Disability, Humour, and Movies


Disability isn’t an empirical reality but is socially or historically constructed. According to Eliot Freidsons’s “Profession of Medicine: A Study of the Sociology of Applied Knowledge” social construction of disability is the idea that society and its institutions have the power to construct disability around social expectations of health. The social model of disability identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) as the main contributory factors in ‘disabling’ people. While physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not have to lead to disability unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.

Historically and cross-culturally, disability has always been regarded as a “lesser form of being” and differently-abled people have been always been targeted in a jocular fashion. Theorists opine on how humour is generated from incongruities, so laughing at anything which is anomalous becomes a means to normalize it. Thus, disability becomes the foreground for humour and mocking people with special needs becomes a medium through which laughter is generated. As for instance, high-budget movies like ‘Humshakals’ and ‘Golmaal 3’ thrive on tasteless humour and lampooning people with disabilities.

The dwarf, the fool or the ‘feeble-minded’ person have been common humorous tropes in our literature, art and cinema since time immemorial. The “madhouses” in Europe or the “freak shows” bear testimony to this. They can be considered to be one of the earliest traces of disability in our culture. This also points us to the fact that disability is a “floating concept” whose meaning can change over the course of time. As for instance, with recent developments in psychology and neurosciences, we have ushered in a world where there is a more nuanced understanding of mental disorders and ailments. Someone like a Raymond Babbitt from ‘Rain Man’ would be a high-earning computer engineer in a reputed tech firm in today’s day and age.

“Ableism” often becomes a way of looking at differently-abled people with contempt or disdain in terms of their social roles and their place in society. There is clearly an ableist portrayal of differently-abled people in our movies. The need of the hour is to accept new collectivities and look at disability as a contextual thing, through a cultural lens, so as to promote inclusivity. It is time that we move away from the portrayal of differently-abled people in terms of extremities (like, “the fool” or “eccentric genius”) or by using humour to normalize their presence in our society. A lot of humour around disability rises from an explicit ableism and is a cultural tool to normalize or homogenize them into “mainstream” society.

In an increasingly utilitarian world, movies like ‘Taare Zameen Par’ which show differently-abled people with prophetic talent basically sends out the message that it is fine for one to be disabled as long as they have a redeeming talent. This just propagates further exclusivity and calls for an urgent rethinking of the portrayal of differently-abled people in our movies. It is time that we start accepting differently-able people for who they are, rather than trying to shoehorn them to “fit in” with the rest of the so-called “normal” society.

– Contributed by Ankita

Picture: While Tom Cruise plays a abrasive and selfish youngster in the movie ‘Rain Man’, Dustin Hoffman does the role of an autistic brother to Cruise.

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