Keywords: Disability, Indian cinema, heteronormativity, gender, sexuality
Indian cinema is one of the oldest world cinemas with a global reach. Historically it was favoured over Hollywood in certain parts of the world, thereby creating familiarity of Indian culture to a worldwide audience. The Indian film industry produces over a thousand movies each year, to meet the demands of a nation where cinema going is a highly popular pastime. Bollywood is the largest and globally most well known branch of the industry.
This article discusses portrayals of disability within Bollywood film, a genre which often takes liberties with reality and portrays a cinematic fantasy (unlike the less popular art or parallel cinema movements within Indian cinema, which are more characterised by realism and portraying life like situations). Bollywood is not alone in this respect, cinema around the world also portrays such fantasies. These fantasies are set in everyday life and are mundane to some extent, but they portray both the viewers and the directors fantasy. Good inevitably triumphs over evil, after an epic struggle of course. The hero and the heroine always fall in love and live happily ever after. The world escapes destruction thanks to the bravery of one man. These tropes are intrinsic to storytelling on the big screen, they make cinema popular and even cathartic. Popular cinema allows our wishes to come true, it allows us to live in our fantasies for a few hours.
But popular cinema often erases out what it considers undesirable characters, in what can be regarded as cinematic eugenics. Characters who are disabled, female, homosexual, non-white, or of the wrong ethnicity and religion are often the first to die or play no central role except to appear as stereotypes on screen. Bollywood cinema is no exception to this form of erasure. Disabled people are almost never central to the plot of a film, or if they are, their disability is not permanent.
There are two problems with this –
The first is that disability is viewed as an inferior and abnormal thing that requires fixing.
The second is that disability is portrayed as something can be fixed or made normal with the right kind of intervention.
Fixing disability in cinema almost always follows a heteronormative path. A disabled person meets an able bodied person, whose love either makes them able bodied or they look past the disability and live happily ever after. However this disabled person is almost always in need of rescue emotionally or by becoming ‘normal’. This emphasis on marriage/romantic relationships is not limited to the screen, it makes its way into everyday life.
Indian society is hetronormative in its social structures. Men and women are expected to marry and produce children, women especially are expected to marry to protect their sexuality. Marriage is the only conceivable legitimate relationship men and women (especially) are offered. Marriage is often a means of social selection whereby desirable social characteristics are coveted and undesirable characteristics are weaned out. This in turn has lead to choosing one’s spouse through socially respectable characteristics. Disability is considered undesirable as any physical, psychological or intellectual difference is considered to be un-conducive to a good marriage.
Disability then becomes a source of mockery and stigma. The implicit message of unproductiveness within the family system makes disabled people vulnerable through the different stages of life. The thought of being isolated is perhaps the cause for another cinematic trope – a disabled person wanting to die. A very popular film in 2010 Guzaarish (Petition) portrays the life of a magician who gets paralysed due to a magic trick gone wrong. His only wish in a three hour long overstylised film is to die. A few years before this was another hit film Koi… Mil Gaya (I found someone, 2003), an adapted version of ET depicting a man with learning and intellectual disabilities who finds an alien that helps restore him to “normalcy”, which wins him a girlfriend. Women are not left out of this narrative – the 2006 hit film Fanaa (Destroyed in Love) depicts the life of blind but bubbly Zooni Ali Beg who find true love and her eyesight through the benevolence of her lover.
These are all popular films where disability is not understood for its own sake but rather seen as a burden or stumbling block whose removal is necessary as life outside a narrowly defined idea of normal is not worth living. Zooni is desirable but incomplete, restoring her eyesight makes her more desirable and fit for marriage. Disability then is understood as not something to live with but a mere hindrance, its removal is integral to the plot. This trope reflects and heightens our desire for normality on screen and even influences how we view disability off screen.
These are a few modern examples, but the trope of removing disability through true love has been used throughout Bollywood history. Disability is seen as a hindrance to finding love, but one that can be easily overcome through the patience and perseverance of a lover. Once this is achieved the disability often disappears. Following an almost fairytale like narrative, this projection of hetronormative fantasies confirms the belief that disability is a hindrance which makes one undesirable. Disabled people can then only be understood in terms of answering to heteronormative ideas about their identity and ability.
Notions of romance in films are problematic to say the least. To understand disability for its own sake and allow characters to develop with their disability is essential and respectful to the community. Disabled people on screen should not become a source of pity or mere trope fulfilling our fantasies of what romance must resemble.
Sonia Soans is a PhD researcher whose work is based in intersectional feminist theory. Her work examines how mental illness is a product of social, cultural and historical factors. Concentrating how mental illness is not contained within clinical spaces she examines the impact it has on women and in terms of representation and everyday violence. Her interest in popular culture helps her examines tropes and discourse around social issues.
Twitter – @PSYfem