippled brother-in-law Prem Chopra from Ram Tera Desh. A more common personification of the disgruntled disabled man was assayed by Rajendra Kumar in his superhit film Gora Aur Kala in which the actor played twin sons of a royal family are separated at birth – one grows up good (Gora – meaning white) as a prince and another bad (Kala – meaning black) as a bandit. The two terms are indicative of the contrasts – the fair skinned prince is suave, kind, desirable, whereas the bandit is dark skinned, cruel, and most importantly, has a paralysed left arm. The coupling of negative characters is particularly striking – the skin colour, looks, and disability come together to make one brother evil. The film was extremely successful, and eventually remade in Tamil with MGR, as Nerum Neruppum. Similarly, the film Vaali (1999), Ajith Kumar plays twin brothers, one of who is deaf. The deaf brother Deva is an evil genius of sorts, modeled on a ‘supercrip’ personality, has extraordinary lip reading powers. He is however perennially jealous of his speaking twin, Shiva, and constantly schemes against him. Eventually, when the evil twin dies, his soul expresses the sadness of never being able to speak of this feelings towards his brother. The film was remade in Kannada as Vaalee, and was very successful in both releases.

Both the Kala and Deva characters are fundamentally maladjusted. This theme of maladjustment is remarkably common, and the characterization of maladjustment can go anywhere from disgruntled evil to pitiable, with comic caricature in the middle. The key to this idea of maladjustment is the mismatch between being disabled and fitting the requirements of a standard hero. Indeed there are only a handful of films in which the lead protagonist is permanently disabled and stays that way through a film, and even in those, the sense of maladjustment is often central to the characterization.

A filmmaker with a very complicated contribution to the understanding of disability in Indian cinema is director Sanjay Bhansali. He has made three films – Khamoshi (1996) in which the protagonists are deaf and mute, Black (2005) in which one protagonist has Alzheimer’s and another is deaf-blind-mute, and Guzaarish (2010) in which the protagonist has quadriplegia. Not commenting on Bhansali’s own reasonsfor picking themes related to disability repeatedly, the consistent alternating narrative of courage and fortitude in his films strongly reinforce a different view of disability in India.

Khamoshi features Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas as a deaf-mute couple who brave through a numberof difficulties in raising their children (one of whom dies). The film makes some use of rudimentary sign language, and even though it uses more sign language than Koshish, the use of deafness in the film is often disquieting. The central theme of the film is the importance of music in the lives of two of the four characters, who are the mother (Helen) and the daughter (Manisha Koirala) of Nana Patekar, respectively. Through most of the film, Patekar and Biswas claim to ‘hate music’ which itself is disappointing to their daughter who wants to be a musician. The film frequently turns to the value of rhythm and notes in the lives of Helen and Koirala who love dancing and singing, and both are required to sacrifice their love for music for the sake of the deaf couple through a series of situations. This peaks when Koirala starts screaming in their home to make a point to her suitor who wants to encourage her to have a career in music. She says in frustration, “Scream and shout, there is nobody who can hear you here.”

Perhaps the most unsettling facet of the film is its emphasis on exaggerated situations in which the characters are insulted for their disability; at the start of the film Patekar is told “You have no option but to beg. I pitied you because you were deaf, but you cannot handle any job.” The character is further dehumanized when, as a salesman, Patekar takes his daughter from home to home as an interlocutor in scenes that reverse the roles between adult and child, thus placing more agency in the child - who breaks off the sales-pitch and reduces the father to the mere carrier of goods. Later in the film, Patekar burns his hand and a doctor tells his employer, “Why do you keep such disabled people at work. Because of his not being able to hear, any mishap can take place,” following which he is promptly fired. While the exclusion from the workplace is very central to the experience of disability in India, the use of melodramatic cruelty in films caricatures this economic reality and turns the individual into a recipient of charity by focusing pointedly on the inability to perform one or another task, and highlighting the economic burden of a disabled parent on a child.

Physical Disability as a source of social maladjustment is fairly common, especially among character actors in films who are typically exploited to add some drama to the film without having any real bearing on the plot. These include the occasional sidekick such as the cynical disabled farmer Malang (Pran) from Upkaar, who sings songs about the evil in the world around, the dancing army veteran with an amputated foot, Balbir Singh (Utpal Dutt) from Imaan Dharam (1977), the crippled gymnast Jasjit (Pran) from Don (1978) who ends the film performing a tightrope escape between two buildings holding two children and a walking stick, or the singing, skateboard-riding street beggar/informant Abdul (Mazhar Khan) from Shaan (1982). In several of these films featuring the disabled character, entrusting him or herself to the hero’s care, expands the latter’s heroism.

The fundamental idea of disability as maladjustment is that the disabled character cannot be viewed in the same lens as the rest of the characters – thus whether it is the villainy of the Shakuni type characters, the melodramatic pathos of Khamoshi or the celebrated antics of the attendant Jasjits or Abduls, the central idea is that the maladjusted are fundamentally not reasonable, regular folks.

Perhaps the strangest use of disability as maladjustment in Indian cinema is that of the ‘pretend-to-be-disabled.’ In Punjabi House (1998) remade in Hindi as Chup Chup Ke (2006) the hero pretends to be mute for financial benefit. In the Tamil film Sollamale (1998) remade in Hindi as Pyaar Diwana Hota Hai (2002) the hero pretends to be mute to win over a woman, but on being discovered as not being disabled, cuts off his tongue to stay true to his disability. Pretending to be blind for some form of benefit has been historically employed, perhaps one of the earliest films which did this being Mohan Bhavnani’s Prem Nagar (1940) in which the hero goes blind, but continues to pretend to be blind even after he has regained his sight to understand peoples’ true attitudes towards him.

Similarly, the combination of charity with fraud has traditionally been a convenient means of depicting disability, such as with Kalu the street beggar who feigns blindness in Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962), or films in which feigning blindness is a means for the hero to appear harmless while plotting some form of revenge such as in Parvarish (1977), Vaada (2005) or Chess (2006). There is also a host of films in which pretending to be blind is a ploy used by men to appeal to the sympathy and love of women – such as in Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong (1971), Poikkal Kuthirai (1983), Dil (1990), Badshah (1999), Kandaen (2010), Rascals (2011).

Finally, there are films where disability is directly part of the comedy track. The popular theme in this tends to be the use of multiple disabilities as part of a comedy-of-errors theme, such as with Hum Hai Kamaal Ke (1993), in which one Kader Khan is deaf and the other Kader Khan is blind. The film is a remake of See no Evil Hear no Evil (1989), which was again remade in Tamil as Andipa Arasampa (2002) with Mansur Ali Khan andPandiyarajan and again as Pyare Mohan (2006). Similar themes are used in Tamil films Ennavale (2000), 123 (2002), Tom Dick and Harry (2006) in each of which the interactions between blind, deaf and mutecharacters are used for comic intent. In Mujhse Shaadi Karoge (2004), the entire gamut of disability is rolled into a single character - Duggal (Kader Khan) who has some kind of a disease which gives him a new disability each day of the week! He has a sign outside the door of his home which indicates what the particular disability of the day happens to be. In the film he is blind, mute, deaf, and mentally retarded.

In each of these cases that we discuss as maladjustment, the act of being disabled is caricatured. The disability thus results in the character being relegated either to an object of derision, pity, or comedy. In short, the state of disability necessitates a reaction of some kind, from the other ‘normal’ characters, and therefore from the audience itself.

The new disabled
I suggested to the director that my role be turned into that of a blind man just one minute before we started shooting. I wanted to challenge myself as an actor. I felt that the man had a lot to say but I did not want it to look preachy. It's a blind man talking about vision…. We are not showing him as a fakir, he is a modern man, so beyond a certain point it would have been very boring with this man continuously talking about life and how it should be. The thought of him being blind turned the film upside down but it made the film's message deeper. I thought something which doesn't excite me will not excite the audience. Playing him as a blind man was very exciting for me," actor Anupam Kher’s quote from a press interview about a his film Chodo kal ki Baatein (2012)(3).

The quote from Anupam Kher summarizes well an unusual period of transition in the portrayal of disability in Indian cinema. On one hand, the statement seems somewhere between fetishing vision impairment to test the limits of the actor’s histrionic ability, and on another, by at least acknowledging the loaded history of disability on screen, Kher suggests a starting point for a critique. In 2011, Sanjay Bhansali released Guzaarish, a film about a paraplegic’s legal case for euthanasia which derives loosely from Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside, 2004) and lead star Hrithik Roshan had this to say about role-preparing:

"I interacted with a lot of paraplegic patients before taking up the film. Before that I used to be irritable and edgy but they taught me to live. The character of the paraplegic touched my heart," (4)

He followed it up by speaking about the concept of the film: "This is a good beginning; in time, as we evolve as a society, it will become easier to see reason in the concept of euthanasia as a boon to those who are suffering to a degree which you and me cannot even imagine." (5)

In reshaping the disabled as a group that ought to be extolled for what it offers us as a learning for life, statements like Kher’s and Roshan’s both betray the extent to which the idea of a disabled person as a standard participant in social or economic circles is still so alien, and how deeply ingrained the need to view disability through a lens of pity or heroism is part of our national discourse.

While most of the portrayal of disability on film in the period leading up to the early 2000s was offensive caricature, a new wave of cinema has both started portraying more disabilities on screen. There are two aspects to this new movement. On one hand, a small subsection of popular films have reduced the extent of blatant denigration, the use of sentimentalizing disability is still deeply prevalent and very effectively sold to the market. The second, related factor is that disability itself has become a useful avenue for actors to emphasize their talent in a way not very different from how playing a disabled character came to be a fairly strong indicator of Academy.

Award potential in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The list of awards that have gone to the actors playing a disabled character since the 2000s in the Filmfare and Filmfare South best actor and actress awards speaks to this – Amitabh Bachchan for Black (2006) and Paa (2010), Vikram for Kaasi (2001) and Pithamagan (2003), Surya for Perazhagan (2004), Mohanlal for Thanmatra (2005), and Shah Rukh Khan for My Name is Khan (2011). Among actresses, Rani Mukherji for Black (2006), Kajol for Fanaa (2007) and Pooja for Naan Kadavul (2009) can be counted as examples. Many of these are National Awards, which indicates that the State views these portrayals similarly.

The reconfiguration of lead actors in films in a different light has precedent in a few films that, despite at some points falling to stereotyping, nonetheless set the stage for the possibility of including people with disabilities as viable lead stars. Sai Paranjpe’s Sparsh (1980) for the large part remains unparalleled in its portrayal of people with disabilities as regular protagonists, in relationships with mainstream partners. In the film Nasseruddin Shah plays a blind school principal, who has a relationship with one of the volunteers at the school. The film does not sentimentalize the relationship, and instead highlights social expectations, assumptions about pity and dependence, and the role these play in coloring relationships between disabled and mainstream people.

Raaja Paarvai (1981) made the following year by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao featured Kamal Haasan as ablind violinist living independently. While the film is not unsentimental, it nonetheless emphasizes a perfectly reasonable romantic relationship between a disabled and a ‘mainstream’ person. More importantly, the use of Kamal Haasan in the lead role was important, since it brought to mainstream cinema a regular disabled character. The film ends on a hopeful note when the heroine Madhavi dumps the groom selected by her family in her wedding dress, and elopes with Kamal Haasan.

The recent re-emergence of disability on cinema with a hint of an empowered bent has both brought out a range of disabilities on screen, but has also brought actors with disabilities to screen. Deafness and deaf-blindness are characterized in Paal 2006 in which the hero is a deaf assassin, Black 2006 in which the two protagonists are deaf-blind-mute and an Alzheimer’s patient respectively, and Mozhi 2007 in which the lead actress is deaf. In the biggest hit of 2009, Nadodigal, deaf actress Abhinaya is cast opposite the lead actor. She was instantly popular and went on to score supporting roles in a number of major productions. The same year, blind actor Nasser Khan played a person with normal vision in the film Shadow. The actor Ajay Kumar, who has a growth deficiency and is also known as Guinness Pakru (forbeing the shortest actor in the world), has typically played comical supporting characters or fantasy characters such as the prince of dwarves in Adbhuta Dweepam (2005) landed a starring role as the father of Jayaram, a major Malayalam star, in the 2010 popular film My Big Father. The same year, Bala, who earlier dealt with subjects of disability in Kasi and Pithamagan, released Naan Kadavul, which featured an entire star cast of disabled performers.

However, if we read into the narratives of the film, we find a lot that is fairly disturbing. My Big Father has a number of derogatory references to Ajay Kumar’s size, repeated poking fun at him, and a comedy scene in which his own son traps him in a rubbish bin. Naan Kadavul, a deeply problematic film, deals with itinerant performers and beggars, and creates an intentionally freakish visual ethic where the disabled body is an object of voyeurism. In the name of realism, the disabled characters are exploited, sometimes abused on screen, and the chief female protagonist – a blind commuter train singer, is eventually murdered (in sympathy) by the hero who offers her ‘moksha’ (deliverance). The film was both critically acclaimed and well received in popular circles for its apparent foray into the underbelly of the begging underworld. The disturbing nature of its narrative on disability, however, has not found much discussion in the public space.

There have been a number of mainstream films in recent years about a range of conditions, many of which rarely get serious discussion in the public sphere including Progeria (Paa), Alzheimers (Thanmatra, U Me aur Hum), Dyslexia (Taare Zameen Par), Asperger syndrome (My Name is Khan), Cerebral Palsy (Angel 2011, Vinmeegal). While some of these films are indeed moving closer to an inclusive view of disability as partand parcel of society, there are still far too many films on the other end of the spectrum – continuing on the strong foundations of othering that years of Indian cinema have facilitated. Several of these films are very important on multiple levels because of the concepts they discuss have never even made it to the screen before. In a country where studies show that even a vast number of the disabled themselves consider the role of a past birth as playing a part in one’s disability, things like the public discourse of disability are of critical importance.


Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx SpacerNotes/references
Phalanx Spacer

I am like 'Lafangey Parindey' heroine: Deepika Padukone” Daily Bhaskar, 27 August 2010. hp://
This film continues with the theme of disability and punishment – the jailor’s wife is jailed in the basement of her own home, kept away from seeing her own child, and eventually dies. The blind doctor, now a roaming mendicant falls in love with another blind girl, who in turn ends up having her sight restored by the jail warden.

Joyojeet Pal is an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research is primarily on technology and development. In the recent past, he has been working on the impacts of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the availability of assistive technologies in the developing world. He is also interested in the media representation of technology, especially in mainstream south Indian cinema. Joyojeet received his PhD in City and Regional Planning from the University of California at Berkeley and his Bachelor's in Commerce from Sydenham College, Mumbai.Joyojeet Pal is an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research is primarily on technology and development. In the recent past, he has been working on the impacts of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the availability of assistive technologies in the developing world. He is also interested in the media representation of technology, especially in mainstream south Indian cinema. Joyojeet received his PhD in City and Regional Planning from the University of California at Berkeley and his Bachelor's in Commerce from Sydenham College, Mumbai.

Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Spacer
Home | Editor's Desk | Open Page | Content | Contribute | Archive | Manifesto | People | Contact | Subscribe | Site Map | Privacy policy | Legal
Phalanx Spacer
© 2016 PHALANX. All rights reserved | it's an El Remo Creation
Phalanx Spacer
Phalanx Spacer