Disability is a subject that hasn’t been explored widely in Tollywood. Earlier, portrayals often made disabled people seem like objects of pity, isolated beings embittered by fate. But social attitudes have changed. We now have a slew of Telugu films that have embraced inclusivity for the disabled and are normalising portrayals.
From Ravi Teja and Raj Tarun who play visually-challenged people in their upcoming films, Raja The Great and Andhagadu to Ram Charan who is rumoured to be playing a hearing impaired man in his next, or Nagarjuna who wowed as a wheel-chair bound quadriplegic millionaire in Oopiri — these actors are breaking the age-old stereotype that a hero needs to be invincible.
Filmmakers and writers too are attempting to convey these characters with some degree of sincerity and sensitivity. “A disability doesn’t make a person less intelligent or interesting. Ravi Teja’s character is going to be a combination of both. There was a time when a disabled protagonist was seen only in art films or horror movies, but we are going completely commercial, with zero compromise on the character,” shares Anil Ravipudi, director of Raja The Great, agreeing that the actor’s decision to take up the role was looked at as a bold move by many.
That’s probably because a star’s “image” is at stake in such scenarios. In fact, Nagarjuna revealed that when he was approached for Oopiri, the filmmakers had doubts if he’d agree at all! Reflecting on the same, music composer, actor and director R.P. Patnaik says, “When I did Seenu Vasanthi Lakshmi (in which he is visually impaired), it was easy for me to transform into the character, because I am not a star whose films are watched with a set of expectations. For stars, it’s a big deal to take up roles like these.”
But it’s a fact that these films are normalising disability and promoting inclusivity. “Life on a wheelchair isn't easy but my character still enjoys life, and that’s the trait of a true human. That’s why I said yes to Oopiri without apprehensions,” says Nagarjuna.
Ravi Teja echoes his thoughts, saying, “Times are changing and I strongly believe that we need to move away from clichés and explore different aspects of people’s live. There are plenty of inspiring stories in our society where differently abled people have gone on to do great things. Look at India’s blind national cricket team. They have won major tournaments and it’s something we are all proud of. They don’t let their so called ‘disability’ turn into their weakness and they continue to live a wonderful and inspiring life.”
So, how and when did the transformation happen, considering a few years ago, a ‘disabled’ hero would be unthinkable? Director Vamsi Paidipally explains that entertainment transforms from time to time. “Heroes have always been loved as larger-than-life personalities. But with time, things are becoming simpler. None of these actors were kicked about playing a differently-abled character just for the heck of it. They were kicked about the content. Films can inspire and avoid insensitivity, it is just a part of responsible filmmaking,” he asserts.
Director Sudheer Varma, whose film Keshava sees Nikhil having a rare heart disorder, shares, “The character is as tough as any hero would be. But this particular disability helps me work around the screenplay of the film. While it’s totally a director’s choice how he or she wants to explore it, they must not forget the existence of the disabilities and their limitations, because that would hamper the portrayal.”
These characters have come as a boon for the disabled themselves. Shravya Kanithi, a community operations specialist at Uber and also a singer, shares, “Movies are a huge phenomenon in India and when they portray a person’s identity based only on their disability, people think that’s all we are! Long ago, I watched a movie where they showed a man marrying a visually impaired girl as a favour,” she scoffs, adding, “I am glad that actors like Ravi Teja and Ram Charan are taking up characters which aren’t just focussed on their impairment, as it will normalise us. I’m a singer and people perceive it as such a great thing, I sometimes don’t see why. It’s just like anybody else singing.”