25 December 2013

Heard At Last

I saw the Malayalam short film Kelkunnundo? (Are You Listening?) by  Geetu Mohan Das. It is the fulfilment of a long cherished wish, having heard and read a lot about this film since the time it was made some four years back.

It is a story of a little blind girl who lives by coalescing the world inside her head and the world outside. Yes, it does helps to have a world inside your head if you’re stifled by a disability, so, if you feel you are ignored in the real world, you can be happy inside your head. The only thing you’ve to be careful about is that you don’t end up with schizophrenia (pun intended). I remember being a cricketer to a pilot flying my own plane sitting in a corner (where there was least chance of me getting hurt), while other kids were busy playing.

The sound of this video is on the lower side. So, it would be better if you download it and play it using VLC Player with high volume.

PS: I’d messaged Geeta when the news of the  Liar’s Dice making it to the competitive section of the  Sundance film festival had started trickling in saying that I’d like to see it if there was any preview show in Kochi and even Kelkunnundo? In her reply she mentioned that Kelkunnundo? is available online.

01 December 2013

Disabling Imagery

I had wrote this essay ages back for the British Film Institute's website about the representation of disability in Bollywood. The weblink www.bfi.org.uk/disablingimagery of this has gone missing, so, I'm posting it here:

Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them”.
Pauline Kael
  This somewhat acerbic thought of long time film reviewer with the New Yorker, stands true for most - probably every film industry in the world, and specifically for the Hindi film industry or Bollywood as it is popularly called; which is famous for churning out trite formulaic stuff year after year. So, what you get at the end, is hundred odd variations of a couple of storylines with the staple Masala (i.e. ingredients) to satisfy the taste of the average film buff, like - five songs, three fight sequences, a couple of melodramatic emotional scenes that can force open the floodgates of your tear ducts and two comical interludes, which may sometime border on plain buffoonery by a couple of sidekicks. This has been passed on generation to generation, from time immemorial.
In the given scenario, it is really an onerous task to analyze the representation of disability in Hindi Cinema. Here, Bollywood proves the adage that ‘Films are merely a reflection of the society’ to be true. Since the disabled lot are marginalised in the Indian society, the same is reflected in Hindi films. So what you see is a fleeting moment where a crippled beggar extends his begging bowl into the window of a flashy imported car, or our good hearted protagonist helping a visually impaired person cross the busy city road and in return getting heart felt blessings from the less fortunate.
If we ponder over the films in the history of Hindi Cinema, where the disabled characters have got some decent footage (length of role in Bollywood parlance) or where they have got anything to do which is of consequence; we may find, not more than what we can count on our fingers and toes put together.
 Initially, directors resorted to showing physical deformity as a symbolic representation of negative traits in a character. So, in agrarian times of black and white films, one would find the lecherous land owner/money lender with an awkward gait or deformity in any other part of the body. As time passed by, the villain or character with negative traits became physically subtler. Now he/she comes with cerebral traits like paranoia or psychosis. Some films have also used disability to evoke hilarity, like a stammering sidekick or a lame supporting actor.
On the other hand directors like showman Raj Kapoor and Manoj Kumar have taken physical deformity to the other extreme. One still vividly remembers bald David who is shown using a crutch in Raj Kapoor’s ‘Boot Polish’ (a black and white film released in the early 50’s propagating the Utopian dream of post-independence India) singing to his adopted street urchins - ‘Nanhe Munne Bache Teri Muthi Me Kya Hai?’ (Little children what are you holding in your fists?); and the children reply by singing ‘Muthi Me Hai Taqdeer Humari/Humne Kismet Ko Bas Me Kiya Hai’ (We are holding our destiny in our fists /we have taken our fate under control). And, who can forget the character of the ‘Good Samaritan’ with an amputated leg, played by Pran in Manoj Kumar’s ‘Upkaar’ (Favour) released in late 60’s.The impact of the character on the audience was not due to any intrinsic qualities, but because of the shock value. This was probably the first time that Pran was portraying an out and out positive role in his long film career.
The first real attempt to make a film with disabled characters in a central role was by Gulzar in the early 70’s with ‘Koshish’ (Effort) which showed the life of a speech and hearing impaired couple played by Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhachchan. In ‘Sparsh’ (Touch) Naseerudin Shah plays the part of a visually impaired principal of a special school for blind children, who falls in love with a widowed volunteer (played by Shabana Azmi) who comes to serve in the school to fill the vacuum in her life after the death of her husband. Made by a female director Sai Paranjpe, ‘Sparsh’ was the most sincere attempt to tell both sides of the story with a rare unsentimental equilibrium, dealing with the complexes embedded in the minds of both the characters. The early nineties saw the release of the most hyped film about the disabled: ‘Khamoshi-The Musical’ (Silence) directed by Sanjay Bhansali, which dealt with the trauma of a deaf - mute couple who find it difficult to come to terms with the personal aspirations of their daughter who is the pivot of their life. Though this film failed to deliver what it had promised, it is still remembered for the superb acting by the three main actors - Nana Pateker, Seema Biswas and Manisha Koirala.
In fact there are numerous other films that reinforce the stereotypes about disability - from ‘Super Crips’ to wallowing, philosophising invalids.
The liberalisation of the Indian economy over the last decade has seen the emergence of niche films in what is called ‘Hinglish’ shown in multiplexes in the metros, catering mainly to the urban westernized audience. The mainstay of these films is either spoofing the hypocrisy entrenched in traditional lifestyle or showing the angst of people marginalised because of their sexual orientation. So, we can hope that one day one of these niche filmmakers will find interesting stories from other groups of marginalised people such as the disabled.