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Abhilasha Ojha  |  New Delhi 

As gets ready with his directorial debut, Taare Zameen Par, a film that its makers insist is on "abilities, not disability", Abhilasha Ojha questions why both filmmakers and audiences in India shy away from storylines revolving around disability.
I'll find a way, a documentary by Canadian director Beverly Shaffer, which won an Oscar in 1978, revolved around a nine-year-old girl, Nadia Di Franco, who was born with disabling Spina Bifida, a
Two decades later, Shaffer tracked down her subject once again, paving the way for another documentary, Just a wedding. If the latter was a glimpse into Nadia's marital life and how she evolved into a confident, young woman, I'll find a way, was the begining of her journey "" from her firm belief that she belonged within "normal" society and not "outside" of it.
The documentary showed Nadia attending a regular school despite knowing fully well that other "normal children" would tease her. Her mantra: "I'll find a way to do the same things a little differently."
If Shaffer's award-winning documentary showcased the need for children, all children, to get educated together, Indian audiences will perhaps get a similar discourse from Aamir Khan's directorial debut, Taare Zameen Par.
The film's PR machinery strongly refutes media reports that it revolves around a dyslexic child. "It is a film about abilities, not disabilities. Adults need to unburden their children from the crushing weight of their own ambitions. The film stresses that and the fact that all children have their own hidden abilities," says Amole Gupte, writer and creative director of Taare Zameen Par, who, in Khan's own words, emerged with a solid story after seven years of rigorous research.
"We have made a film that has eventually contributed to enhancing our sensitivity towards children. We are now hoping that it does the same for viewers too," stresses Khan.
Deepa Bhatia, Gupte's wife and editor of the film, who worked closely with her husband in researching the subject, says, "If the nation needs to grow, it's only natural that our future, our children, grow together, study and play together." She adds, "Taare Zameen Par, in that sense, is a holistic film on teaching and parenting."
Though it'll take some time before we find out whether the film touches upon the subject of neurological disability, Kaushik Roy, maker of Apna Aasman, a semi-autobiographical film that tackled the theme of autism, says, "Filmmakers are still shy of even admitting before their film's release that the content could revolve around disability."
In his view, Indian films are meant to last as long as a popcorn packet. "I'd think of entertainment as a form that can engage the viewers. Unfortunately, Indian viewers go into a theatre only if there are stars. Content-wise, comedy, even as mid-range budget films, can sell. But a film on disability, without stars, has to struggle," he says.
Roy's words remind one of Shwaas, the modest-budget Marathi film that told the story of a boy suffering from retino blastoma, a type of eye cancer. An operation would result in permanent blindness for him. The film was India's official entry to the Oscars in 2004. Arun Nalawade, who produced the film, admits that the film's subject made it difficult for them to even take off on the floors.
"It was a telefilm earlier but got shelved after the channel dropped it," he mentions in an online interview. The film was shot only after its cast and crew managed to generate some funds on their own. What's more, the film didn't quite succeed at the box office. "Only after it won a National Award the film ran to packed houses," quips Nalawade.
Where exactly does India stand as far as this genre of films is concerned? A spate of earlier films have sensitively portrayed disabled characters "" Dosti (1964), Koshish (1972), Sparsh (1984), Nache Mayuri (1986), Anjali (1990). Then, there are recent films like Koi Mil Gaya (2003), Black (2004), Main Aisa Hi Hoon (2005), Iqbal (2005) and 15, Park Avenue (2005) that too address the issue and have been received well at the box office.
But does that mean that Indian audiences are ready to buy such "sensitive" stories? Sudha Rai, professor of English, University of Rajasthan, has attempted to find some answers.
In 2005, Rai's paper, Autism in Indian Cinema: Cultural Representations of Disability, was presented at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In it, she stressed on the digression of the very subject of disability in Indian films. "Though this genre's representation is growing in Indian cinema, it still ends up distorting and manipulating the real issue of disability," she says.
Citing Koi Mil Gaya as an example, Rai suggests that though she agrees the film belonged to the fantasy genre, she was disturbed to find the entire love story emerging only when the autistic hero became a muscular fellow, complete with super-hero powers.
Rai, who began her paper after meeting Dr Stuart Murray at University of Leeds (who, incidentally, is doing a mammoth research on autism), is now researching aspects of disability in Indian literature and cinema.
Roy, on his part, gives credit to filmmakers and heroes like Hrithik Roshan and who have actually stepped in and made films on disability.
"They are the crowdpullers and it's nice that these industry stars are targetting children as audiences." Moreover, he feels that at least the genre is being discussed and films are presented far more frequently than before.
That Shah Rukh Khan's recent blockbuster, Om Shanti Om, had the superstar spoofing the disabled, is yet another story. That this scene, following criticism from NGOs, is now going to be removed from the film is perhaps a quiet victory.

First Published: Sat, December 08 2007. 00:00 IST
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