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Representation of the disabled in Tamil cinema is not all it’s cracked up to be

Express News Service

Back in 1964, Satyen Bose made a path-breaking film—Dosti. Focussing on the friendship between two disabled boys—one blind and the other physically handicapped—the film became a box office sensation and went on to win hearts at the 4th Moscow International Film Festival. Since then, Hindi cinema has seen quite a few strong roles written for characters with disability. From Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro in 1989 to Margarita with a Straw in 2014.

Of course, a lot more representation is needed, but at least it’s not a blank canvas. Unfortunately, Tamil films have not quite matched up to the same. Though hundreds of films get released every year, barely a few feature such characters, and an even lesser number gets the portrayal right. Kumaran Kumanan, a psychologist and Tamil lyricist with cerebral palsy, who worked on Sivakarthikeyan’s Nenjamundu Nermayundu Odu Raja, believes that the differently abled are mostly used by writers to create ‘sympathy’. “We rarely get to see people like us featured, let alone be protagonists. Filmmakers are still worried about audience acceptance,” he says.

Ambika Raja, a journalism student from Hyderabad, who lost her ability to walk after an accident, believes that society’s perspectives on people like her can be shaped by filmmakers. “It even influences how I see myself. There are films in which a character suffers a disability after an accident and a close one expresses grief by saying that a loss of life would have been less cruel. Again in many stories, differently abled characters suffer rejection and end up dying. When I see such cinema, it makes me wonder if my life is that horrible.” She quotes Dhanush’s Maari 2 to make her point. “Sai Pallavi’s Anandhi becomes wheelchair-bound after an accident in the film and shortly, ends up dying during childbirth. The disability angle has clearly been written in to make her death feel more tragic. We need to stop using disability as a manipulative device.”

(Clockwise from below) Stills from Margarita with a Straw; Peranbu; Netrikann

Director Milind Rau agrees. He is currently shooting Netrikann, where Nayanthara plays a blind protagonist. Rau believes that using the disability of a character as a factor in a script is fine as long as the portrayal is sensitive. “I am against insensitive representation. Physical disability is a character’s external challenge, just like the internal ones every character fights with,” he says, adding that it is natural for audiences to root for underdogs. Kumanan, however, notes that simply by virtue of a film having its heart in the right place, it cannot be excused from problematic portrayal. “Peranbu, for instance, was made with noble intentions and the representation of cerebral palsy was also accurate. But the tone of the film shook me. Throughout the film, the kid faces rejection and discrimination, and finally, Mammootty’s Amudhavan seems to settle for a compromise as the climax.” Filmmakers featuring a disabled character must exercise caution, he adds.

To achieve the right tone, it is important to have a dialogue with experts who work with the disabled. For instance, in Netrikann’s case, Rau had a visually challenged person on the sets to teach the cast and crew about the obstacles such a character faces. “We learned that such people gather toothpaste on their fingers and then apply it to the toothbrush; they also insert a finger in mugs when collecting water, to make sure they don’t spill it. These were useful inputs.” Kumanan notes that films like Margarita with a Straw are appreciated because of this very quality of actively engaging with experts.

There is also the additional issue of having abled actors play disabled characters. “Wouldn’t it be more authentic to see a differently abled actor perform?” asks Raja. “It will also encourage more such people to come forward and chase their dreams and the representation will get better,” she says. Rau, however, has a counter-theory, “Stars bring audiences to the theatre. When playing a disabled character, they are able to create great awareness.” Widening perspectives through entertainment is the best step forward.  

Source: The New Indian Express