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Disability scanner on Bollywood - time films went beyond just themes to represent people with disabilities

When it comes to stories about people with disabilities, there are many films we can be proud of – Taare Zameen Par, Black, Guzaarish, Barfi, My Name is Khan, Paa, and more recently, Hichki.

These are films that not only portrayed different kinds of disabilities, but also did that in a nuanced way with sensitive performances. Even better, they were commercial hits.

Disability onscreen

But are they truly inclusive and representative of people with disabilities?

A question that comes up in the context of the widespread outrage in the United States over Dwayne Johnson’s recent film, Skyscraper, where he portrays an amputee who tries to rescue his family from a burning building.

The filmmaker and Johnson have faced a storm of criticism from the disabled community over the choice of an able-bodied actor to play a disabled man.

This comes soon after leading female actor Scarlett Johansson decided to pull out of the film Rub & Tug where she was to play the role of a transgender character in the face of protests, mainly from transgender actors for taking on the role.

Hindi films & disability

Is this a sentiment that the film industry in India needs to learn from? There is no doubt that the industry here has made huge progress when it comes to portrayals of disabled people. In the past, films used to mock people with stutters and mental illness was portrayed in an insensitive way. Depictions of women with disabilities have been especially negative.

Like a World Bank study commissioned by the Indian government in 2008 pointed out, physically disabled women were shown as simply irrelevant. It said that while men with disabilities in films were shown as loved by devoted women without disabilities, the reverse was never the case. It was only rare films like Mann, where the man loved the woman even after the onset of the disability. Women with disabilities are also never shown to become economically independent, unlike in many Hollywood films.

Making disability real

The point is that films are meant to portray real-life, and there is nothing more real than disability. What is unreal is getting someone without a disability, who has never lived the experience, to play the part of a person who is mobility challenged or hard of hearing. Films are meant to portray different kinds of people, with different abilities. Excluding disabled people strikes a false note on many counts.

The time is right to make that change especially given the larger openness within the industry.

Bollywood actors like Abhishek Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan have spoken out about their own battles with disability while growing up. After the release of Taare Zameen Par, Bachchan shared the inspiring story of how he overcame dyslexia as a child. Roshan, too has spoken about the several painful speech therapy sessions he went through to overcome his stammer to become one of the top actors in the film industry. Deepika Padukone made the brave move of speaking out about her struggles with depression.

The standard excuse that that audiences may not be ready to accept disabled actors no longer holds. Nor does the argument that these films are unlikely to be commercial hits.

The success of the Tamil film Maa proves that. This 2011 superhit had a cast of disabled actors, a director, Fathima Beevi, on a wheelchair, and music composer G Karthik, who is visually impaired. The movie looks at whether disability should stand in the way of love. The film was a big hit in Tamil Nadu, a sign that attitudes towards disability are changing and audiences are ready for the change to be reflected onscreen.

The question is, will commercial Hindi cinema take that step?

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