Will Barfi! change the way Bollywood treats disability?

by Joyojeet Pal

I am looking forward to Anurag Basu’s Barfi! for more reasons than its slick Amelie-esque Himalayan trailer. Barfi! is one among a number of films in recent years to have a lead character with a disability. Ranbir Kapoor plays the deaf-mute protagonist. Opposite him are two female leads – one with a disability, another without. Priyanka Chopra plays a woman with a mental disability, and has recently already been lauded in the media for playing a de-glamourized role. Indeed, the image of the star is so tied to glamour that the act of playing a de-glamourized role is seen as an act of artistic courage. The underlying question of whether people with disabilities can be glamorous is ignored, perhaps taboo. Disability and romance have traditionally had a very difficult relationship on Indian screen.

Gandhari complex

Flash back to 1965. Ramanand Sagar’s love story Arzoo ends as an edge of the seat thriller. Heroine Usha (Sadhana) daintily seats herself upon a log of wood and switches on the sawmill, carefully placing her left foot in the direction of the blade. As the log of wood edges closer to the spinning blade, suitor Gopal (Rajendra Kumar) hams up the edge of a snowy hill to stop her from her act of self-amputation.  He makes it in time, the log is cut in half but the foot survives, the two live happily ever after, the audience cries in appreciation.

The back-story to the bizarre climax is this. Gopal loses his foot in an accident, gets a Jaipur foot, but still feels inadequate and abruptly starts avoiding his paramour Usha, since he’s ostensibly not good enough for her. At the end of the film, she finds out the truth, and decides she must match his disability to make the match a worthy one.

Hark back to the Mahabharata, and Usha’s obvious reference is to the queen Gandhari, who blindfolds herself since her husband is blind. While Gandhari is held up as an icon of virtuous womanhood, an alternate interpretation could be that you need to be disabled to partner someone with a disability. The idea of a person with a disability being mismatched when paired with a mainstream person is one of the longest standing portrayals of disability in Indian cinema.

Priyanka Chopra in Barfi. Image courtesy: IBN Live.

So how does Hindi cinema resolve that kind of a romantic relationship? The first case is where the disability basically makes the relationship untenable. The typical depiction of this would be the man with a disability who can no longer fulfill the full duties of a husband/lover/protector. Examples of this abound from Pati Patni (1966), Zameen Asmaan (1972), Kasauti (1974), Vakil Babu (1983), Qatl (1986) or Vaada (2006).

When the bandage is removed

The second and rather unusual case, is where the disability is cured, typically aided by the magnanimous hero. Thus the poor blind girl Moushumi Chatterjee gets a cornea transplant at the end of the film Anuraag (1972) so her romance with Vinod Mehra can be consummated, similar examples include Jheel ke us Paar (1973) Sunayana(1979), Neel Kamal (1984), and Humko Tumse Pyaar hain (2006). The converse is equally common – thus blind or mentally ill men are cured by caring women in Saathi (1968), Khamoshi (1969), Khilona (1970) much like the righteous wife Sukanya from the Bhagavata Purana, through her virtue and penance, is able to restore sight to her blind husband sage Chyavana.

The curability of disability in Hindi films particularly fascinating, and is again related to the depiction of disability in Hindu mythology. Ashtavakra from the Advaita Vedanta scriptures is cured of his disability by his scholarship. Samba, son of Krishna, is cured of his deformities by his penance at the Konark temple in Orissa. These movies all have a stirring scene of a bandage over the eyes being removed in a hospital room to restore vision to a protagonist, or perhaps someone getting up from a wheelchair and starting to run upon hearing a rousing song. An important point is made here -- disability is fundamentally ‘rectifiable’ and that the cure is either in the mind of the person, or in the magnanimity of the hero who pays for the operation or sings the rousing song. When I was watching Arzoo, I was momentarily stunned to see Rajendra Kumar’s foot being amputated, since my instinct was to wonder “Now how is this going to grow back?” Luckily the Jaipur foot can be neatly concealed and normalized.

In a Hindi film, the protagonists are those that can represent an ideal, something everyone can relate to. A hero cannot be desexualized, cannot be incomplete, cannot be dependent. The disabled have traditionally thus either fulfilled supporting character roles, else if they are a central character, they must be fixed, or they must become an object of tragedy.

This is not to say there haven’t been exceptions to the rule – Sai Paranjpe’s film Sparsh (1980) and Gulzar’s Koshish (1971) showed protagonists with disabilities living independently with regular romantic lives. But such films have ended up bracketed as art films and frequently played to clichés about disability in their narrative being as they were appealing to popular sensibilities.

My Name is Disability

The recent trend of films which have protagonists with disabilities is more interesting. Black (2006) Fanaa (2007) My Name is Khan (2011) Guzaarish (2012) have all moved away from the explicit pity model, yet the disability, per se, is still the defining characteristic of the individual. So themes like dependence, discrimination, and euthanasia still make their way into the films. Not surprisingly, research shows that people with disabilities in India often report employers unwilling to hire them or give them challenging tasks. That’s not surprising given that the  people with disabilities doing the same things that non-disabled people do is rarely shown in popular media. Nonetheless these films are still a significant step away from other recent films like Pyaare Mohan (2006), or Tom Dick and Harry (2006), which either trivialise characters with disabilities or mock them entirely.

The recent increase in lead actors playing characters with disabilities mirrors a trend in Hollywood in about two decades ago when playing a character with a disability was considered a pathway to recognition at the Oscars. Actors who play roles with disabilities are invariably asked to comment on the alien experience. Hrithik Roshan met several people with paraplegia to prepare for Guzaarish, and noted “Meeting those people who have survived and found happiness against all odds was most inspiring to me.” The idea of a disability as an object of inspiration for the general population in itself  ironically helps reinforce disability as existing in a different universe.  An Indian Express story on Hrithik Roshan’s life changing role in Guzaarish noted that he “came across some young, talented people who were left incapacitated due to paraplegia and immediately decided to help them” as if to propagate the idea that it is somehow particularly tragic when it happens to the visibly talented, like the magician in Guzaarish.

It's life. But is it love?

We live in a society where studies repeatedly show widespread beliefs, including among the disabled themselves, that disabilities are a curse of past sins, that the disabled are not equals. Virtually on every metric, India’s treatment of people with disabilities in the public sphere is at best charity-driven, at worst brutal – and the  way people with disabilities are depicted on screen exacerbates this problem significantly.

Ranbir Kapoor said in an interview with The Telegraph that for his character the “disability factor is just incidental” and if the movie has a genre, it’s "life" and is not meant to wring sympathy from the audience.  He has also said it was “a fun experience” played out like “dumb charades” even though  as Hindi film hero it was frustrating. “I was frustrated that I didn’t even say one dialogue or sing a song.” Thus an important question hinges on Barfi! Will a hero with a disability pull off a successful romance with a mainstream heroine? Whether or not the film makes a dent on the portrayal of disability and romance on Indian screen, at the very least, we can expect a  Filmfare award nomination or two.