Instep Today

The risk and reward of playing disabled characters

Instep Today
By Sadiq Saleem
Thu, 06, 19

History suggests that an Oscar-nominated actor in a physically or emotionally disabled role has approximately a 50 per cent shot at a win.

History suggests that an Oscar-nominated actor in a physically or emotionally disabled role has nearly 50 per cent chances of winning.

From polio survivors to arthritic painters, there have been 59 Oscar nominations out of which 27 have won the awards.

From Audrey Hepburn, who played a blind girl in Wait Until Dark to Angelina Jolie’s role of a mentally challenged person in Girl Interrupted, Julianne Moore in Still Alice and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything – all have taken the Academy Award home for their respective performances.

If we look at Bollywood, the examples are rare but there have been some exceptions. The benchmark set by Sridevi in Sadma is so high that no actor has been able to come close. It is said that for physical disability, able-bodied actors may not always be the best fit but we have examples such as Hrithik Roshan in Guzaarish, Rani Mukherjee in Black and Priyanka Chopra in Barfi, who have proven this equation wrong.

Speaking of Pakistan, there are quite a few examples. Cases in point: Tanhaiyaan and Sooraj Kay Saath Saath. The character of Zara, played by Shehnaz Sheikh, (Tanhaiyaan) wakes up one day and finds out that she cannot speak or move. Her fiancee Saad loses interest in her and breaks off the engagement. Similarly, Madiha Shah’s character of a physically challenged girl in Sooraj Kay Saath Saath (1989) had a similar fate.

Most recently, Imran Ashraf essayed the role of a mentally challenged young man called Bhola in Ranjha Ranjha Kardi and gained immense appreciation for his performance. Industry insiders as well as audiences in Pakistan and beyond poured a great deal of love and recognition on the actor for his craft and for portraying a difficult character effortlessly.

However, despite making a mark with his performance, Imran’s character couldn’t be saved from the cliched treatment that disabled characters get.

But through his character, the writer at least explored the social constructs that inform and influence our views surrounding mentally challenged people.

Imran himself spoke to Instep and shared that he did not watch any film to practice for the role. “I observed and studied people and their body language; like what makes them happy and sad or why do they suddenly get upset,” he shared in an earlier interview.

Also, he is a firm believer that “mentally challenged people need to be respected and should be given as much attention as any other person”.

In most cases, on and off screen, disabled individuals are considered a burden on their surroundings including their families. Hence, TV productions as well as films typecast disability even though it is not as easy to present the idea as it may sound. An adult playing a childlike character always runs the risk of the role turning cute or worse, hamming in some cases. Similarly, disabled characters played by able-bodied actors have seldom struck the right chords because the performances leave much to be desired when it comes to portraying the level of frustration and anguish involved.

Generically speaking, whenever characters of people with disabilities have been written and portrayed on television or in films, the results are almost always tone-deaf, awkward, and borderline offensive. They are typically presented as beloved objects of pity and scorn, even as they’re supposed to be inspiring and not reduced to caricatures. Case in point is Hrithik Roshan who was forgetful in Koi Mil Gaya and Dia Mirza who was both annoying and forgetful in Tehzeeb. With such characters, the risk of overdoing always hovers the part and the artist while performing may not always realise when he or she is crossing the line.

It’s imperative that directors, writers, and actors today understand the responsibility of portraying disability on screen. The more the viewers are exposed to such characters that are proper and respectful portrayals of people with disabilities, the more they will be exposed to empathy and compassion as well as the simple nuance of the phrase ‘differently-abled’.

– Sadiq Saleem is a UAE based entertainment writer. He can be contacted on his page fb/