29 June 2005

Disability in Hindi Films

The things that contributed towards the elevation of Amitabh Bachchan to superstardom in the mid 70s and early 80s are his smouldering anger, the baritone voice that he possessed, the angst he displayed against the redundant socialist morality of that era and, disability. Yes, you have read it correctly; disability or to put it more precisely, deformity. There is an inconspicuous link in the films of Amitabh Bachchan. From Sunil Dutt directed ‘Reshma aur Shera’ (1971), Manoj Kumar’s ‘Roti, Kapda aur Makan’ (1974), to Raj Sippy’s remake of ‘Seven brides for seven brothers’; ‘Satte pe Satta’ (1982) and Vipul Shah’s ‘Aakhen (2002), a prominent peripheral character or characters (except the first two films mentioned above, where Bachchan himself has portrayed characters with disability) are shown with deformity of some kind.

The writers and directors of that period who worked with Bachchan have used such characters to showcase the magnanimity and generosity of the protagonist. ‘Majboor’, (1974) ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ (1977) and ‘Laawaris’ (1981) can be sited as best examples to back this argument. In Ravi Tandon’s ‘Majboor’, he is ready to face the gallows for the sake of his crippled sister’s (Farida Jalal) future. ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ one of the most successful lost-and-found saga from the Manmohan Desai stable, has ubiquitous Nirupa Roy playing his blind mother. And in ‘Laawaris’ directed by Prakash Mehra, we see him turn the potter’s wheel singing ‘Jiska Koi Nahin Uska To Khuda Hai Yaaron’ to help his friend Suresh Oberoi, whose hands are amputated. You will find these kind of marginalized (read disabled) characters in at least one-sixth of the movies in Bachchan’s oeuvre of 120 odd films. These people helped the directors to put a compassionate halo behind the larger-than-life image of the Angry Young Man.

This phenomenon works strictly within the limits of commercial parameters. So these characters never moved beyond mere stereotypes that deserve our sympathy or pity.

The social observers and media commentators have always argued about lack of realistic representation of disability in our movies. Here the filmmakers (with few exceptions) have lacked the gumption to tackle the intricacies in the lives of people leading a physically or mentally maimed existence. The crippled are always barricaded in the periphery, like the character of ‘Kachara’ (garbage) in the microcosmic world of Oscar nominated ‘Lagaan’.

You rarely find the splash of realism, as the Hollywood is used to churning out at regular intervals in films like ‘Rain Man’, ‘My Left Foot’, ‘Scent of a Woman’, ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ and ‘A Beautiful Mind’. Here once in a while, a sensitive director like Gulzar wakes up to make a touching ‘Koshish’ (1972), Sai Paranjpe to make a poignant ‘Sprash’ (1984) or a Sanjay Leela Bhansali to make the ironically loud ‘Khamoshi – The Musical’ (1996).

These three movies portrayed life of the disabled realistically with varying degree of success. ‘Koshish’ tells a story of a deaf-mute couple played by Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bachchan, leading a secluded life and tackling so as to say the outside world. ‘Sprash’ on the other hand depicts the conflict between the worlds of able-bodied and the disabled. It brings out the complexes embedded in the minds of disabled as well as able-bodied with an unsentimental equilibrium. A nuanced performance from the ever dependable Naseerudin Shah playing a blind man gives an added exuberance to the film. ‘Khamoshi’ tries to give honest account of deaf-mute parents coming to terms with the musical aspirations of their grownup daughter. But somewhere you feel that the reality is eroded at the expense of aesthetic considerations. The beautiful music, an enviable star cast of Nana Patekar, Seema Biswas, Manisha Koirala and Salman Khan and the breathtaking locales of Goa somehow don’t rescue it from falling apart.

On the whole, Hindi films have always used deformity as a crutch to convey an extreme emotion, be it positive, negative, funny or sad. Remember the role played by Pran in Manoj Kumar’s ‘Upkaar’ (1967), the Good Samaritan with one leg, walking with help of a crutch. Or the vicious, tyrant, wheelchair bound husband of Zeenat Aman played by Danny in B. R. Chopra’s suspense-thriller ‘Dhund’ (1973). The comedy part is handled by the limping or stammering sidekick a la Shakti Kapoor.

One only hopes, that the emergence of the second new wave cinema aimed at the audience in the multiplexes of urban centres will find a few interesting stories about handicapped people. Who knows, in the near future we may have an Indian equivalent of Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis amidst us.

  • As appeared in Hindu Metro Plus

  • As appeared on British Film Institute’s website
  • 19 June 2005

    Review of Hindi film 'Black'

    Black is the colour of strength, power, courage, etc. etc. imagine every inspiring and uplifting word to interpret the colour. That is what director Sanjay Leela Bhansali tries to convey with his latest offering ‘Black’, and, we don’t question his sincerity. But when you make an operatic mess out of it, one’s heart is bound to bleed.

    A king sized story of a deaf-mute-blind girl inspired by her teacher to achieve the impossible sounds good in the head when read, but when you are having an over-the-top experience of it in a darkened auditorium you just wish to curl up in your seat or even better vanish into the thin air to avoid further suffering. If you introspect on your anger against the movie for while; you understand that it is because the story somehow exposes you, your anguish, your thrills and your sufferings (maybe underscored with a bit more melodrama than you can take).

    The fault lies in the director’s approach to the story. He has just used one point of view to tell the story, as if trying to say that you can make a disabled person achieve unimaginable goals if you strive sternly and stubbornly, without even once acknowledging the will, grit or the determination of the disabled person.

    Bhansali seems to be overwhelmed by the prospect of directing the Amitabh Bachchan thereby forgetting to tell the story in a holistic manner. Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan) is a special teacher obsessed with the idea of bettering the lives of the less advantaged with prospect of being thrown into asylum because of their disability. He is assigned to tackle a difficult case of a deaf-mute-blind girl Michelle McNally (Ayesha Kapur/Rani Mukerji).

    The premise looks promising upto this point; but what it proceeds to shatters the build-up. The first task that the teacher takes upon himself is to teach the stubborn girl some table manners. What ensues is a violent game of one-upmanship, which ultimately the teacher wins. There are a couple of such long drawn sequences signifying that you need to be cruel and stubborn to discipline a disabled child, as if you are trying to tame a wild animal.

    The film then goes on take a sober tone as the unruly girl grows up to become a well-mannered and beautiful young lady, well adjusted into the family aspiring to be educated in a college. But you find it difficult to get out of the initial shock to truly appreciate the more nuanced and subdued points, which the story tries to throw up later on. Like the jealousy of the younger sibling played by Nandana Sen, because every mundane thing her sister succeeds in doing becomes a moment to rejoice for their parents.

    ‘Black’ belongs to Amitabh Bachchan the actor; he relishes the role tailor-made for him. Here he surpasses the superstar image, by making himself look old and fragile. Again the director is at fault for not letting us forget who he is, by making him self proclaimed magician who is total control of his surroundings.

    Ayesha Kapur and Rani Mukerji are credible as the young and the older Michelle respectively. They both have worked hard to imbibe the physicality of the character and they have been successful in doing so great extent.

    On the whole, one is bound feel that Bhansali has not got over his ‘Devdas’ hangover, as the same lavish theatrical quality of manipulating the audience is evident here also. And, we should not forget that he is same fellow who gave us ‘Khamoshi – The Musical’, a bit more natural story concerning the disabled. So, if put to vote ‘Khamoshi’ will always stay a few points above ‘Black’.

    (Published in Jan-Mar 2005 issue of ‘Success & Ability’ with minor changes.)

  • Review of Devdas
  • 13 June 2005

    Review of Million Dollar Baby

    ‘Tough ain’t enough’, the words in Clint Eastwood’s sonorous voice from his latest film Million Dollar Baby hum inside you hours after you have left the darkened dingy theatre with a bad back. Aware beforehand of the subject the film dealt with (due to the Oscar hype and the ensuing controversies) didn’t help to soften the blow it delivered, which made you mentally numb and dizzy.

    As you start dissecting the movie, the words of the actor-director take up a new connotation, as if he was warning you that being tough won’t be enough to digest what he is going to show you, so garner your higher faculties like sensibility and pragmatism to tackle with it.

    If someone says that story-telling is the art of manipulation, then Eastwood here proves to be a past master at it. He uses the technique of a boxer of exhausting the opponent (viewers) by showing some exhilarating stuff in the form of gender/colour biased friendly banter and a story of triumphing against odds, to give a knockout punch in the end.

    This is the story of a grizzled boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) taking a lowly young woman Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) under his wings and making her a champ. This is clichéd, you feel, and the director doesn’t do anything counter your beliefs. He simply goes with the flow of the story, thereby making it more difficult for the viewer to accept what is in store. To complicate the matter further there is a narrator, who gives a third dimension to the story. Scrap (Morgan Freeman) forms the third dimension. He is a former boxer who manages the gym where Frankie trains.

    If you scratch beneath the facile surface of the premise, you will find the emotional interplay of these three characters, how they tackle their own failure and shortcomings.

    Frankie is a failed father, whose daughter has distanced herself from him. His boxers leave him because he is over-protective of them and does not give them a chance to take a shot at the title. He attends the Mass everyday, because he is suffering from terrible guilt, as the priest would say.

    Maggie on the other hand, is a 31 year old waitress at an eatery, eating the leftovers from the plates of the guests to save for training herself as a boxer, which she feels it is the only way she can better her life.

    Scrap has resigned to his fate as a failed boxer, managing the dingy gym and helping other helpless creatures like Maggie and Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel), a mentally challenged man with delusions of a becoming a champ, feel worthy.

    So everything moves forward on predictable lines till the championship match. And, everyone is in a celebratory mode.

    But, then the whole hell breaks loose as Maggie is fatally injured by the brutal opponent. She is fitted with an oxygen tube in the throat. Things turn utterly depressing from this point onwards. The relationship of the lead characters comes into new focus. Frankie feels guilty for Maggie’s condition. Maggie is sorry that she could not make mentor’s dream, of making her a champ, come true.

    Frankie starts thinking of alternatives for Maggie after she would be out of the rehab centre, and asks her if she wanted anything, she requests him to do the same thing to her as her dead father had did with their crippled pet, to choke her. And, he obliges after much soul-searching and deliberations with the priest who advices against it, not out of theological or spiritual reasons, but for reasons that are purely personal.

    We would have whistled and clapped as the film ended only if Maggie had become a champion for cause of putting a ban on boxing or even selling the rights of her life story for a million dollar after the fatal fight, something like what Tom Cruise did in the Oliver Stone film Born on the Fourth of July.

    But cinematically it is this unpredictable ending that worked in the favour of this film that helped it reap a rich harvest at the Academy Awards.

    “So let the debate continue among the audience and the critics”, the septuagenarian director may be thinking reclining in his easy-chair, “but I’ve the satisfaction of being heralded as one of the greatest filmmaker ever by making this film”.
    (Published in Apr - Jun 2005 issue of 'Success & Ability' with minor changes)