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.
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.
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.