I have always admired Western films featuring the handicapped, such as Children of a Lesser God, Scent of a Woman, and the classic The Miracle Worker. So the last weekend, I decided to explore similar Indian films. Warning: this post contains spoilers.
Koshish (Effort) (1972)
Directed by the sensitive Gulzar, featuring stalwarts Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri, Koshish (IMDB) is about the life of a deaf and dumb couple who try to live a normal life in an insensitive society. It was very courageous of Gulzar to make a popular, commercial film of such an unusual plot, unlike the parallel art cinema of the times. After their first child dies due to an accident that they could not prevent as a result of being deaf, they get help from a blind friend to help raise the second child successfully.
It was heartwarming to see a film being made on such a subject using a popular cast. It does suffer from the usual drawbacks of popular cinema — excessive music, lot of melodrama, stereotypical villains, etc. However, viewed from a larger perspective, the director must be praised for taking the effort in trying to raise awareness among the masses.
There are touching scenes aplenty. The friendship and communication of the deaf and dumb couple with the blind friend is poignant. The anxiousness of the parents to have a ‘normal’ child is well done. Creative flourishes include a contraption used by the blind friend to alert the parents when the baby awakens and cries at night, and a scene where the young child is dancing to music from the radio and the parents touch the radio speakers to feel the rhythm. Both Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri play their roles very well and won the National Awards for Acting.
The artificial sets look too artificial. Another gripe I had was the same as Roger Ebert had with Children of a Lesser God — there is no scene without music to really let the audience feel how the world is for the couple. I morally disagreed with the plot at the end, where the son is virtually forced to marry a deaf and dumb girl. Overall, still recommended, as it is one of the rare Indian Sign Language Films.
Shwaas (Breath) (2004)
India’s failed attempt at the 77th Academy Awards was the film Shwaas (IMDB), which was a Marathi Indian National Award winner after 50 years. A rural boy with a rare retinal cancer is brought to the city hospital by his grandfather. A life-saving surgery would render the boy permanently blind. This difficult situation is dramatized in the film sensitively or over-sentimentally — depending on the viewer’s appetite for melodrama. While most Indian audiences find little or no melodrama in the film, most Western reviewers find it mawkish.
The long drawn out formalities in the hospital may appear too stretched, but that underscores the plight and frustration of millions of Indians who deal with the Indian medical bureaucracy. The hospital scenes appear authentic because six months were spent by the crew studying the goings-on in a real hospital. Both Ashwin Chitale as the boy (National Award for Best Actor), and Arun Nalawade as the grandfather deliver sterling performances. The doctor and social worker helping them cope with the situation are passable. The rural scenes of the boy’s village are a counterpoint to the hectic city life. These are captured with cinematic beauty, an accomplishment for Sandeep Sawant’s directorial debut. The music is generally fine, with an excellent interlude of piano with strings in the middle.
Among the negatives is an overly dramatized sequence when the boy ‘disappears’ from the hospital. The exaggeration is unrealistic. The parents absence from the key action seems implausible. The surgeries of other patients are postponed with an alarming insouciance. Despite these minor blemishes, Shwaas is a breath of fresh air about finding optimism in the gravest of circumstances. One of the finest Indian films in recent times.
Sparsh (Touch) (1980)
Sai Paranjpe’s Sparsh (IMDB) offers an unparalled insider’s view of the world of the blind. It is a very sensitively handled story of the romantic relationship between a blind man Anirudh (Naseeruddin Shah) who runs a school for the blind, and a bereaved widow Kavita (Shabana Azmi). The scenes of blind children of the school are used to form a backdrop to the central drama of the relationship. Of all these three films, this is the most ‘artsy’, the least melodramatic, and hence most to my liking.
Both the characters are living in a kind of a shell, afraid to open themselves up in fear of hurt. Anirudh is extremely independent, fierce in his determination, and passionately resists any attempt by others to treat him differently because of his blindness. His internal vulnerability is revealed later in the film. Kavita is living an isolated life while apparently cocooned in her bereavement. After a chance encounter, Kavita accepts Anirudh’s suggestion of teaching the children at his school.
The scenes of the children at the school are endearing. The only sighted boy once has a fight with a blind classmate and shuts his eyes to have a fair fight. The children play games, act in a drama, create candles and artifacts, and all these scenes are without a shred of pity — rather they’re a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit.
Soon, Anirudh and Kavita are in love, and they are engaged. This is where Anirudh’s inner insecurity leads him to suspect that Kavita is marrying him out of sacrifice and compromise, and that she doesn’t really love him. His dichotomy — on the one hand he wants others to treat him just like a normal person, and on the other, is hesitant to accept it when Kavita does — is extremely well handled. Naseer’s performance strikes just the right tone. He won the National Award for Best Actor. This is one of the rare performances in Indian films where a lead actor performs a blind role without the use of opaque glasses. His method acting is superlative.
All scenes are given just the right emotional treatment, and the cast delivers Sai Paranjpe’s vision of a sensitive film about intelligent, human characters. It was this film that inspired the poem in my earlier post “Blind Love”. Highly recommended.