6 characters who redefined disability in cinema - Raindance

Weak, vulnerable, handicapped… words that are probably most commonly used for describing a person with a disability. As someone who has a disability herself, it’s frustrating when some people automatically think that we are inept and we need constant supervision 24/7. We don’t. Simple as.

Take the controversy behind Me Before You and its representation of disability, for example. Will wants to die just because he can’t cope with being a paraplegic? You might as well just say that every disabled person doesn’t deserve a life. The ideology the film industry has stupidly instilled that a disabled person’s life stops because it’s a burden is ridiculous! But watching a film called Margarita with a Straw was so refreshing because I finally got to see that somebody gets it! We aren’t defined by our disability. So, here’s a few characters who show that there’s more than meets the eye…

1) Laila – Margarita with a Straw

Laila, played by Kalki Koechlin, is a happy-go-lucky teenager who has cerebral palsy and is wheel-chair bound… but she doesn’t care. She is a student at Delhi University and helps with writing lyrics and creating sounds for an indie band. She falls for the lead singer but gets rejected. Heartbroken, she decides to New York University on a scholarship and things only start looking up from there. Laila is perfectly capable of making her own decisions, good or bad. Just like everyone else. Laila is a character who not only breaks the norms of being disabled in a strict traditional Indian society, but embraces her disability as something that makes her… unique.

2) John Merrick – The Elephant Man

Hiding from society from the fear of how he looks. John Merrick, played by John Hurt, has been injected by this idea that his deformity hinders his ability to actually go out and interact with anyone. He isn’t normal. He’s displayed as a ‘freak’ when he’s kidnapped by Mr Bytes. It’s Anthony Hopkins’ character, Frederick Treves, who isn’t afraid of John and helps him. It’s only after Madge Kendal’s tribute to Merrick is when everyone sees that his deformity is nothing to be afraid of and he’s finally accepted by society.

3) Quasimodo – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Similarly to Merrick, Quasimodo is also hidden from society due to his appearance. Voiced by Tom Hulce, he yearns to go out and interact with people despite knowing that he is a ‘monster’. In Disney’s adaptation he is definitely a strong character with the help of Esmeralda, voiced by Demi Moore, who shows him that it’s what is inside that counts. That powerful scene of Quasimodo lifting up Esmeralda in the climax is the exact moment where he is finally seen as a hero… an equal. You can even see Quasi’s relief on his face when he’s hugged and lifted up by the townspeople.

4) Arnie Grape – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

Call me biased, but I really sympathise with Arnie. Played by a very young Leonardo DiCaprio, he does have a mind of his own, granted, but all he really needs is a bit of guidance. That comes in the form of his older brother, Gilbert, portrayed by Johnny Depp. His ‘nobody touches Arnie’ policy does protect him from any scrutiny, but even then, that doesn’t stop Arnie when he unintentially embarrasses his mother and brother by climbing the water tower. I think he is able to change opinion when he forgives Gilbert for hitting him. So clearly that shows, despite his condition, he has the ability to know right from wrong. He can think for himself.

5) Sam Dawson – I am Sam

Now this is a story about strength… not physical strength, but mental strength. Sean Penn plays a single dad with a developmental disability and is bringing up his daughter, Lucy, all on his own. He’s happy… living in his own bubble with her. But that bubble is popped when Lucy’s friends make fun of her for being more intelligent than her father. This makes Sam go to court to prove that he is more than capable of taking care of his own daughter, despite his condition. With the help of high-powered lawyer Rita Harrison, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, he is determined to win his case… but he doesn’t. Even Lucy convinces Sam that he can take care of her when she runs away from her foster home back to him. But as luck would have it, Lucy’s foster family decides not to foster her and Sam is finally able to prove his worth as a father in the last scene where is refereeing a soccer game and Lucy is a player.

6) Ishaan Awasti – Like Stars on Earth

Even I was surprised when this film came out. Bollywood is known for its (unnecessary) singing and dancing, its overdramic acting and strong dialogue delivery. But this film is different. It was… natural. Ishaan Awasti, played by Darsheel Saffrey, is a 8 year old boy and has got dyslexia. His parents are embarrassed of him because of this and always has a go at him for bringing back bad grades and being ‘lazy’. Ishaan’s parents send him to a boarding school to save themselves from humiliation. Which was probably is the best for him since there he meets Nikumbh, played by Aamir Khan, who teaches him more about his condition and shows him that there is nothing to be ashamed of for being dyslexic.

So, what exactly do these characters have in common? Well, for one, they all have determination. They carry on with their lives normally… keyword there. Something that some people seem to miss. These stories give a better understanding of what’s going on in our minds and how we cope with everyday struggles. Do they fall? Yes, but they always get back up again… just like everyone else would. What’s wrong with showing that?