Humanizing or Objectifying?
The cinematic representation of people with disability becomes an important means through which real life meanings and practices are understood and associated. Themes portrayed and discourses engaged with in the representation of disability play an important role in either empowering PWD or relegating them to the margins further. In the recent times, there has been remarkable development in making the depiction more accurate and including the intersectional divides of various identities- caste, class and other coordinates. It’s important to understand that PWD cannot be grouped together under the same umbrella. The commonality of their shared experience due to their physical disability needs to be portrayed to bring greater focus on their specific needs and experiences. However it’s vital to create these representations with an inclusion of the specificities of individuals- caste, class, specific disability, socio-cultural exposure. This article attempts to analyze the various kinds of cinematic representations by looking at various factors of portrayal in two particular visual texts- 2014 film Margarita with a Straw directed by Shonali Bose and the 2002 film Oasis by Lee Chang-dong.
Margarita with a Straw follows the story of an upper middle class young teenager studying at Delhi University. She lives with cerebral palsy, is a passionate and hardworking student, who refuses to give up and succeeds in getting a scholarship to study at the New York University. After convincing her family to allow her to move to New York, she continues exploring- cultural, society, and her own sexuality. The film is a kind of a bildungsroman with the lead character growing and maturing as the plot moves forward. The film ends with Laila’s mother’s death; who has done everything to support her girl throughout, and Laila coming to terms with her loss gracefully. She gains greater acceptance of herself and her individuality, realizing that one needs to be in love with oneself before loving someone else.
The film is a remarkable portrayal of how when an individual living with any kind of disability finds enough love and support achieves their goals. They also find it easier to explore their individuality and look at themselves as functional individuals- with capabilities, sexual desires, emotional needs etc. However what is missing in the narrative is a focus on how the class identity of a PWD plays the primary role in deciding the kind of support the individual can hope to receive. Without any significant state-support PWD mostly depend on family support for their need fulfillment. Laila coming from a privileged household has some means to understand and utilize her inner potential. She goes to New York where she again finds great support to live independently. There is a glimpse of how western/developed nations pay remarkable attention to form and execute policies that provide State support to People with Disability, who don’t have to rely completely on the whims and background of their families to succeed in life.
In this purview, a much older South Korean film from 2002 titled Oasis depicts the horrid class differences that can make or mar one’s life. The insurmountable barrier of poverty and lack of support from one’s family leaves an individual, especially a PWD, helpless and devoid of hope for a desirable future. The film narrates the interwoven stories of a man released from prison who becomes intrigued with a girl with cerebral palsy. He initially tries to sexually assault her but later the two come to terms and become inseparable. The girl lives alone in a derelict place, left to be cared for by the neighbors while her brother and his family live in a nice apartment that the state has provided for the girl with disability. Due to the lower class that the protagonists come from, the girl is unable to understand or explore her sexuality. She has no one, no support or care to fall back on. She becomes attached to a man who tried to assault her and is not even allowed this respite. The society feels entitled to control her body, according her no voice and taking away her individual agency. When caught making love, the man is accused of raping a disabled girl and is sent to jail while the girl is not even allowed to testify freely. The dank apartment that the girl lives in stands as a symbol for the kind of life PWD are forced to live, with their resources being appropriated and exploited. The film is significant in its portrayal of class differences and the treatment that is conventionally and generally meted out to PWD and social outcasts (the man released from prison is always seen as a criminal even though he wasn’t the actual culprit). It stands out for the portrayal of emotional and sexual intimacy that every individual is capable of, with People with disability being no exception.
The two films analyzed depict different facets of the lives of PWD. These facets are equally important, yet it remains vital to not exclude the various intersections of identity that PWD come from. In the absence of such inclusive representation, the danger of falling into a mode of portrayal that is insulated from the socio-cultural realities and experiences. This goes against the politics of inclusion which advocates against homogenization of identities and calls for an understanding of commonalities of experiences among people while recognizing the differences of experiential reality. It is this principle that cinematic representation should be mindful of for a fair and realistic portrayal of any social group and reality.
Sania advocates for equal gender and human rights, and calls for a free world for all. She has a postgraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Delhi and is currently studying and researching Gender perceptions and manifestations. She is currently interning at kractivist.org