Express News Service
CHENNAI: They say films are a reflection of life. However, to Madhavi Latha, a national-level para-athletic sportsperson and the founder of YWTC Charitable Trust, mainstream cinema offers hardly a slice of her realities. Over several years, the basketball player observed film after film, presenting little to no representation of people with disabilities (PwDs). And when she set out to offer suggestions to the industry, she was only met with hesitation.
“Whenever I got an award or met a celebrity, I would talk to them about the need for our representation. But they stated many apprehensions that they would have to spend a lot of time, money and effort to train people with disabilities who have no experience. So, instead of relying on someone else, we thought of solving the issue ourselves,” she shares. With the expertise of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the Trust set up a five-week online acting course for people with disabilities, the essence of which lives on in their recently formed 360° Virtual Club. It includes members from the acting courses and acts as an extension of the course, to practice and improve the skills learned.
The debut stint
The Basic Course in Screen Acting was taught by experienced professionals of FTII and covered an array of topics — navaras, movement analysis, film jargon, analysis of dramatic text, theories of communication, emotional intelligence, listening and more. Mumbai-based HR professional Roshni Patekar had been looking forward to such an opportunity for years. “I was always interested in learning more about acting, filmmaking and scriptwriting. In the course, they taught us so much about all that is involved in filmmaking. I began to believe that I had the capabilities to write stories, songs, and poems. I had always thought that this life didn’t belong to me, that the industry only wants ‘beautiful’ people. But I have realized that I don’t need to be on screen. There is so much one can do offscreen. I gained a lot of confidence,” she says.
Where Roshni found her jogging in a new avenue, Chennai-based Special Olympics award-winning photographer Sai Krishnan found new inspirations in a familiar field. “With experience in photography and cinema-shooting, I have always had a flair for acting…To my surprise, every individual (participant) brought with them different skills. There were people from places like Jharkhand, Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and more. Because of this (diversity), we came to know of each one’s (separate) challenges and skills. Despite their disabilities, their knowledge and skills are phenomenal and it is all coming out in the open because of the 360° Virtual Club,” he shares.
To keep the course relevant to the strengths of the PwDs, FTII’s basic course was also customized. “The first batch of students all had locomotor disabilities. We thought if all the persons had one type of disability, they could make changes to the course accordingly,” Madhavi explains. The tweaks came in handy in the case of Sathish Kumar, a bank employee affected by cerebral palsy. “For me, mobility is difficult on the limbs and I can’t move my hands much. But I gained experience learning about facial expressions. Apart from this, we also learned many skills that we could adapt to our day-to-day life, such as how to communicate, show anger, stay silent and more,” he notes.
With the newfound knowledge, the members now plan to further their expertise and share resources in the 360° Virtual Club. And if a few good skits or monologues come out of this experience, they may find a place on the Trust’s YouTube Channel, reports Madhavi. Perhaps, these would act as a portfolio and attract filmmakers to give these trained actors a chance. True to its name, the club will also indulge in holistic activities apart from acting, inviting professionals from different fields to guide them. “During the sessions, the instructors suggested that we try everything. Things like body fitness, dance, singing…if we want to be actors, we need to have an idea about all of this,” says Madhavi.
Change on the horizon
The club marches forth on its mission to integrate PwDs into the entertainment sector, but change cannot be one-sided. There is a need to shake up the current system, starting with the stereotypes perpetuated by mainstream media, as Roshni explains, “Whenever I watch movies, I see handicapped people begging or crawling; always in a negative role. This needs to stop. Instead, filmmakers should show them in positive roles; working hard and dealing with their struggles in society. Just because a person cannot use their hand, does not mean they don’t have a heart and a brain.” And it is not a matter of only casting them in lead roles, but also being featured in smaller or background roles, Madhavi notes.
“Films can show PwDs as the hero or heroine’s friend, working in an office, studying, having a profession or passion. Even if you show this for a few minutes, it can have a lot of impact. People will know that there are PwDs everywhere. Filmmakers need to understand that there are different kinds of people in real life and that diversity needs to be depicted in their films as well, ”she reminds her.
To find a place on screen, PwDs must also compete with non-disabled actors, says Sathish. “Often, an able-bodied person is cast in a disabled role. But they may not know of the actual problems we face or how to properly suit the character.
A disabled actor, however, would understand the realities of how we function,” he says. But to achieve true representation, the industry must begin by taking accessibility into consideration, something that seems to currently be a concern, shares Madhavi. “If they cast able-bodied actors, they don’t have to worry about accessibility to locations or steps or bathrooms. They are concerned that casting a disabled person would add to the budget. Perhaps, to solve this issue, the government could give some incentive to hire PwDs in the initial stages.”
While Sai Krishnan and Sathish admit that change is slowly but surely on the rise, the former perfectly summarises the importance of a collaborative effort. “What Madhavi Latha is doing is only the tip of the iceberg. But this should also be recognized by the other side. It would not be possible without their support in the initial phases,” he concludes.