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No ‘them’, only ‘us’

anna mm vetticad | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on April 24, 2015

Different strokes: A still from Margarita With A Straw, the story of a bold, sexual Laila

Anna MM Vetticad

Physically challenged, Muslim, woman… it is possible for a character to be all or any of these, yet be a source of regular stories, not just hagiographies or tearjerkers

After a few minutes, the wheelchair will disappear. Writer-director Shonali Bose has repeated variations of this line a zillion times while promoting her Hindi-English film Margarita With A Straw, the story of a sexually adventurous college student with cerebral palsy, now running in Indian theatres.

It reminded me of a similar sentence uttered by another filmmaker precisely a decade ago. Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal is a small jewel of a film revolving around a deaf-mute boy who becomes a national-level cricketer. A few minutes into Iqbal, you will forget the hero is physically challenged, Kukunoor said in interview after interview in the run-up to the release of his film in 2005.

Is it possible, you ask, to stop noticing that large metal chair bearing a human body? Is it necessary to not notice that the man addressing you is doing so in sign language?

The point both Kukunoor and Bose make is this: Disabilities can be a source of anguish, but they need not define us, and we could acknowledge a distressing aspect of a person’s reality without harping on it. A film could well be about a person with physical or mental challenges, without being about those challenges alone. And if, as a filmmaker, you cannot even consider the likelihood of such a film not being a hagiography or a tearjerker, you might want to ask yourself whether you are constrained by your vision of such a person as ‘the other’ and not ‘one of us’.

A personal example may help illustrate my concerns. My mother has been wheelchair bound for many years. Yes, it is painful to see her decline, but believe me, our conversations are rarely about that. As her family, we are constantly vigilant, but if I were to tell Mum’s story, her physical condition would be only one element in it. For the most part I would tell you about her generation-defying liberalism, her fortitude, the bright smile she still manages to summon up in spite of a cruel disease and the sense of humour that remains undefeated by those wheels.

When I watched Margarita the other day, that wheelchair did disappear after a while. What I remember the most is how Laila’s smile travelled all the way from her lips to those eyes brimming over with sunshine. And what I remember most about Iqbal today is his sense of mischief, and that classic scene in which his sister and he infuriate a bully by using sign language to discuss the fellow in his presence.

When I see Hollywood actor Michael J Fox on public platforms, I do see his physical struggles because of Parkinson’s disease, but the overwhelming feeling is one of admiration for his strength nearly a quarter century after he was diagnosed. His recurring role as the ruthless lawyer Louis Canning in the multiple-award-winning TV serial The Good Wife is not that of a saint with a physical affliction — he plays a manipulative character who uses his tardive dyskinesia (a rare condition which causes erratic body movements) to gain the sympathy of judges and jurors.

These are regular folk with regular pluses and minuses.

It is only fair to clarify that the ‘them and us’ school of cinema is not confined to India, nor to characters with physical and mental challenges. How often have you seen an Indian film featuring an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) person who is not a source of jokes or whose sexual orientation is not the fulcrum of the story? For many decades, mainstream Hindi cinema in particular would feature Muslim characters only with a specific purpose: either to showcase Muslim culture or as near-flawless creatures whose presence made a point about secularism.

During an interview I recorded with Madhuri Dixit in 2003, I remember her complaining that Bollywood tends to see “women-centric films” as compulsorily being about “issues”. Why must such a film be a rona-dhona story (a weepie), she asked. Why not a light-hearted comedy? No doubt her industry has changed in these 12 years, but her question remains relevant. A large part of the reason could be that, like most film industries in the rest of India, a male-dominated Bollywood too tends to see stories of women through a male gaze, with men being the norm and women the exceptional ‘them’.

It is in this context that Margarita has wrought a miracle beyond the obvious one we have already discussed. Laila is three things that would usually be treated as issues by an Indian filmmaker: she has cerebral palsy, she is bisexual, she is a woman. Hell yes, while watching the film I almost forgot that she’s a woman! And a sexually assertive one at that. Possibly because the director did not turn either element into an ‘issue’?

As for the gorgeous Iqbal, not till many months after watching it did it strike me that the hero was a Muslim. How lovely that Kukunoor did not define him in terms of his religion or his speech-and-hearing impairments. How lovely that Iqbal was presented to us as a human being who just happened to be both deaf-mute and Muslim.

Physically challenged, mentally challenged, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, gay, woman — it is possible for a character to be any or many of the above, yet be seen as a regular person rather than a showpiece in an old curiosity shop.

( Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic)

Follow Anna on Twitter @annavetticad

Published on April 24, 2015

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