The Dumbos of Bollywood

Is Bollywood dumb, lazy or plain indifferent to physical or psychological differences and uses them as a convenient soft target for laughs or tears?


Film director Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter Pooja recently voiced undisguised disappointment, even disgust, at Bollywood’s perverse gaze on the handicapped, disabled, physically challenged and gays. Why, she asked, must they invariably be stereotyped as weirdoes, caricatures, objects of derisive laughter and ridicule or creatures to be abjectly pitied? While (tragically) they are indeed children of a lesser god, wouldn’t a little more feeling and sensitivity be in order, she wondered.

The recent, over-the-top posturing of an overweight, roly-poly Rishi Kapoor in Karan Johar’s latest (designer) high-school offering Student of the Year, along with a host of other movies seems to reaffirm her concern.

What’s the problem? Is Bollywood dumb, lazy or plain indifferent to these physical or psychological differences and uses them as a convenient soft target for laughs or tears? Do Bollywood actors interpreting these roles, view them as life-transforming opportunities (after the dumb-cluck crap they mostly are doomed to do) leap into the fray with all cylinders firing and occasionally strike target? Do audiences (forever fed on fantasies, glamour, sex, violence, toilet humor or the latest moffusil chic) and Juries perceive these films as cathartic reality checks and are both shaken n’ stirred to applaud and award them, all the way?

Delhi-based lyric writer (I am Kalaam) Manobendro Bhattacharyay argues that Bollywood is not about pursuing linear truths, philosophy or philanthropy, but pushing commerce. In an insanely competitive market, “special and unique slots” are hard to identify and exploit. “After the Gangs of Wasseypur, disability could well be the new hot button to hit… and now with Barfi zooming past the Rs 100 crore mark, winning huge critical acclaim (most importantly), heading Oscar-wards, an epidemic of this category could well be on the way.”

Mumbai-based production assistant Sneha Jha says that given the parameters of a mass-entertainment model like Bollywood, it needs a very special kind of talent to blend realism with human insight that engages while it enriches and offer credibility that is convincing. “Remember, today’s film audiences are impatient, promiscuous and novelty-driven, so a serious cold, clinical recitation of facts and figures will be dumped in a flash as will a too freaky and unrealistic frivolous perspective on an important issue as disability. From Black, Tare Zameen Par, Paa and Guzarish to Barfi, Bollywood has done a super job in terms of establishing a meaningful audience connect. As for the whiners and kill-joys, forget them. They are born to look for problems, not solutions.”

London-based marketing consultant Sudhir Pant agrees: “These blokes have got their wires crossed. They forget that Bollywood movies are not made to further the cause of medical science or designed for the MBBS types wedded to the Hippocratic oath. They are created primarily for mass entertainment. Along the way, diverse themes and subjects are explored, disabilities being one of them. Every single film touching on these themes appears to have been appreciated. Black, Guzaarish, Tare Zameen Par, Paa, My Name is Khan, Kaminey and now Barfi… remain fine examples of forays into this delicate terrain projected with both feeling and sensitivity. These guys love to over-react and play judge n’ jury.”

Kolkata-based clinical counselor and mental health activist Ratnabali Ray dismisses all these “frivolous and silly” opinions and denounces the much-acclaimed Barfi as “obnoxious and totally off-center!” To committed professionals like Ray who deal with disabled 24*7, “The whole projection was totally inaccurate. Anurag Basu’s interaction was with autistic school kids hence the adult part, (Priyanka) in terms of problems of articulating their feelings, was totally haywire. They just don’t behave that way. It’s a highly complex, fragile and many-layered issue and cannot be presented with one sweeping and dramatic brush. As for Black, that was even worse. Apart from ‘lifting,’ it was hysterically over-the-top and filmy with the body language and expression modes, ludicrous, To an uninformed and uneducated audience, anything that is slightly off-beat, especially in this area, and done in filmy style, rocks.”

Ray however admits that films like Taare Zameen Par and Barfi have at least been huge attention-getters placing these issues, high on the public domain. Eminent art house film director Buddhadev Dasgupta is convinced that it’s a sign of our consumerist times that disability can be leveraged as a powerful commercial tool for mass-entertainment through emotional manipulation. “Today’s filmmakers are hugely market-driven and to them, cleverly exploiting a subject that connects with the heart, is a smart and marketable proposition — truth, honesty and integrity be damned! As long as it simulates the idea of the real thing and approximates it in a convincing manner, it’s fine. Their argument is that it’s a commercial movie not a medical case-study and so creative licenses will occur. In an age when truth is un-fashionable and markets play god, we get what we deserve, I guess.”

Film scholar Partho Chatterjee is furious: “Bollywood, especially in recent times, is based on the twin pillars of exaggeration and falsehood. The entire lot of films that are disability-driven — maybe Taare Zameen Par, a little less — represent flagrant distortions of facts shrewdly catering to an audience seeking feel-good, escapist-fare. No filmmaker has the guts or ability to dramatize the truth in a manner that is riveting. Too risky. Hit the path that is well-lit, safe and cleverly camouflages the illusion of truth. Good enough for today’s dumbed-down audience… and now Barfi goes to the Oscars. God save us from ill health!”

Veteran Delhi-based actress Joyshree Arora (the mother in Humlog and Shah Rukh Khan’s mom in Chak De) offers a kinder take: “Its easy to be dismissive and condescending about Bollywood’s projection of disability, but have you ever stopped to ponder one small question: Would millions of uneducated, illiterate and uninformed people covering the lower strata of society, for example, ever be able to know and understand the issues of the physically and emotionally challenged if not shown in films like Paa, Taare Zameen Par, Guzarish or Barfi? Aren’t these films, thus, forcing them through exposure to recognize and appreciate the advantages and blessings of a healthy mind in a healthy body and also motivating them to reach out with passion and purpose to the disadvantaged? Bollywood seems to forever be the whipping boy of everything that is wrong in society, which is absurd. While it may not provide the breath of life, surely it is not the kiss of death.”

Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan’s gifted son Amaan Ali Khan takes this optimistic note further: “I think it calls for both compassion and sensitivity to make these films, along with courage and conviction. The themes are neither commercially glamorous nor popular and a continent away from the populist feel-good factor. To rise above these make a conscious choice and chart narratives that are heroic and inspirational is an amazing feat and deserve kudos. Full marks to a Sanjay Leela Bhansali, R. Balki and Anurag Basu for resisting the trappings of doing a Dabangg, Rowdy Rathore, Singham or Housefull and attempting something meaningful.”

In addition, Amaan believes, Bollywood movies have an audience-connect that is incomparable and the fact that these movies focus on special people — an area of ignorance and darkness in the smaller non-metro cities — is noteworthy and admirable. “At the end of the day, if there is even a little more knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the world of the disabled than before, through these movies, it’s a good enough reason to cheer and celebrate.”

Filmmaker Leena Yadav concurs: “While this is a tricky area, there are two aspects involved. Fact is no filmmaker consciously starts out planning an emotionally manipulative film on this subject. Along the way, personal sensibilities and focus influence the direction of the narrative. Secondly, it depends on whether you are seeing this disability from the inside — personal experience — or outside. For me, if the end product imparts a message of inspiration, heroism, fighting against all odds and winning… it’s fine.” Yadav recognizes that the medical frat and specialists have with their criticisns, but if the overall impact is positive, then, she believes, it should be taken in the right spirit.

So what gives? The critics and medical frat are caught up between cracking up, shock, disgust and worry about Bollywood’s presentations of these “special” communities. How can item girls perform in a cancer ward (Munna Bhai MBBS), chappatis cure madness (Yaarana,) batteries revive the dead into marching (clerk) babies get delivered through vacuum cleaners (3 Idiots), cancer patients rock n’ dance (Kal Ho Na Ho) and retain their good, flabby health (Dasvidaniya)? Since when did sperm donors (Vicky Donor) strike it rich?

Filmmaker Abhigyan Jha recently was reported to have seen a Hollywood crew double-up with laughter after watching the Big B screaming at Rani in Black! Jha also couldn’t figure out the body lingo of Priyanka in Barfi and thought it appeared “more like mental retardation than autism.”

Columnist Anvar Alikhan adds fuel to the fire with a deadly salvo that these films are in bad taste: “They are exploitative, self-serving and cynical… a great vehicle for stars to show off their talent in mimicking affliction. These films are one-part emotional manipulation; one part, insidious attempt to make us feel guilty for our own well-being; one part an opportunity to affect an air of sanctimoniousness for supposedly supporting the cause.” He reckons that they click big, because “audiences are vulnerable to disability movies, juries even more so, because of the moral halo they sport,” and wonders how long Bollywood’s phony disability trip will continue. Can any of these films compare with Hollywood’s Elephant Man, Rain Man, My Left Foot, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or Charlie, he pointedly challenge?

The fans recognize that movies are for mass entertainment, so employ creative license and liberties. The “medical miracles” are consumed ecstatically by audiences in a willful suspension of disbelief. Do they really believe in it? Sure, as much as they believe in pigs that fly and dogs that roar. The kill-joys, they insist, should stick to their hospitals, nursing homes and clinics for the disabled and only view doctor and medical science friendly movies that Viagrize their knowledge about their line of work… no matter how terrifyingly boring and clinical they may be.


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