Readers Write In #49: The Portrayal of Disability in Indian Mainstream Cinema – Where’s the Nuance?

Posted on September 16, 2018

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So, the husband and I were craving a good Tamil masala movie last night, and chanced upon the Suriya-starrer, “Thaana Serndha Kootam”. It seemed to have got decent reviews, and we went in expecting a light, fun watch.

Half an hour and two fast-forwarded songs later (thank God for modern online watching. Can’t imagine having to sit through Anirudh’s “Sodakku Mela..” in a loud theatre with bad acoustics), this happens – the Yogi Babu character is being begged by the lead actress, Keerthy Suresh, to do something for her. She’s into small-time scamming, and wants him to play a role that “only he can do”. What follows is some self-deprecating humor by Babu about his appearance. The scene could easily have ended there (being just a regular “comedy scene” in the middle of nowhere), but goes on to become one of the most cringeworthy sequences, where Keerthy Suresh makes Suriya sit on a wheelchair and pretend to be her disabled husband so she can get an old couple to give her some money as a wedding gift. We watched with disbelief Suriya distort his mouth, and also his hands, in order to feign “disability”. All of this designed to make the worshipping audience titter with amusement.

This begs a couple of questions – why were we so surprised? Did we really expect more from an industry that regularly mines disability for laughs? Of course, the sad truth could be that we haven’t yet watched enough of such “comedy” to become immune to it, like we seem to have become with respect to female-degrading terms such as “figure” and “item” that have become so commonplace in Indian cinema. If you want to watch a couple of recent Tamil movies and get something out of the movie apart from anger and annoyance, you might just have to start tuning out the fact that the hero refers to his love interest as “figure-u”. We have become a nation of outrage, but where’s all the rightful outrage gone? If there is a problem with “incendiary” lyrics against politicians (Veratty veratty velukka thonuthu – I feel like chasing them and beating them up) in the aforementioned “Sodakku Mela” song, why is there no outrage against the regular “soup-boy” songs that say variations of “adi daa avale, odhe daa avale (Hit her, my friend, and kick her as well. We don’t need her love at all)? 

But I digress. If you have watched the popular Chennai Express (which was a pretty fun movie overall, IMO), you would have seen the 5-minute stretch where Shah Rukh’s character interacts with a person with dwarfism, for no reason whatsoever, except for the audience to look at the person and laugh. That a movie is “just a mindless comedy” does not excuse a lack of thought and empathy on the film-maker’s part.

And let’s not forget the regular jabs at mental-illness in all our films (remember “Neenga yerina endha bus venaalum Kilpauk pogum” – Any bus you get into will go to Kilpauk – from Boys?)*. As a student of Mental Health from one of the leading Psychiatric Hospitals in India, this rings all too familiar. I’ve been asked as a joke, on more than one occasion, whether I joined as a “patient” and they just decided to take me in as a student. People with mental illness are laughed at, and dealt with with so much suspicion and ‘otherness’ in our day-to-day lives. Can we expect our filmmakers to be any better?

Which leads me to another point – both Shah Rukh Khan and Suriya seem like intelligent people, apart from being some of the most influential actors of their time. Would they not have a say in what they are expected to portray on screen? Or are we expected to believe that they are so ‘dedicated to their craft’ that they just do what the director tells them to? The directors, on their part, would claim that they are just reflecting society, or providing to the audience the kind of entertainment they want to see. 

But maybe, just maybe… We must all take a hard, cold look at ourselves in the mirror before we play the blame-game. Do we laugh at other people’s misfortunes easily? Is it really that hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes? Can we even begin to imagine what a person with disability would go through while watching someone pretend to be them so that other people can laugh?

*Kilpauk is an area in Chennai that has become laughing stock, being synonymous with the Institute of Mental Health, commonly referred to as the “Mental hospital”.

(by Aditi Subramaniam)