Monday, December 2, 2013

Polish film Life Is Good, and thoughts on portrayal of disability

I wrote about my trip to Goa for the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) at The Heat And Dust Project. I have discussed this film briefly over there. This is the longer version from my IFFI notes. Hope to write about more films as and when I find time and motivation.

Based on real life stories, Life Is Good - a 2013 film by Polish writer-director Maciej Pieprzyca is about Mateusz, a boy with severe developmental problems that render him unable to move around (except for crawling on the floor), use his hands or, most importantly, talk. Owing mainly to his inability to communicate, he is written off as intellectually retarded, and spends over 25 years locked inside a stubborn body that cannot keep up with his intelligent mind.

The story is narrated by a voiceover speaking for Mateusz, so that we look at his world from inside his mind. We are made privy to thoughts and information that people in his immediate surroundings are completely disconnected from, and consequently share the frustration of trying to convey something simple and banal to a world that has written you off as a vegetable.

The ability to communicate is the Holy Grail of Mateusz’s life. But he is not the only one. Seemingly ‘normal’, healthy people, who appear well-adjusted on the surface, also suffer from an inability or lack of opportunity to express themselves. The film explores these themes from a very unique vantage point.

A striking feature of this film is its ability to evoke very powerful emotions without resorting to manipulative tactics in the way we have seen similar subjects being treated in most mainstream Indian and Hollywood films. There were utterly laughable moments, such as when Mateusz shares with us his ‘rating system for tits’, and some that wrung tears or made me wince. None of those moments are labored. Mateusz goes through emotional highs and lows nearly like anyone else. There are passages where a general gloom starts setting in, and one gets a feeling that nothing good can ever come his way anymore. The easy transition back to routine life or the next 'happy' phase seems to suggest that it is nearly impossible for a human being to remain unhappy for too long, no matter how bleak the proceedings get.

Most importantly, while disability plays a huge role in Mateusz's life, the film isn't just about that - it is about a very interesting person his struggle against a very formidable obstacle.

This is such a departure from the usual portrayals of disability we have seen on screen. In Bollywood at least, every time you see a character with any kind of disability, rest assured you're in for some quality weepy time. Some good examples that come to mind are two of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's much feted products - Khamoshi and Black. I haven't seen Guzaarish*, so can't comment on that. In both the films I have seen, physical handicap is treated as an external feature, a cause of pain and anguish to people around, and an opportunity to create some memorable visuals. Think Nana Patekar hopping about on a beach to indicate some happy news; or Manisha Koirala talking to Salman Khan in sign language although both of them can speak and hear perfectly well; or Rani Mukherjee in every single frame of Black.

The treatment in Black is even more curious, given that the story is narrated in a voice over speaking for Rani Mukherjee, much like Mateusz tells us his story. The voice over in Black however, is only a narrative device, perhaps added as an afterthought. It does nothing to add perspective to the story unfolding on screen. As the omniscient viewer, all we see is the physical world of our characters - people screaming, howling, laughing, crying, or dancing with the sole purpose to fill up every frame with heartbreaking beauty. It helps that beautiful frames are Bhansali's forte, and nobody does it better than him.

Even Gulzaar's much more nuanced Koshish, which tells the story of two hearing impaired people coming together to create a life of love and dignity, rarely peeps below the events in the life of our characters to give us their thoughts. The film is somewhat biographical, following the lives of Haricharan and Aarti as they meet as young adults, fall in love, marry, have children and grow old. It also aims to be something of an inspirational story. Still, would it be any less inspiring if we knew something about our principle characters other than the fact that they cannot talk? Even if it were something as banal as informing us that Hari is a tea addict while Aarti prefers coffee?

I have only mentioned films which I actually like, choosing to completely ignore the more insensitive and cringe-inducing portrayals of physical and mental disability in mainstream cinema. Each of these movies has been among my most cherished list at some point or the other. Each of them has made me cry. After meeting Mateusz however, after getting a peek into his inner world, his opinions, even his less than stellar human qualities, I find myself wishing I knew a bit more about Hari, Aarti, Joseph, Flavy, and Michelle.

* It just occurred to me while writing this: is it odd that SLB has so far made three films about differently abled people, and all of these people are Christian?

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