In an imperfect world
An accurate portrayal of the disabled in cinema can go far in sensitising the public, writes K. JESHI
OFFBEAT But true to life
The racy thriller Ghajini told the story of Sanjay Ramasamy (Suriya) who suffers from short-term memory loss after a gory accident.
Actor Vikram took a giant leap towards stardom with his convincing performance as a person with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) in Shankar's Anniyan.
Filmmakers often draw upon such harsh realities to make `offbeat' films to suit the changing tastes of audiences.
On this front, last year scored powerfully. Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black addressed the life of a girl with multiple afflictions (deaf, mute and blind).
That the disabled are not lesser beings was well established in Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal, an emotional tale of a deaf-mute cricketer from a village wanting to make it big.
One of this year's first releases, Aparna Sen's 15 Park Avenue, dealt with schizophrenia and sisterhood.
It introduced the audience to Mitali's (Konkana Sen Sharma) life, part of which is real and some of it, only in her head.
In Malayalam, director Blessy's Tanmatra starring Mohanlal as a middle-level government employee diagnosed with Alzheimer's is a stupendous success.
Making a difference
Such films make you laugh and cry at the same time and leave a lasting impression.
Eventually, it is the performance of the lead actors that elevates such films above the commonplace. But do they address the concerns faced by the disabled?
Says actor Suriya: "Such realistic roles are part of life and they are our way of respecting human values."
He struck gold with Perazhagan as the buck-toothed, ugly hunchback Chinna. "Even after 20 years I can look back and feel proud about a film like Perazhagan. While portraying such roles we try to be genuine and project the positive sides of the character. Chinna is always shown as bubbly and cheerful," he adds.
The actor recalls that at a recent function at PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore, a disabled person made it to the dais from a crowd of more than 10,000 to congratulate Suriya for `Chinna'. "For them, watching such movies gives comfort that they are not the only ones and they cherish those moments. I want to be recognised as an actor with different values. Be it Perazhagan or Ghajini, I've given it my best," he adds.
For Vikram, such roles give an opportunity to empathise.
"You feel nice. Even as a normal person when you see someone blind you want to reach out. When you get to play such roles, you empathise and do better," he says.
Be it the role of a mentally disturbed lad in Sethu to the emotionless zombie in Pithamagan, the visually challenged singer in Kasi or a person with MPD in Anniyan, every role, he says, was an exciting challenge.
Sethu also focused on the plight of inmates in a mental asylum and Kasi dealt with the disabled whose problems were compounded by poverty and ignorance.
Asked about the mental make-up required for such roles, he says: "I observe a lot in life and it helps perform better. Illnesses like MPD have a clinical history and you will have to stick to it to avoid an `atypical' performance. I studied the literature on MPD and was clear about retaining the identity of each character be it the proverbial Ambi, the rampaging Anniyan or the cool Remo," he explains.
Films in India have periodically portrayed disability. In the 1980s, Balu Mahendra's Moonram Pirai (Sadma in Hindi) had as its subject a young woman (Sridevi) whose mental state regresses to that of a five-year-old following an accident.
What's in the mind?
"It is actually amnesia, where the woman forgets her past after a head injury. The disorder is used as a camouflage, as an excuse to portray relationship in the movie," says director Balu Mahendra.
His critically acclaimed thriller Julie Ganapathy had Saritha as the spooky and neurotic Julie. "It is about a woman with a maniacal obsession who loves the person to such an extent that she can even kill him if necessary," he adds.
Dr. K. Selvaraj, consultant psychiatrist of Vazhikaati Mental Health Care Centre and Research Institute, says that though movies based on themes such as mental illness help in creating awareness, stereotyped inaccurate portrayal of the mentally ill as violent people misleads the public.
"In reality, they are not as violent. English movies like Rain man, One flew over the cuckoo's nest and A beautiful mind portrayed different versions of mental health problems. Even in Chandramukhi, the troubled background of Ganga's (Jyothika) character and how she imbibes the spirit of a dead dancer is psychologically handled. It is the responsibility of filmmakers to consult experts to give an accurate picture while handling such subjects."
Director Balu Mahendra agrees. "One cannot haphazardly handle it. A lot of thought and research goes into such subjects. Talking to experts, psychologists and psychiatrists is vital," he says.
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