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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2022  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 207-208

Influence of cinema on public perception of disability

1 Department of Physiology, AIIMS, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India
2 Department of Physiology, NEIGRIHMS, Shillong, Meghalaya, India
3 Department of Anatomy, AIIMS, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India

Date of Submission17-Jun-2022
Date of Acceptance01-Jul-2022
Date of Web Publication29-Aug-2022

Correspondence Address:
Rituparna Barooah
Department of Physiology, NEIGRIHMS, Shillong, Meghalaya
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/JME.JME_75_22

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How to cite this article:
Mohan L, Barooah R, Malhotra R. Influence of cinema on public perception of disability. J Med Evid 2022;3:207-8

How to cite this URL:
Mohan L, Barooah R, Malhotra R. Influence of cinema on public perception of disability. J Med Evid [serial online] 2022 [cited 2022 Oct 5];3:207-8. Available from: http://www.journaljme.org/text.asp?2022/3/2/207/354990

'It was an awakening that people saw me not as “Judy” but as someone who was sick'

Judy Heumann, Crip Camp.[1]

Perception of disability has two central contexts. The first one is inclusivity and the second is sensitivity to special needs. The first theme essentially influences the second, and in an ideal world, the environment so created should be seamless to negotiate, granting independence and autonomy. This would include making suitable adjustments for physiological, social and emotional needs, as well as modifications in civil engineering for a disabled-friendly access to the art form. Cinema is a powerful medium that has penetrated our consciousness, and reaches almost every stratum of society. Many religious, social and economic trends have been shaped by popular movies. How a concept is pitched by this medium, goes a long way in dissemination of awareness and understanding of the clinical and behavioural adjustments demanded by the special requirements of the afflicted disabled.

Portrayal of disabled protagonists in cinema is common. The first film featuring physical disability was a 50-s clip in 1898.[2] Themes featuring differently abled have been a part of mainstream western cinema, with some of the best-known movies including 'Children of a Lesser God', 'My Left Foot', 'Rain Man', 'Born on the 4th of July', 'Forrest Gump', 'Million Dollar Baby', 'The Theory of Everything' and 'Me before You' to name a few well-received ones. Many of the earlier films used disabilities to heighten slapstick comedies and melodrama, and the protagonist was either depicted as a victim or a villain, or a person seeking revenge for his disability. Often the disability factor was introduced in the plot as a development in the narrative instead of thorough all-round research in the clinical condition. An analytical narrative widened the public perception of the issue in question. One such example is Elephant Man, with the protagonist suffering from the rare petrous syndrome. In fact, there is no mention of the name of the syndrome, let alone any fruitful discussion in the entire movie.[3] Rather the protagonist is victimised, oppressed, exhibited and dies. On the flip side, Forrest Gump is a story of an intellectually disabled individual overcoming all odds to achieve incredible performances. No doubt this kind of cinema bears the potential to be a source of inspiration for other fellow disabled individuals but provides little help to widen the public awareness and perception regarding the disability or sensitivity as to how to approach the differently abled. The roles of the differently abled were used to play on negative emotions, using human perception of visible differences, either to heighten fear and anxiety or project melancholia or pity.

Disability, more than often, has been portrayed as 'punishment' in Indian cinema, almost as a karmic account. Examples are Jeevan Naya (1936) and Kashish (1980), where the tormentors of the disabled characters themselves land up with permanent disability. 'Netrikann' (1981) is one such movie focused on desexualisation of the disabled. The punishment aspect was carried to the extreme in the movies such as Haider (2014) and Sholay (1975) with horrific tragedies. Many others show stigma, and mockery as in 'Golmal' or disability either associated with dark emotions as in 'Guzarish (2010)' or as a block or obstacle to be removed as in 'Koi Mil Gaya' for a fulfilled lifestyle. Moviemakers have been using such stories to manipulate the sympathy factor for box office success.[4]

In recent years, however, as many producers of mainstream Indian cinema discovered the larger educational power of their medium, there has been a welcome change. Barfi (2012), Taare Jameen Par (2007), Main Aisa Hi Hoon (2003), Sparsh (1980) and Black ((2005) are sensitive disability movies, not only successful in box office but also educative, purposeful and stretching the limits of prevailing perceptions of the society to psychological, physical and learning disabilities to the extent of newer policy development by the government and agencies on the specific disability.

Funding of the Blind Relief Association doubled following the release of Sparsh. Taare Zameen Par, woven around a dyslexic child, helped change the social perception about learning disabilities, so much so that the CBSE changed its policy of examination by granting extra time to such students.

Authenticity is the single most significant factor in movies with disability. Authenticity in plot, and characterisation of the role being played, are the core issues to be addressed in cinematography with disability themes. Sadly enough representation of disabled artists and disability casting is a rare phenomenon. Kumaran Kumanan, a psychologist, Tamil lyricist with cerebral palsy (who worked in Sivakarthikeyan's Nermayundu Odu Raja) writes 'we rarely get to see people like us featured, let alone as protagonists. Filmmakers are worried about audience acceptance'.[5] In the words of Maysoon Zayid, a disabled comedian and Muslim woman with cerebral palsy (actor in general hospital): 'In order to be an incredible or even credible cast, any visibly disabled roles must be played by actors who actually have that disability. It is not only offensive but inauthentic and cartoonish to have an abled actor play disabled on the screen'. Accurate, realistic and sensitive portrayals require a great deal of research and sessions with experts in the field. For authentic portrayal, a real-life disabled individual should be encouraged to play the role of the disabled character.[6] In Jalsa (2022), a recent release, authenticity shines through, with the role of a teenager with cerebral palsy being played to perfection by Surya Kasibhatla, an actor actually so afflicted.

Showing a disabled character in a disability-related situation but with normal authentic human emotions in 'Jalsa' is the real win. The fact that disability is not the focal issue in the plot but adds to the impact of the storyline is beautifully portrayed. There is acknowledgement and acceptance of the disability, but disability is not the primary focus of the movie, nor is it portrayed as a tragedy or as a comic situation. It is a coming of age of such social issues in Indian cinema.

The social acceptance of the disabled can be elevated best through portrayal of realism and not by crafted messages. Well researched and accurate depiction of disability, showing appropriate positive handling, interwoven into correct emotional context in the storyline, is a way that future filmmakers can use a powerful medium to reach into all strata of society, educate and change attitudes of the so-called 'normal' people to the differently abled. Since our lives are not all positivity and sunshine, we do need to see both, good and bad, balanced by normal human emotions.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Crip Camp. [Film] Directed by: Nicole Newnham, James Le Brecht. USA: Higher Ground Productions; 2020.  Back to cited text no. 1
Norden MF. The cinema of isolation: History of physical disability in the movies. 1st ed. New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA: Rutgers University Press; 1994.  Back to cited text no. 2
Little C. Film and Disability. The Elephant Man: 40 Years Later. Available from: https://captaincaptions.com/2020/03/21/the-elephant-mans-40th-anniversary-have-societal-attitudes-towards-visible-differences-and-disability-changed/. [Last accessed on 2020 Mar 21].  Back to cited text no. 3
Neel M. Sociology Group. Representation of Cinema in Bollywood Films (Indian Cinema). Available from: https://www.sociologygroup.com/representation-disability-bollywood/.[Last accessed on 2022 May 29].  Back to cited text no. 4
Darshan N. Representation of the Disabled in Tamil Cinema is Not What It's Cracked Out to be. The New Indian Express: Entertainment: Tamil; March 07, 2021.  Back to cited text no. 5
Pulrang A. Disability Movies Aren't What They Used to be. That's Good! Forbes Magazine: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; February 13, 2020.  Back to cited text no. 6


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