Shah Rukh Khan
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Now: Bollywood invests more in differently abled characters

By HT

Protagonists in Bollywood films are usually larger than life, and any disability or impediment is rarely part of the package. 
 
But quite a few such characters were seen on the big screen in 2017, and some will be seen in 2018 — all of them being played by A-list Bollywood stars. These are not peripheral or comic relief characters; they are central to the story and the actors have invested in serious research as part of their prep.
 
Shah Rukh Khan’s first look from his much-awaited film Zero was released on Monday — he plays a dwarf in the film. This year, we’ll also see Rani Mukerji in Hichki, playing a person with Tourette syndrome, which causes involuntary facial tics and sounds, and Ayushmann Khurrana playing a blind pianist in a yet untitled thriller.
 
In 2017, Hrithik Roshan played a blind man in Kaabil, while Ranbir Kapoor and Kirti Kulhari’s characters stammered in Jagga Jasoos and Indu Sarkar, respectively.
 
In Kaabil, Yami Gautam played a blind woman who committed suicide after being raped. This was the trigger for her husband (played by Hrithik) to take revenge. She says, “[The role of] Su was extremely challenging! One of the biggest challenges is to unlearn what we’ve perceived about the mannerisms [of the blind]. I worked hard on my body language and certain gestures, but leaving enough space for spontaneity, so as not to look over-rehearsed or too mechanical. I was constantly guided by the fact that it was all about the subtlety and being real. Leaving the physical disability aside, they are just like you and me — ‘differently abled’, as Hrithik always said.”
 
Psychologist Pulkit Sharma says, “[Actors] these days do the portrayal with much more sensitivity and research, so that’s definitely an encouraging trend. While it’s still quite melodramatic and larger than life [on screen], people around such specially abled people have greater acceptance and awareness about these things.”
 
Memorable Hindi films featuring differently abled protagonists are few and far between. After the landmark film Koshish (1975), we jump to the 21st century, with Iqbal (2005), Black (2005), Taare Zameen Par (2007), Kaminey (2009), Guzaarish (2010), and My Name is Khan (2010). In comparison, 2017 and 2018 are packed with films that have such characters.
 
Also, over the years, the focus has shifted from the superficial to the more substantial. For instance, Shahid Kapoor’s shirtless look in Kaminey was more in the news than how the actor researched his double role of twins with different speech impediments — though Shahid did deliver a remarkable performance. In contrast, Hrithik Roshan’s portrayal in Kaabil was less about the physicality and more about capturing the behavioural nuances of a blind person.
 
Actor Kirti Kulhari told us earlier, “I started [prepping for Indu Sarkar] by watching a lot of YouTube videos to understand [stammering]. Then I met a psychologist to understand what kind of issues stammerers have, like how different they are and how they grow as individuals. I met a speech therapist, too, to approach it from a technical point of view, as in what are the degrees of stammering.”
 
Actor Ayushmann Khurrana, who plays a blind pianist in Sriram Raghavan’s upcoming thriller, says that his research involved spending time with blind or visually impaired people, including a pianist, and observing how this person performed. “You need to make it as real as possible. I interacted with many such people and went to [special] schools for them. I also met a visually impaired pianist. I observed how he approached the piano, what his body language was. The hardest part is that you are not looking at the [piano] keys,” he had told us about his preparation in an interview.
 
Trade expert Atul Mohan says, “Earlier, such characters were used as comic relief in films; they were made fun of. But today, the ‘weakness’ of a person is written as the strong point [in a film script]. Like how Hrithik (as the blind man) takes revenge, and Ranbir’s character takes his story forward in Jagga Jasoos despite his stammering.”
 
Pulkit Sharma points out a downside, saying that Bollywood films showing differently abled people doing extraordinary things put some pressure on such people in real life. As an example, he says, “The film Taare Zameen Par came out 10 years ago, when no one [in India] knew about dyslexia. Though the film was made in a sensitive manner, we got complaints from many schools that children had started teasing fellow students with dyslexia as ‘Dekho Taare Zameen Par wala hai.’ The filmmakers have commercial interests in mind, so they put out an exaggerated image. The film is not a documentary, and it places a burden on [differently abled] people when a star is doing such a role. People around them start asking, ‘Hero film mein yeh sab kar sakta hai, tum kyun nahi kar sakte?’”