Monday, October 19, 2009

Bollywood & Dollywood

In India, Hindi cinema (Bollywood in popular parlance -- a world of its own) is the most popular and culturally validated source of entertainment. Its representation of different persons and communities is therefore of great cultural and political significance, and these often generate political and communal controversies. Hindi films have also portrayed deaf (I take this liberty to call Deaf world as Dollywood) characters a few times over the century of its existence -- not only as stereotypes, but also as protagonists. I consider four popular movies of their time to assess the socio-cultural representation of deaf, sign language, and the perceptions about them they have given rise to.

One of the earliest movies in which deaf characters are protagonists is Koshish (An effort) directed by Gulzar, and released in 1972. Starring two widely known actors of the film industry, Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri, the film is a sensitive portrayal of a deaf couple’s romance and the struggles and hardships they have to face to survive with dignity. The characterisation and setting is natural enough to touch its audience, even though the director has taken the cinematic liberty to use written language as a mode of exchange between the characters, (although sign is also used). The film also shows the deaf couple’s yearning for a hearing child and the loss of their first child as they were not able to hear their child’s cry on that fatal night. The most impressive and radical proposal that surfaces in the film is about matrimonial alliance of the protagonist’s hearing son with a deaf girl, thus countering the prevalent notions about matrimony in Indian society. It is one of the most progressive of all films on deaf characters, where the deaf are not just stereotypical characters arousing sympathy, but are presented as an important and equal force in the creation of a more sensitive and modern Indian society.

Khamoshi (Silence) (1996), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a story of a hearing daughter of a deaf couple who aspires to become a singer. The national award winning actors Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas are the deaf couple. The film shows their yearning for, and joy over, a hearing child and how this child becomes the deaf couple’s support and voice in their later life. Though sign is used at various points in the movie, it is not Indian Sign Language (henceforth, ISL).

In contrast, Black (2005) by the same director is a story set in pre-independent India of an Anglo-Indian deaf-blind girl and her tutor starring Rani Mukerjee and Amitabh Bachchan, respectively. Initially, the film opens with an impression that a deaf-blind child is possessed by a spirit, rather than a child who is not able to make sense of things around her because of deafness and blindness. As the movie moves on, we find that she learns and uses tactile sign language in the movie; however, this is not ISL but rather some signs from American Sign Language (ASL). The movie ends on a positive note -- she becomes a graduate after many years and gets some degree of independence in her life, and starts to help her tutor who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Director Nagesh Kukunor’s Iqbal (2005) is about a 20 year old talented deaf boy from a village who aspires to play as a bowler for the Indian national team. The movie is about his struggle and journey to become a bowler in the Indian team. The lead character of the movie, Iqbal, played by Shreyas Talpade, is a school drop-out as his farmer family was not able to send him to a deaf school in Mumbai. The social setting of the movie shows that the deaf boy has no friends in his village, and his closest companion is his sister, who signs and interprets for him (although Iqbal can lip read slow speech). The director has successfully integrated sign and speech in the movie, where many of the main characters sign and speak. Interestingly, signs are not limited to gestures, and many of the signs are from ISL. Like in Koshish, Iqbal is not a character whose sole motive is to inspire sympathy; rather, it is his talent as a bowler that the film ultimately highlights, and Iqbal’s struggle is to play cricket is as much a young person’s struggle against conventional fathers who do not understand or accept her/his aspirations, as it is about a deaf person’s desire to succeed in a sport that is the hegemony of the hearing. The movie thus also sends a message that Indian cricket as a sport must be a sport that values the talent (rather the hearing or deafness) of its players, thereby questioning current Indian reality, where there are separate teams for hearing and deaf players.

These three films all had a significant impact on societal attitudes. Most prominently in recent times, Iqbal enthused Indian children so much that the National Council of Education Research and Technology now acknowledges sign language as one of the mediums for primary education. The National Curriculum Framework 2005, which endorses child-centric education, advocates ISL based education of the Hearing Impaired. This notwithstanding, none of these films portray the existence of a deaf/Deaf community for their protagonists, who are all alone (or at best with their partners) amidst a hearing society. Moreover, these films have had little effect in permanently altering social attitudes towards deafness as social stigma. A case in point is Ashvin Kumar’s short film The Little Terrorist, which was India’s official entry for Oscar in short film category in 2005. The film is about a Pakistani boy who crosses into the Indian territory while playing. As the story progresses, the Indian family hides him from the patrolling party. In one incident, he pretends to be deaf to avoid the queries of the patrolling officers, and in the process brings to the fore all the stereotypes of deafness as, as signifying social isolation and diminished intelligence.

During a screening of The Little Terrorist at JNU (11.04.08), I asked Ashvin about the lack of political correctness of this portrayal, and he justified as being reasonable in the context, and without an intention to offend. He welcomed my lone intervention and said if it made people to react, then that was a positive development. May be I am not alone next time.

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