Why the disabled are touchy about how they are portrayed in the movies and how people address them?
Two recent-topics have been riling up people with disabilities in India as well as abroad. In India it is the issue of the coinage “Divyang” being thrust upon persons with disabilities’ throats and abroad (mostly Western cinema), it’s the issue of a movie called Me Before You starring everybody’s favourite these days, Emilia “Daenerys” Clarke.
Let me first talk about “Divyang”. The word just fell from the blues like the proverbial thunder without any warning. During one of his “Mann Ki Baat” broadcasts, talking about how persons with disabilities develop extra abilities when one of their abilities are taken away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came up with the term “Divyang”. The intention was good. But the new coinage wasn’t taken with the same emotion by the disabled community in the country. The aversion was so strong that some people claim that they would rather be called a “cripple” than being called “Divyang”, although that was a bit absurd. But anyway.
People, rightly, say that there is nothing “divya” (divine) about being disabled. Being called “divyang”, they believe, rightly, will be quite condescending, especially in the light of the fact that even basic facilities are not accessible to persons with disabilities. At every juncture they are discriminated against.
We live in a hypocritical society. In India there are numerous goddesses but still women are treated very badly, no matter what certain people claim. We claim to find many of our gods among our forests, rivers and mountains, and we have systematically destroyed and plundered our forests, rivers and mountains. Gandhi insisted that people of lower castes be called “Harijans” (people of God) and we all know what their plight has been due to political, intellectual and social corruption.
So naturally, the word “Divyang” tends to be taken with a pinch of salt and many disability activists have made it the primary goal of their lives to rid the country of this terminology. Of course many of these activists nurture an inveterate hatred for anything related to Narendra Modi but I totally agree that this is a needless coinage and should be urgently done away with.
Now the movie Me Before You.
Remember the movie 300 starring Gerard Butler? In Sparta, they kill newborn babies that are sick or are born with some disability. Now coming back to Me Before You.
The movie is based on a novel by Jojo Moyes by the same name, and incidentally, it is a bestselling novel. I haven’t been able to see the movie yet but the gist of the movie is that there is this main character called Will Traynor who is super rich and highly desirable. He is highly desirable because he is a rich as well as good-looking.
Then he meets with an accident, breaks his back, gets confined to a wheelchair and now, although he is rich and to an extent remains even good-looking, he can no longer walk. Once he was a heartthrob, and now he is an object of pity. No new girlfriends to date. All old girlfriends leave. Even the love of his life marries his best friend. The writer leaves no stone unturned to make sure that no desire for living exists in the protagonist. He decides to kill himself.
Apparently there is a place in Switzerland where you can go and get yourself killed if you no longer fancy living.
To change his mind his family hires a caregiver — Emilia Clarke — and guess what? They both fall in love. Despite wheelchairing his way into a new love it doesn’t change his mind and eventually, goes to Switzerland and gets himself killed.
Many persons with disabilities are like, what the fuck? Just because you are confined to a wheelchair doesn’t mean you no longer want to live? What sort of message the psychos are sending to the world? That even if you don’t say it, the moment a person gets wheelhairy you start expecting that he or she heads to Switzerland and gets himself or herself killed so that you can go on doing whatever you were doing before the person got wheelchairy?
Why do persons with disabilities strongly dislike such twisted portrayals in the mainstream movies?
The society is already replete with misconceptions. They consider persons with disabilities nonsexual. It is believed that they don’t need social life. People assume that life for persons with disabilities is full of loneliness, dejection, pity, self-loathing and, since they always have to depend on others, immense thankfulness and indebtedness. Persons with disabilities have no business coming out of their cavernous existence.
This is why when persons with disabilities fight for their rights, their struggle is considered “demanding” and they are accused of being ungrateful. In India, the affairs of the persons with disabilities are managed by some sort of welfare ministry rather than the human resource ministry. Since most of the problems faced by persons with disabilities come from a society pregnant with misconceptions, even small instances of misguided portrayal such as in the movie Me Before You greatly disturbs them, or at least disturbs those who can envision the implications.
What’s wrong in someone wanting to die because he or she no longer wants to live the rest of his or her life in a wheelchair? Isn’t it a matter of choice?
Yes, it is a matter of choice, but then this matter of choice can be applicable to every aspect of life. You are unhappy in your marriage, you commit suicide. You get cancer, you commit suicide. You get afflicted by leprosy, you kill yourself. Your kids make your life miserable, embrace euthanasia. Didn’t get good marks in your annual exams and you don’t want to waste another year, well, why not just jump off the roof or jump in front of a train? No need for special schools. No need for Braille. No need to create accessible buildings. Just dump all the persons with disabilities in a big hole and then cover the hole with mud. The problem is solved. This can go on. Once a chain reaction starts, there is no ending.
And it’s not just a matter of choice for persons with disabilities. It also creates a very awkward situation between people who provide care and between people who need that care. Does my caregiver start resenting me that I don’t consider killing myself like the rich and dropdead gorgeous Will in the movie? Am I so shameless? Do I want to trouble my caregivers so much? Wouldn’t the lives of my family members be so easy minus me? All my life first my parents (I have cerebral palsy) and now my wife has, in one way or another, taken care of me. Should I start feeling bad that why I caused so much trouble to them? This, seems to be the bigger problem rather than simply being a matter of choice. This is why, such a portrayal disturbs persons with disabilities, especially those who spent their lifetimes fighting for the rights of persons with disabilities to live with dignity.
I had the same problem with the movie Margarita with a Straw. It was perhaps for the first time that a character with cerebral palsy had been shown in a Bollywood movie and what do they show? They show that the girl is constantly sex starved, as if there is nothing else in her life. She goes so much for good looks that she even mistreats her own friends. Is this how you want to portray persons with disabilities in mainstream movies especially when there are so few movies dealing with the subject?
Of course we cannot control what sort of movies people make because again, it is about freedom of expression. But if we feel that something sucks, we should be able to say it. “Divyang” sucks, so say it. In the same manner, if the central theme of Me Before You sucks big time, it doesn’t mean you’re anti-choice. It’s just that you don’t like the idea of people thinking that your life is over once you are confined to a wheelchair. I know it is going to sound cliched, think of Stephen Hawking.