Since English came pretty late in life, I grew up in the vernacular in an outlying Indian village. One of the short stories I read as a child was Beethoven, written in Assamese by Saurabh Kumar Chaliha. In it, two young artistes are found leisurely talking about Beethoven, his music and his disability. As the story ends, the readers are left vindicated in their knowledge that if Beethoven did not turn deaf, he would not be able to create such extraordinary music.
As I grew up, I slowly understood that exceptionality was often used as a compensatory measure by able-bodied storytellers, a ploy that a chunk of disabled population has fallen into owing to the able-ist norms and sanctions of the society. "Some 15 children - on wheelchairs and crutches - left a large audience spellbound by the dexterity of their actions," read a piece titled 'India's first disabled theatre group comes of age' while reporting a performance by a group called - well - Ability Unlimited. Some other publications are even more pronounced in their politics. For example, a headline in India's largest selling newspaper read, "Disabled kids wow audience with their able performance." Should we say more?
As if compensation for "lesser" ability was not displayed enough by coinages like 'specially-abled', the Government of India started pushing for the use of 'divyang' - one with divine limbs - instead of 'disabled' in an attempt to ensure rights and de-stigmatization of the community. However, as an important article published this week suggests, despite having passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and the Prime Minister's self-proclaimed interest in the community's concerns, the Budget presented on February 1 allocated only about 0.0039% of the GDP for the sector. One has reasons to conclude that the Prime Minister from India's Hindu Right believes with all seriousness that calling the disabled people divine will end the fierce and sincere battle they are fighting for decades for their genuine, everyday rights. Hopes are however not lost as the 'divyang' proposal was immediately booed and hissed by the entire community.
Even as all this unfolds, the much-awaited Hindi flick Kaabil released last week to instant success. Played by Hrithik Roshan and Yami Gautam, two able-bodied stars in Bollywood (as is the Hindi film industry known), the blind couple in the movie is a bundle of cuteness in the first half and that is where one starts smelling something fishy and suspect in the director's understanding of disability. The suspicion is substantiated in the second part of the film where - spoiler alert - the wife commits suicide after being raped by some hooligans and Hrithik Roshan lays out an elaborate plan to kill the criminals one by one after the police force fails him. Going by the numerous stunts pulled off by Hrithik, one can easily call Kaabil an action thriller and in that case, one should not have any problems with the unreal, larger-than-life sequences. Bollywood is full of such movies where the hero bumps off dozens of butch goons and himself remains unscathed. Kaabil's storyline is no different at all, except that the hero here cannot see. And this is where the representation of the hero is inexcusable.
As mentioned above, the blind hero in the movie is the national hero. He stands up against the corrupt system, teaches all the criminals and dishonest politicians a lesson and instills ethics and conscience in the head of a top cop. This portrayal reminded me of what Lennard J. Davis had said in an essay, "If individual citizens are not fit, if they do not fit into the nation, then the national body will not be fit. Of course, such arguments are based on a false idea of the body politic--by that notion a hunchbacked citizenry would make a hunchbacked nation."
By bestowing a blind man with hyperability, Sanjay Gupta-directed Kaabil falls in the long list of works that collectively be called compensatory literature. And Kaabil being the Hindi word for 'able', the bother starts with the name itself.
Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi, India and has previously written for Open, The Hindu and Roundtable India, among others. Talukdar recently completed an MPhil in English Literature from the University of Delhi, his areas of academic interest being Dalit studies, sociohistorical linguistics and disability.