If you are an Indian film buff with a disability, you are perhaps used to suffering insensitivity from both sides of the screen. Our cinema rarely gives representation to those with physical or mental challenges, except in occasional films centred around such characters as an ‘issue’ — usually poorly researched — or, more commonly, for comic relief. Mohanlal as a blind man in last year’s Malayalam hit Oppam is an unusual instance of a hero, a major commercial star at that, playing a person whose disability is neither romanticised nor caricatured, and does not define him.
Such films are infrequent. What we are used to is exclusion. Or Salman Khan as the lead of the 2011 Hindi film Bodyguard mocking a man with a height disability by calling him a “handbag” to be contrasted with a “suitcase”. Or worse, Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Black (2005) legitimising violence as a teaching method for a child who cannot see or hear.
Anger or hurt at such scenes can arise only once you consume them. As persons with disabilities (PwDs) and caregivers in India will tell you though, most movies and movie theatres — like most public places here — are not disabled-friendly. If you are not struggling to find a subtitled film to get around your hearing impairment, you are swallowing the humiliation of being a public spectacle as your wheelchair is carried to your seat in a hall without (enough) ramps and wheelchair lifts.
With its recently issued guidelines for PwDs while the national anthem plays in movie halls, the government has rubbed salt into the wounds of a community already marginalised in multiple ways by India’s film industries. According to Hindustan Times : The Union home ministry has issued guidelines on how people with disabilities can show respect when the national anthem is being played in movie halls or public functions, saying they should not move and position themselves “maintaining the maximum possible alertness physically”. The report adds: The rules give relaxation to people with severe intellectual disabilities but say that those with mild intellectual disability without associated conditions “can be trained to understand and respect the national anthem”. Clearly the author of these regulations knows nothing about autism, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions that cause restlessness, slow responses or involuntary movements.
The Ministry’s directions follow a November 2016 Supreme Court (SC) interim order in an ongoing PIL, decreeing that all cinema halls in India must play the national anthem before every screening and the audience must stand to show respect. The SC later exempted PwDs from this stricture, instructing the government to issue dos and don’ts for them. Instead of objecting, the government complied.
I am reproducing here an extract from a Facebook conversation with my ex-student, Nandita Venkatesan, who is hearing impaired. She writes: “I remember when I had gone to watch Sairat with my mom, I didn’t even realise the national anthem was being played, because my head was bent down as I was msging (sic) my brother. (I really love our anthem too.) It was only when my mom nudged that I understood and stood up. Today I wonder what would happen if this incident gets repeated? Will someone at the theatre scold/beat up because I didn’t stand on time?”
Venkatesan lives in Maharashtra, where the anthem was being played in halls even before the SC ruling. Her fears are not unfounded. Last October, disability campaigner Salil Chaturvedi — who is wheelchair-bound — was beaten in a Panaji hall for not standing up while the anthem was played. The SC directive has further enthused vigilantes. In December, moviegoers in Chennai were reportedly assaulted and abused when they refused to stand up for the anthem.
Since the May 2014 general election, the new government has worked hard to foster a sense of hyper-nationalism across the country, a ploy often used by conservative politicians worldwide to mobilise the masses and to divert attention from real issues. This has led to a herd mentality, with several organisations and individuals competing to prove their love for India. It is disheartening that the SC has played along. The government’s guidelines illustrate a mindset that Indian nationals matter less than symbols of nationhood, that chest-thumping patriotism matters more than the welfare of citizens with disabilities. Here is proof.
Section 29 of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, requires “the appropriate Government and the local authorities” to “(make) art accessible to persons with disabilities” and “(ensure) that persons with hearing impairment can have access to television programmes with sign language interpretation or subtitles”. Look around you: these goals are a long way away.
Likewise, the Central government launched the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan) in December 2015 to achieve “universal accessibility for PwDs”. In November 2016, as reported in The Economic Times , the SC pulled up the government for doing “nothing” to reach its target of making 50 per cent of government buildings disabled-friendly in the national and state capitals.
Nothing, in 11 months. Yet it has taken just days for the same government to whip up an ignorant, insensitive code of conduct of sorts for PwDs in movie halls. So what if even reaching those halls is a distant dream for most. Why bother with inclusion and building infrastructure, sarkar , when whipping up a nationalist frenzy is so much easier?
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic; @annavetticad