Before Accsex begins, one is warned that it may ‘challenge the assumptions of an able-bodied audience.’ Its opening lays out what those assumptions might be, first through a series of binaries that divide people into neat boxes (‘sexual’, ‘asexual’), and then through a series of qualities that one may expect in a romantic partner (‘intelligent’, ‘sexy’). The second ends in a one-word question – ‘disabled?’
By the time you’re done watching Accsex, this nuanced and sensitive film thoroughly resolves the question – not for the benefit of the audience so much as to reaffirm what the four protagonists say about disability, sexuality and their lives so eloquently through the film.
This is the great thing about Accsex: it is about the protagonists, and their stories. It doesn’t exist for the benefit of the able-bodied audience it directly addresses before it even begins. This is established as soon as the four protagonists: Sonali, Abha, Kanti, and Natasha are introduced.
Our first glimpse of Sonali is at her workplace. She tells us that her parents sent her to Delhi from Amritsar, to study at the National Association for the Blind. “It’s not about other people accepting my disability […] It’s about me understanding it,” she says. She also immediately dismisses the insulting, but still prevalent idea that she is ‘abnormal’ because she is visually impaired.
Then we meet Kanti, who contracted polio as a toddler. She’s shown riding her scooter on the streets of New Delhi, talking about the time she wanted to go to Shirdi. Her father refused to take her. When she asked to go with her mother, she says, he wouldn’t let “two females” go alone. Undeterred, she ultimately takes the trip with her younger brother in tow. On the trip, Kanti balances herself on a horse, despite everyone having told her that she would surely fall off.
Accsex is full of intimate and illuminating moments like these. We move between the four women and their very different stories, and meet them at their workplaces, on the streets, their homes, and at the places they hang out, with and without their families or friends or partners.
We then see Abha, via a series of pictures she is scrolling through on Facebook. When her mother tries to come in, she – sweetly, but firmly – asserts herself, claiming the space she’s sharing with the filmmaker, asking her mother not to open the door lest she disturb the lights they’ve set up in her room. This assertion becomes more significant later in the film, when Abha tells us more of her story.
Natasha is sketching when we come to her. She tells us an anecdote from when she was much younger. A classmate asked her when her ‘disease’ would be cured, and when she would stop being deaf. Natasha says she had to explain that deafness is not a disease and that she would remain deaf forever. “I remember that was very funny for me,” she says, laughing.
Accsex is full of intimate and illuminating moments like these. We move between the four women and their very different stories, and meet them at their workplaces, on the streets, their homes, and at the places they hang out, with and without their families or friends or partners. Through stories about visits to the gynaecologist, son preference, being beaten at school, constant infantilisation by family members, and the taboo around sexuality, collectively they demonstrate what it means to live in the intersection between gender and disability.
Abha calls out the depiction of people with disability as either ‘pitiable’ or ‘superhuman’, leaving no room for them to be simply human. She asks, “What are we applauded for? Just for existing?” Kanti fights to keep studying, and later on, keep working, despite discrimination within the home, by her father, and outside of the home, by people who’re amazed that she has a job.
Natasha talks about expectations of gender-specific behaviour, including covering one’s mouth when one is laughing, and sitting ‘like a lady’. She comes to the conclusion that she’d rather just be than worry about whether she’s acting like a ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Sonali says that when you can’t see, a lot of sense of your appearance is mediated by the reactions of other people. Over time, this becomes body image.
These intersections are explored with confidence, and humour. The filmmaker’s framing and the strength of the stories is such that one always, always sees complex women who are navigating life in their particular context. There is no question of pity or sympathy — the women invite camaraderie, and an admiration that is substantial in nature, not the condescending kind that elevates them on a pedestal because it does not know how else to deal with their disabilities.
These stories are interspersed with mini-stories, illustrated by Natasha, about sex, libido, menstruation, and body image. They do not distract from the four women, but anchor and deepen the themes that emerge in the film.
Some of the most beautiful moments in the film emerge during conversations with the four women about sexuality. Abha, fussed over like a child at family gatherings, knows that men desire her. Kanti desires a partner, but on her own terms. Natasha dresses up for herself, not for other people. Sonali laughs with Yogesh, her college sweetheart, whom she married two years before the film was made.
The end of the film is as strong and memorable as the beginning, showing the four women in all their confidence and beauty, smiling through a poem written and recited by Abha. One is left feeling privileged to know these stories, told through filmmaker Shweta Ghosh‘s empathetic and warm lens, and in the unapologetic voices of its four protagonists.
Featured image credit: PSBT