Disability glare on Bollywood - World Bank study finds sensitivity, not strength, in films

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By M.R. VENTAKESH in Chennai
  • Published 7.02.08

Chennai, Feb. 6: For women with disabilities in Indian cinema, it’s a double handicap. Even the gods think physically challenged women are “simply irrelevant”.

A World Bank study commissioned by the Indian government says characterisations of disabled women in “modern myth machine” Bollywood are not strong enough, though Indian films as a whole have tried to “enhance” society’s “sensitivity”.

“Overall, women with disabilities in Indian cinema are doubly weak — women and women with disabilities. This contrasts to more frequent portrayals in Hollywood cinema of women with disabilities who have strength and discover independence,” said the report titled People with Disabilities in India: From Commitments to Outcomes.

But the report said it was important to note that films like Sparsh, Black, Koshish, Jagriti, Dosti, Main Aisa Hi Hun and Koi Mil Gaya — to name a few — have sought to enhance sensitivities.

Lagaan is an excellent example of a mainstream film that has highlighted the process of inclusion of a Dalit disabled person,” it said.

Another film, the latest in the genre, is Taare Zameen Par, though it deals with a dyslexic kid and how those around him come to terms with his drawback.

But despite filmdom’s efforts to sensitise the public, people with disabilities in India were “among the most excluded in society”, stressed the 200-page report that hinged on a “dedicated survey” in rural Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

The report, mainly authored by Philip ’Keefe, the lead social protection specialist in World Bank parlance, also went into data provided by the 2001 census and the National Sample Survey 2002, besides findings of other state-level surveys.

It concluded that low literacy and employment rates and widespread social stigma were leaving the disabled behind. The report said 52 per cent of people with disabilities were illiterate.

If Bollywood reflects Indian attitudes to disability, traditional Hindu myths, which still play an important role in shaping social norms and values, were another pointer, the report said.

Visually challenged Dhritarashtra and the orthopaedically impaired Shakuni side with the forces of evil in the Mahabharat, sending out an overwhelmingly negative image of disabled people, the bank said.

As for women with disabilities in Hindu mythology, they “are simply irrelevant”. To back its claim, the report cited an example of a story from Karthik Poornima, where Lord Vishnu refuses to marry the “disfigured elder sister of Lakshmi”.

The sister is instead married off to a peepul tree.

Bollywood, which the report said was a mixed scene, shows the disabilities of a hero or heroine as typically acquired after birth, somewhat “normalising” the actor.

Then, disabilities are often cured and the characters are from the better-off social strata with resources to “promote their integration” into society.

The report said Bollywood films played on gender differences. Men with disabilities, for instance, “are often loved by a devoted woman without disabilities” (as in Saajan).

But women with disabilities were rarely loved by men without disabilities. In rare cases, as in the film Mann, the man loved the woman even after the onset of the disability.

Also, women with disabilities “almost never attain economic self-sufficiency” in these movies, the report underlined, unlike as in the Hollywood film The Miracle Worker, which was based on Helen Keller’s life, or in Children of a Lesser God, where the deaf-mute heroine learns to convey her thoughts.

The survey in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu showed that “around half the respondents believed that disability was always, or almost always, a curse of God”.

Only half the number of households surveyed said a disabled person marrying a non-disabled person was “acceptable”, while marriage between a disabled man and a non-disabled woman had “wider acceptance”, particularly if the man was well off.

The bank also found inconsistencies in the data on people with disabilities in India.

The 2001 census found 21.91 million (2.13 per cent of the population) persons with disability of some kind while the NSS 2002 put the figure at 1.8 per cent. The report, however, warned that a more inclusive definition could take India’s disability count to 80-90 million.