With Hichki, Rani Mukerji takes on the responsibility of portraying disabled characters to the next level
The benchmark of the portrayal of disabled and terminally ill characters has certainly been raised by the current crop of actors, and once again the onus is on Rani Mukerji’s shoulders to take it to the next level.
Rani Mukerji’s Hichki marks the end of the actresses’ four-year long sabbatical after Mardaani. After four years, it seems Rani is in a comfortable terrain. The last time she had an ailment, she almost clean sweeped award functions in 2005. The role of deaf-blind Michelle McNally is still considered as Rani’s best performance ever. Through Hichki, Rani will be delving into a similar territory only this time it’s a different ailment. Hichki will feature Rani as a teacher suffering from Tourette Syndrome – a neurological disorder that’s associated with sudden repetitive body movements along with unwanted sounds.
In the History of Oscars, there have been 59 instances when actors were awarded with nominations for portraying characters with disabilities. There might be doubts about the correct portrayal of diseases/disability by Hindi films actors in the last millennium, but the current generation of actors are making sure that amends are made. The performance of Priyanka in Barfi, SRK in My Name Is Khan, Amitabh Bachchan in Paa and Black, Hrithik in Guzaarish, and Kalki in Margarita With a Straw are few examples that have shown a way and made a start. These performances give us reasons to believe that in the new millennium, the portrayal and attitude of Bollywood filmmakers towards diseases and disorders have undergone a sea of change. It’s the humane side of such stories which is now at the forefront.
When Rajesh Khanna, at the height of his stardom, said yes to films like Khamoshi, Safar and Anand it was a decision that befuddled trade pundits. In a span of a year, how could Rajesh Khanna sign three films where the plot involved a certain inevitable death in the climax and no heroic act at all — was the question on everyone’s mind. Forty-five years later, it can be said that the terminally ill patient act of Rajesh Khanna in Anand and Safar remain one of his finest performances. It’s sad that no other actor of that era took cue from him. Anand and Safar were perfect amalgamation of sensitivity from all quarters — performances and a humane touch to the ailments.
The only disorder Bollywood seemed familiar with in the 70's and 80's was mental disorder. The portrayal of mental disorder of the celluloid became more like a tool in the hands of filmmakers, and most of the performances lacked sensitive approach. Years later, Sunil Dutt, heavy with the grief of the demise of his wife Nargis, made Dard Ka Rishta. The film, which touched upon the issue of leukaemia, was an aberration and a welcome relief from the treatment that Bollywood had been meting out to diseases.
The credence of putting the elements of believability in such performances started with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black. It's Rani’s deaf and blind character that takes precedence in the film’s first half, while the second half centered more on Amitabh Bachchan’s character’s affliction with Alzheimer’s Disease. It was a welcome change from the mockery and all the wrong interpretation of ailments that viewers were subjected to till then. The plot stayed true to established facts and the character’s mannerisms that one often encounters while dealing with such patients. Black was just the beginning, and two years later Aamir Khan came with his own gem.
Taare Zameen Par, Aamir’s debut directorial venture, was so concise in dealing with the issue of dyslexia that it remains a faultless film till today. 2008 saw two films dealing with diseases – Ghajini and U Me Aur Hum. Both the films traversed two different spectra. While anterograde amnesia was incidental to the plot of Ghajini, Ajay Devgn’s U Me Aur Hum successfully managed to bring back the discussion of Alzheimer’s Disease once again in public discourse. Ajay could not taste success with his debut directorial film, but the portrayal of the disease in the film did earn him applause.
In 2009, when Abhishek Bachchan donned the mantle of producer for the first time, he opted for the story of a man suffering with progeria and told it through Paa. Bollywood’s awareness towards ailments had reached an extreme in the year 2010. Shah Rukh Khan opted to walk the beaten path and decided to step into the shoes of a character suffering from Asperger’s syndrome in My Name Is Khan. Though Hrithik Roshan could not match what Javier Bardem did in The Sea Inside, his performance of a quadriplegic patient was hailed by all. Priyanka Chopra, through Anurag Basu’s Barfi, explained everyone what autism actually is.
Things reached a crescendo when Shonali Bose, in her film Margarita With a Straw, showed her woman protagonist to be a patient of cerebral palsy. Kalki Koechlin put her soul in the character, and the results were extraordinary. Films like Katti Batti and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil were misfires in terms of such portrayal, but those that hit the target outweigh the misses.
One reason which helped these films resonate with the audience was the fact that the ailments these films tackled were not mocked, and carried an element of truth and honesty. When Hrithik broke his fitness regimen for six months and survived on samosas and popcorn to get into the skin of the character, it certainly gives a sense of the actor’s sincerity towards the character. So intense was Shah Rukh’s preparation for his role in My Name is Khan that the constant jutting out of his neck resulted in migraines. By the time the shoot got over, he had to rush to a neurosurgeon.
Kalki, for her role in Margarita With a Straw, went a step ahead. Apart from training for six months to get the correct body posture, she also did a six-week workshop with actor Adil Hussain. The part of the training included putting marbles in mouth to get the speech part right. Kalki also took the decision that during the shoot, she would spend all her time on the sets being in the character.
One offshoot of such brilliant performances has been the successful awareness of diseases these films have helped in creating. As opposed to the last millennium, now terms like Alzheimer, dyslexia, quadriplegic don’t evoke ignorance. Through these films, the awareness about such diseases have certainly percolated among the masses. The benchmark has certainly been raised by the current crop of actors, and now the onus is on Rani’s shoulder to take it to the next level. The previous instances are so stark and riveting that the audience will expect nothing short of a wonderful performance from the seasoned actress. Performances apart, it would be interesting to see if the pitfalls of Tourette Syndrome are explained to the common man in its simplest language.
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