05 January 2006

Disability in South Indian Language films- A Critical Review

I presented this paper on "Disability in South Indian Language films- A Critical Review" in an Orientation cum Training programme in “Media & Disability Communication” conducted by Ali Yavar Jung institute For Hearing Handicapped, Mumbai in Collaboration with Kerala Press Academy & SOMS, Kochi in Kakkanad on 16th & 17th December 2005.

The couple of days have been the most exciting days in my life for many reasons, to be discussing my favourite subject with you people who will be deciding the shape our media will take in the coming years on the one side and on the other side there are people who have shaped our thought process for many years and in a way shaped our destinies. People like Mr. C. S. Venkiteswaran, whom I consider to be my Dronacharya, me being his Eklavya, we have never met personally before this event, but he is one person without whom I would not have been sitting here, it is his column Rumble Strip along with writings of Khalid Mohamad and T. G. Vaidyanathan that has sustained my interest in films since the days I was just a student. So, Sir, today you can ask my forefinger which I use to type or a piece of my brain as your Guru Dakshina, and I will happily oblige. Mr. P. J. Mathew Martin thanks to you for giving me this opportunity and thanks Mr. Satish Kapoor for recommending my name to him.

On the subject of South Indian Language films – I cannot claim any expertise on it. I am no better than a lay viewer who spends money for the ticket to be enlightened – entertained for nearly three hours. Maybe my reaction will be a little more amplified than the mere clapping-whistling-hooting of the next person considering the physical hardship I have to go through to get my quota of entertainment. So, I write reviews just to add value to my experience.

The general perception is that films reflect what society is going through and we also see that how films influences the minds of the viewers, it is a two way street. Filmmakers claim to be inspired by real life incidents and characters to make up their stories and mould their characters. On the other hand, we have heard people saying that how they were influenced by a scene or the film which changed their lives. So, the ‘chicken or the egg’ kind of debate continues.

Personally, I have never succeeded in analysing how a particular film has influenced me, some films are just stories for us, so; we are just concerned about how well they are told. Some other films compel us to look beyond the obvious, the technique, the characterisation and even the motives of the director behind making the film in such a way.

When a filmmaker makes a film with a disabled protagonist; the first claim he will make is being inspired by ‘triumph of the human spirit’ kind of thing. But if we dwell enough on the subject, we can see that such characters give immense dramatic scope for the director to work upon. Every basic trait required for making a good story can be magnified manifold if one or more characters happen to be handicapped.

If we take Mr. Vinayan’s three films as case in the point; Vasanthi Lakshmium Pinne Njanum, Oomapenninu Uriyada Payyan, and Meeraude Dukham Muthuvinte Swapnam, we clearly see the manipulative qualities of story telling at work.

He deserves to be congratulated for the audacity he has shown in taking up the subject with deformed protagonists. The care taken to imbibe the physical attributes in the actors is credible.

It is agreed that making films in so called commercial format requires a bit of exaggeration. The goodness, evil, virtue, vice, magnanimity and pettiness, you see all these in the some form or other in all these films. You can say they are packaged in such a way. And to top it all, a captivating climax to keep the audience glued to their seats till the very end.

As mentioned earlier, the very liberal use of cinematic license is visible in all these films. You see a much heightened volume in every emotion here. The exaggeration is very pronounced. Which may make you wonder, “Is this for real”?

In reality we don’t see anything out of the ordinary in our lives, whether we are able-bodied or disabled. It is through eyes of a third person that something becomes extraordinary in our existence.

For example, if we take the character of Kalabhavan Mani in Vasanthi…we may see all the above points very clearly. Everything about him is exaggerated (I’m not talking about the acting part here, which was a very contentious issue when this film was released), from the placement of his comb to the abusive nature of his father and brother and the love showered on him by the lead females in the film. As ordinary viewers, we may pass it off as good narration. But if we look a little minutely we see the manipulative forces of story telling at work. And, this pattern is repeated in all the above mentioned films.

The same pattern is also being used in some Bollywood films as well. Sprash (1984) directed by Sai Paranjpe is still appreciated as one of best films on disability to be made in India. Naseerudin Shah’s superlative performance helps the film to rise above the ordinary. He plays a visually impaired principal of a blind school. A very independent and proud person, the problem starts when he comes in contact with a widow played by Shabana Azmi and a romantic relationship develops between them. Somehow, it is conveyed that he is ill-equipped cope with having a relationship with a so called normal person. Then it goes on to show how he overcomes his complexes to go back to her.

It is here that the society’s attitude towards the disability is reflected in films. The notion that people with disabilities lead secluded life and bereft of any social skills.

If you look westwards where the society is more attuned to the needs of disabled community, you see revolutionary films with disabled characters. Sometimes even a passing glimpse of disabled character leaves a very positive impact. If you take Ron Howard’s Oscar nominated A Beautiful Mind starring Russle Crowe playing Nobel-laureate Mathematician John Nash who is suffering from schizophrenia, towards the end of film we are shown that Prof. Nash’s fellow faculty members at the Princeton University queuing up before him, gifting their pens to him as a token of their appreciation after he won the award, in that queue we see a person on an electronic wheelchair doing the same without any fanfare. Can we imagine a faculty member who uses a wheelchair in any of our colleges? The answer for the time being at least will be an emphatic ‘No’.

At the end; I trust that some of you will be following the footsteps of Renji Panicker and will turn to filmmaking after practicing journalism for a while, at that time if you use what you gained from this interaction; then only the efforts that went behind preparing this paper will bear fruits.

Thank you.

(The Paper was in fact read on my behalf, I just typed it. To be factually correct).