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Best foot forward

In the 1999 Hollywood comedy Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo, Rob Schneider plays a reluctant gigolo who recoils in horror while servicing one of his clients when her prosthetic leg comes undone. He recovers quickly. Then he proceeds to kiss the unhinged Jaipur foot, mumbling, unconvincingly, that it was among the most beautiful feet he has ever kissed in his life.

The message in the film is loud and clear. The woman in question hires a male prostitute because she — a woman with one leg — cannot have a sexual relationship with a man without paying for it. That was 10 years ago, and even then director Mike Mitchell had to face scathing reviews for what critics called “obnoxious” and “politically incorrect” content.

Today, the prosthetic limb seems on its way to becoming, if not the next “in thing”, at least something its wearers no longer want to hide. And some even flaunt it like a fashion statement.

So much so that some of the most successful men, who can pretty much woo any woman from the world of glamour with the lure of wealth and talent, have opted to make women who have them their arm candies or trophy wives!

Earlier this month, writer Salman Rushdie was spotted strutting into a swinging, midnight Manhattan party, arm in arm with a beautiful athlete-turned-model. The 32-year-old Aimee Mullins is 28 years younger than the writer of Midnight’s Children and, at 5'9'', a couple of inches taller. Mullins, who had won a scholarship to Washington’s Georgetown University, walks on two false feet. She was born without shin bones — and both her legs had to be amputated below the knee on her first birthday.

Another beautiful model, Heather Mills, who also wears an artificial leg, became nothing less than a trophy wife to Beatle Paul McCartney. Though there was much mud slinging in the bitter divorce that followed, Mills was known for her glamour on and off the ramp. That, in spite of the fact that she had lost one leg in a road accident. But Mills, like Mullins, took the prosthetic leg in her stride. McCartney’s ex-wife even took it off on television while being interviewed by American chat show host Larry King in 2002.

Evidently, far from being considered a clutch to camouflage “disability”, as it once was, prosthetic limbs are now a part of life. And the false limb does not come in the way of anybody’s love life or work, even in the body-conscious worlds of modelling, acting or dancing.

Our own desi example is the bold and beautiful dancer-actress Sudha Chandran, often described as a “sexy style icon” on television, in spite of her “handicap”. It’s a word, now no longer there in the lexicon of politically correct phrases, that she herself uses, just to stress that she doesn’t consider it a handicap to wear an artificial leg. “I wear a Jaipur foot, but I have willed myself into believing that it’s my own body part, so it doesn’t hurt so much anymore when I dance,” says Chandran, who lost her right leg in an accident in 1981, when she was 17 years old.

Chandran says she feels a “great sense of achievement” that she could storm into the glamour world, where beauty and body are at a premium, standing literally on one leg. “The entertainment world is the toughest field to survive in for a person seen to have a physical defect, disability or handicap. And my entrance into this world of cinema and glamour has been a milestone in my life,” she says.

One reason artificial limbs are no longer seen as ugly or abnormal, Chandran stresses, is the fact that audience sensitivities are changing. “Today most people can accept what is non-traditional. Some years ago, for instance, you would have to be a tall man to want to be a hero in the film industry. But today, you have short men such as Aamir Khan or Salman Khan, or actors like Shah Rukh Khan or Irrfan Khan, who may not be considered conventionally good-looking, becoming big stars.”

Producer-director Ravi Ojha, too, believes that attitudes are gradually changing. “A lot of emphasis is placed on talent. Unless a physical disability interferes with what we have in mind for the character, who cares if he has an artificial arm or a false foot, as long as he can act?”

Hindi cinema is changing too, though the tendency to typecast villains and comedians as people with disabilities hasn’t totally disappeared. Audiences in recent years have lapped up films which revolved around physical or mental disabilities. Iqbal was the story of a deaf and mute boy who dreamt of playing cricket, while Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par was about a small boy with dyslexia.

“People’s minds are expanding. They are shedding their limitations in all areas and this includes how they define beauty,” Chandran says.

In ordinary life, there are many success stories of men and women with lost limbs who limp back to life with the help of artificial body parts. Like 30-year-old Amrita Chatterjee, who after losing a foot in an accident on her way back from her dance class at the age of 13, decided to “get over the self-pity” after a brief period of depression. She graduated and fell in love with a boy whom she later married — when she first told him about her artificial foot, he said, “So?” She worked at the Israeli Embassy, and is now with a leading public relations firm in Delhi. It’s a demanding job that requires her to be, she says, “on her toes”.

According to Rahul Dokania of Endolite, a multinational manufacturer of prosthetic limbs, more and more people who need it are going in for a false limb. “The popularity of prosthetic limbs is so phenomenal that manufacturers are now experimenting with a wide range of possibilities. Now you can not only match skin colour and tone, for instance, or rotate your joints much like a natural foot, but you can even replace small body parts, like toes and fingers.”

Aimee Mullins shows off her perfect legs when she and friend Heather Mills pose in micro minis for a modelling shoot, after having gone shopping together looking for short skirts and nail polish for the toes. And Sudha Chandran may not want to wear micro minis, but she too loves to paint her toenails and wear anklets on her feet.

In Calcutta, Rupa Majumdar, a 34-year-old dancer, who was disfigured after an accident, gets ready for a performance. Says Majumdar, “Though it is not a prerequisite of dance, it is important to look nice, especially these days when television cameras capture many of the dance performances. But when I perform on stage with my make-up and costume, I completely forget about my appearance and because I don’t concentrate on the defects I don’t think anyone else does either.”

As Mullins had once said, “Confidence is the sexiest thing a woman can have. It’s sexier than any body part.”

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