Rare Diseases Now Featured In East Indian Cinema

from IBN Live:
Bollywood | Posted on Apr 10, 2012 at 07:31pm IST
Rare diseases now highlighted by Indian cinema
New Delhi: Progeria, autism, dyslexia, Alzheimer’s, Asperger syndrome — movies on these rare diseases would have typically been the themes of documentaries until a few years ago. But not any more.

Bollywood, so associated with escapist fare, is opening its heart and investing money in creating awareness about such diseases through commercial scripts, with successful stars and effective marketing.

Filmmaker Anurag Basu’s upcoming ‘Barfi!’ is a case in point. At its heart, the movie is said to be a romantic comedy, but the story is woven around how love blooms between a deaf, mute yet happy-go-lucky man essayed by Ranbir Kapoor, and an autistic girl, played by Priyanka Chopra.
Talking about the film, Ranbir said: “It’s about two dysfunctional people who bond together in the nicest of relationships, one that is sweet, touching and heart-warming.”

Most Bollywood products in the past showcased the visually and physically challenged as well as the deaf as comical or pitiable characters except films like ‘Koshish‘. But the approach, treatment and prominence to the characters have undergone a mature change over the years.

In 2003, ‘Koi… Mil Gaya‘ showcased Hrithik Roshan in the role of a developmentally disabled man, while Aparna Sen’s National award-winning film ’15 Park Avenue’ put the spotlight on schizophrenia.

Konkona Sen Sharma, as the schizophrenic Meethi in ‘15 Park Avenue‘, drove the complexities of the disease with ease to the audience’s heart.

The film was in English.

“That’s because it deals with schizophrenia and we need a more discerning audience,” Sen had told IANS earlier.

Nevertheless, she made sure all the nitty-gritty were taken care of before setting out to entertain viewers.

“We know someone very close to us who’s schizophrenic… a very close relative. So Konkona got to study the traits very carefully. We also had professional medical assistance to get the nuances right. But ultimately after getting all the details right I made sure it was a human interest story,” said Sen.

Schizophrenia was also highlighted with Arshad Warsi in ‘Krazzy 4’, but not so effectively.

Another disease, Alzheimer’s, which affects memory, thinking and behaviour, was brought alive on screen by Kajol in ‘U Me Aur Hum‘ and by megastar Amitabh Bachchan in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Black’.

The latter also proved to be an inspirational story for the deaf and blind, with Rani Mukerji in the role of a girl, who overcomes her disabilities with the help of her teacher, and shines academically.

In 2007, Aamir Khan’s directorial debut ‘Taare Zameen Par‘ narrated the problems faced by an eight-year-old boy suffering from dyslexia, a learning disability. The heartwarming movie was a window to worried parents, who push their children to achieve academic excellence without trying to understand their problems.

The film was not only a huge commercial hit, it also spread the word and many parents learnt an important lesson from it.

Taare Zameen Par‘ was instrumental in bringing about a shift in the mindset for films dealing with diseases, says film critic Omar Qureshi.

“Earlier, Bollywood films used to show how characters who used to behave strange due to some ailment were slapped or mocked at. ‘Taare…’ and ‘Koi… Mil Gaya’ changed that a lot,” he said.

“Years back, in 1974, there was a Mehmood movie ‘Kunwara Baap‘. It moved everyone to tears with the story on polio vaccination. What a forward vision he had back then. But it’s great to see how mainstream heroes are taking up roles creating awareness about diseases,” Qureshi told IANS.

In 2008, viewers got a taste of amnesia on screen. Aamir Khan was shown as a patient of amnesia, a state of short-term memory span, in the superhit film ‘Ghajini‘.

The following year, action film ‘Luck’ saw heartthrob Imran Khan with dextrocardia, a rare medical condition in which a person is born with his heart on the right side.

The same year, Amitabh gave a noteworthy performance as Auro, an innocent child suffering from progeria in ‘Paa‘. Progeria causes premature aging among children and is a rare disease; so the movie managed to create a buzz about it across the country.

The year 2010 saw superstar Shah Rukh Khan as Rizwan Khan suffering from Asperger syndrome, which causes difficulty in social interaction.

Later, Hrithik essayed a paraplegic, who appeals for euthanasia in Bhansali’s ‘Guzaarish‘.


Guzaarish (Hindi for “Request”) is the Bollywood remake of “Whose Life is it Anyway?”, and yet another example of the “right to die” disability movie trope.

The story centers around Ethan Mascarenhas, once a famous magician, who became a quadriplegic when his best friend betrayed him during a dangerous trick. Ethan has seemingly done well as a quad; he wrote a popular book and appears to have toured to promote it, he’s a Radio Jockey of a popular program called Radio Zindagi, has a romantic if gloomy mansion on a hill, two live-in servants and a nurse, and a sip-and-puff motorized wheelchair. From his home-based studio he exhorts his radio listeners to find beauty in their lives and boasts about his program being the most joyful on the air.

That’s why it’s so surprising when, on his 14th anniversary of becoming a quadriplegic, Ethan suddenly announces that he wants to end it all, and instructs his best friend (a lady lawyer) to file a petition with India’s courts for euthanasia. (Or, as he calls it on his radio program, “Ethanasia”.)

He also suddenly begins snapping at his caregivers and even makes a sexually harassing remark or two to Sophia, his nurse. Disabled viewers probably start wondering if Ethan has some underlying mental health issues at this point.

While it is impossible to deny that many people with disabilities–particularly the newly disabled–are indeed suicidal, “right to die” movies such as Guzaarish are problematic because movies are the primary vehicle for the able-bodied to learn about the lives of the disabled. Suicidal tendencies among the disabled are seen as a perfectly rational, and even noble, response to their condition; a movie such as this only reinforces such perceptions. Depression is thus left untreated and available services unapplied for. Studies show that once disabled people are offered adequate services, pain relief, and adaptive equipment to maximize their independence, they become much less likely to be suicidal.

And indeed Guzaarish bears this out; during the court hearing, it is revealed that Ethan’s mansion is mortgaged to the hilt, and he only has enough savings to cover Sophia’s salary for two more months. Further cracks in Ethan’s cheerful facade begin to appear upon examination. He may have a proper motorized wheelchair, but he only uses it in the beginning of the film. The rest of the time, he’s hauled about slumped in an ill-fitting manual wheelchair. Perhaps his town isn’t particularly wheelchair accessible, nor does he seem to have access to an adapted van or paratransit services. But that doesn’t explain why he hasn’t installed himself on the first floor of his mansion instead of the second, nor added ramps about the extensive grounds. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so depressed if he made an effort to get out more than once in a decade?

Ethan meets a priest friend in front of one of the pools on his property

Ethan meets a priest friend in front of one of the pools on his property.

Any quadriplegic viewing the above image is now wondering why Ethan bothered to go through the court system, when the means of offing himself are already at his disposal. Clearly Ethan is crying for help, and those cries are amplified when he puts Ethanasia up for a vote on his radio program after the courts deny his initial petition. Most callers vote no; a handful, including Ethan’s former lover, crushingly vote yes. If Ethan wasn’t depressed before, he surely is now.

The Super Duper Quad Club

A group of disabled nursing home residents calling themselves the Super Duper Quads vote no.

Sister Julia

A nun calls in to vote no, and somewhat condescendingly sings a children's song about God's love.

A judge decides to hear Ethan’s case, and even moves the courtroom to the foyer of Ethan’s home to accommodate his trouble getting around. Ethan uses showmanship to lock the prosecutor into a trunk, and when he begs for release before a minute is up, Ethan tries to make the point that the prosecutor couldn’t tolerate being confined for even a minute. The judge still denies his request, but Ethan has one more ace up his sleeve: Sophia.

Sophia and Ethan declare their love for each other, and she agrees to marry and then kill him, damn the consequences. They have the most uncomfortable wedding imaginable, with the groom dressed up on his deathbed insulting his guests one by one. Ethan’s doctor friend nearly leaves, but is convinced to stay. All pile on the bed to wish him farewell. If there’s one thing to be grateful for, it’s that Guzaarish narrowly avoids the disability movie cliche of the disabled character dying onscreen.

Like Stars On Earth (Taare Zameen Par)

Warning: The fast-moving blinking introductory sequence to this picture could trigger seizures or otherwise pose a problem for those with sensory issues.

Like Stars on Earth is ostensibly about a small boy from India named Ishaan who has dyslexia, but from what is initially portrayed, he seems to have a larger problem with a wandering mind and very intense daydreaming, both in and out of class. However, this makes him a gifted artist, who is well above his age group in what he can draw and imagine. The movie says that he is 8 years old, but he actually looks much smaller than an eight-year old. While his older brother brags to his parents of his high marks, Ishaan tosses his test papers to the dogs, and tries to avoid talking about school.

It is perhaps the structure and restrictions of the normal expectations of the school system that rub him the wrong way, because one day, after having been punished by being sent by the teacher to stand in the hallway, he goes AWOL and wanders the streets, savoring the exciting sights of tourist-film India. He appears to be somewhat hyperactive. If his parents attempted to have him tested, it may be that he never sat still long enough to get a diagnosis.

Everyone in Ishaan’s life complains about him, from the school bus driver, because he is constantly late and must be bodily pulled away from whatever he is doing when it is time to take the bus; to the teachers who see sub-par schoolwork and bad behavior, to the neighborhood kids who have no love for him because of his bad aim with a ball.

Things come to a head when he is busted by his parents for having forged an absence note to account for that day out of school. They have a meeting with his teachers and it is revealed that Ishaan is repeating the third grade, and his teachers tell his parents that there’s been no improvement the second time around. They suggest Ishaan’s parents send him to a “special school”, but Ishaan’s father believes that it is the class size of 60 and a perceived “lack of discipline” that has led to Ishaan’s academic failure. So he makes good on his repeated threat to send Ishaan to boarding school, where the teachers attempt to cure his wandering attention by rapping his hands with a ruler, his problems seeing letters “dancing” in front of him on book pages and blackboards and his academic failures continue.

Ishaan is clearly depressed by the above by the time the school gets a new art teacher, who makes a dramatic entrance with a song-and-dance routine, playing a flute and wearing a clown suit. (This movie has several Bollywood-inspired mini-music videos effectively portraying certain situations and emotions in compressed amounts of time. They are very well done and a bit more restrained than in some movies meant strictly for East Indian consumption. The DVD has a separate section of them so they can be played independently of the movie.)

The new, youngish, enthusiastic teacher brings with him a wave of fresh air and happiness which is apparent to all, but doesn’t immediately sweep over Ishaan. The new, youngish, enthusiastic teacher (who also teaches at one of those so-called “special schools”) must first discover that Ishaan has dyslexia, and tell his parents and the other teachers, and embark upon a program of academic remediation for Ishaan and consciousness-raising for his classmates.

Superteacher will in time also reveal that he, too, has dyslexia, of course. (“Special Ed kid makes good by growing up to be Special Ed teacher” is the theme of any number of children’s books and college essays in the US.)

I love where he tells Ishaan’s father that in the Solomon Islands, villagers don’t chop down a tree when they want to clear land, but curse and hurl abuses at it, and the tree withers and dies soon after. My mother, a Special Ed teacher in a US-based special school, said “I would get fired if I were to talk to a parent like that”. This picture is a revealing look at middle class life in India, the importance placed by the striving middle class of India on school performance, and the school system in India, which, as it turns out has “Education for All” legislation on the books similar to Special Education laws which came into existence in the US during the 1970s, but which more often than not fail to be implemented on the school level in India.

One bright spot in Ishaan’s boarding school experience is that he makes friends with Raju, a boy with heavy, old-style braces on his legs who recognizes his intelligence, and (fulfilling the stereotype about disabled kids) is more observant and accepting than the other kids in the class.

Ishaan is seen having letters traced into his forearm, writing abcs in a sand tray, molding letters out of clay. Whatever problems he may have been having in Hindi (a language formally studied in school and spoken in class by some of the teachers) are not portrayed in this movie, just notebooks with backwards letters and misspelled words in English. Math concepts were given in an interesting fashion: the teacher had Ishaan ascend higher steps on an outdoor stairway to instill the concept of increasing numbers by multiplication. (What to do for a kid with both dyslexia and mobility impairments, if such a kid exists?) While all of these tactile measures portrayed may contribute to “rewiring” a dyslexic child’s brain, and are recognized techniques in special education, the idea that a kid will inevitably experience a shining improvement soon thereafter may not be realistic. The evidence of his inevitable improvement is portrayed as better English writing and his demonstrated ability to read a poster announcing a school-wide art contest and sound out a complex, multi-syllabic word.