When able-bodied actors portray disabled characters

Unrealistic representation of PWD in Indian cinema

Cinema

August 25, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

When able-bodied actors portray disabled characters

Disability in movies has often been portrayed as a plot-point rather than depicting the actual PWD experience

For a very long time, the Indian film industry has followed the practice of problematic portrayals of delicate issues – ranging from sexual orientation, gender or obesity. Though the approach of the directors is changing and has become more sensitive on some issues, able-bodied actors continue to play characters that are persons with disabilities.

In 2021, Indian cinema continues to struggle with many aspects of representation. Be it the LGBTQ+ community, women, or minorities, audiences have had a mixed bag. But one section of the society, whose portrayal time and again the film industry has gotten wrong, is the differently abled community or people with disabilities (PWD).

“In 2000s, PWD characters would only be used for comic relief such as in Golmaal (2008-2017) or Mujhese Shaadi Karogi (2004) or echoed dependency concerns portraying that they are weak,” says 27-year-old Sanyukta Thakare, a film critic in Mumbai.

PWD people are widely misconstrued and misinterpreted in all of Indian society, and their representation in films has a lot to do with that. Disability in movies has often been portrayed as a plot-point rather than depicting the actual PWD experience.

“In old Hindi Cinema from the 1930s to 1970s, characters would go blind, lose their ability to walk or talk after they did something bad in the film,” Thakare tells Media India Group. “At times, the characters would have disabled children  and the story would make sense of it as if it happened because the parents did something bad in their life, or in their previous lives,” she adds.

Old time classics like, Jeevan Naya (1936), depicts the traditional beliefs of the period of portraying disability as something that was bestowed upon the characters for making ‘immoral’ decisions. “Dialogues like ‘Karmon ka fal bhugat rahen hai (paying for their bad deeds), was pretty common. Having any kind of disability was portrayed as divine punishment or karmic,” says Thakare.

PWD characters often needed to be ‘fixed’ and shown to be heavily dependent on their able-bodied counterparts. “It just presents a very unrealistic picture. In real life, PWDs are as independent with good facilities as anyone can be. These portrayals come from ignorant point of view,” adds Thakare.

In last few years though, things seem to be changing. With a growing film industry, the standard of representation seems to be rising as well, but one thing that has a lot of discourse around it, is the fact that more often than not PWD characters in movies are played by able-bodied actors, which many have pointed out, appears to be hypocritical.

Thakare gives an example of how Indian cinema has distorted PWD representation time and again. “The first character that comes to my mind is Tara Sutaria’s Zoya in Marjaavaan (2019),” says Thakare. “Having a PWD as the main lead was a big deal. Unfortunately, they did not execute it well. Not only did they not cast a mute actor, but they didn’t even show her use any sign language or any other way of communication. Instead, they added a side character to literally say out every single dialogue of hers. The makers could have easily added subtitles while letting the actress use sign language,” she says.

“One of the main reasons it is important for a PWD character to be played by a PWD actor is because it brings the right perspective, it is similar to when a man writes a female character. Filmmakers hire doctors and PWD consultants but why not give a chance to someone who experiences it themselves to play the character,” she asks.

But even amidst all the disappointing portrayals, sometimes the film industry does surprise the viewers with some honest, heart-warming gems, like, Thirike, a Malayalam film, directed by George Kora and Sam Kora which released in February this year, where the main protagonist, diagnosed with Down Syndrome, was played by Gopikrishna Varma, an actor who in real life has the same condition.

“It makes a difference if a PWD actor plays a PWD role because at the end of the day while the able-bodied actor gets praise for doing a ‘difficult’ role, the story about the PWD character remains aside. The movies are not really doing anything other than earning money off PWDs’ experiences and bring more sympathy. What PWD should get is, independence and a chance to share their own stories,” advocates Thakare.

There have been numerous movies, where the main lead is portrayed to be a person with a disability like, Barfi (2012) and Black (2005), but the irony of both the films is that both the actors who played the disabled characters are able bodied big stars, she says. In Barfi, Ranbir Kapoor, plays the mute and deaf character of ‘Barfi’, while in Black, Rani Mukerji plays the deaf and blind protagonist named ‘Michelle’.

Thakare says that the reason why film makers prefer to cast an able-bodied big name is to ensure that the film makes money as star-power has pulled Indian audiences to the cinema houses for over 100 years and producers are afraid to bet their money on a PWD actor who isn’t established enough.

“Shouldering the weight of a movie on a newcomer could feel risky to the makers,” says Thakare. But there is a change in the offing as better content is finally making it to Indian silver screens. Thakare says that as films get better content, producers could actually have a person with disability play the role. “Until and unless we start from somewhere, we won’t have bankable actors to play leads. The Indian audience is indeed changing and over the past three years, they have consumed content from all over the world in languages that they do not understand or cultures that they know nothing about. As long as the content and intent is good, people will watch. What PWD should get is independence and a chance to share their own stories in Indian films,” says Thakare.

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