The Kaabil trailer review: Stop patronising us already, Bollywood

A poster of the movie Kaabil. The picture has a close-up of the actor Hrithik Roshan's face, he has a furrowed brow and each eye has the reflection of a lit candle in it. Below the photo, there is text in upper case that reads, 'Rakesh Roshan's Kaabil. Directed by Sanjay Gupta. Music by Rajesh Roshan.'

We need nuanced, realistic representations of disability in Bollywood. Instead, what we get are highly patronising and highly unlikely tropes that reinforce stigma. 

The Indian film industry has, of late, produced a number of movies that have moved beyond the trope of poor-boy-loves-rich-girl-then-convinces-strict-dad-through-song-and-dance. One of the ways in which Bollywood has done this is by trying its hand at portraying characters with disabilities. The latest offering in this series seems to be Hrithik Roshan’s newest movie, Kaabil, the trailer of which was recently released.

The use of the word ‘kaabil‘ (capable) in the title itself is suspect and reminds me of the recent adoption of ‘divyang’ (divine body) rather than ‘viklang’ (disabled) by the Indian government – a pointless, patronising move that does not actually change anything.

If that wasn’t enough, the cringe-worthy trailer seems to have the sole purpose of proving that blind people are just as kaabil of being Salman Khan as your neighbourhood Chulbul Pandey is.

The trailer begins with a view of Rohan Bhatnagar’s (Hrithik Roshan’s character) impeccable side-profile and the line ‘Aadmi ka khud pe bharosa uski taakat hoti hai’ (A man’s belief in himself is his greatest strength) – setting the stage for some seriously questionable philosophical theory that’s coming up.

After multiple frames stressing the character’s blindness (because what other important personality traits could he have?), we are introduced to Yami Gautam’s character, who is also visually impaired. After he proposes to her, she delivers what is arguably the most mind-blowing line of the trailer – ‘Do negatives positive kaise ho sakte hain?’ (How can two negatives form a positive?). This is closely followed by the gem ‘Andhera andhere ko roshan nahi kar sakta’ (Darkness cannot be lit up by darkness). These pieces of literary brilliance together make for a double whammy that’ll stay with you long after you’ve finished watching the trailer, though probably not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.

Equipped with the archaic idea of disabilities being ‘negatives’, or blind people being unable to provide roshni (light) to someone else’s life, the movie seems to take the saying about love being blind to over-the-top levels. If this wasn’t enough, midway through the trailer, the happy carnival music stops and we’re faced with the message: ‘Blind and beautiful was about to become dark.’ Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. What follows is a confusing series of shouts and bangs, before Hrithik spouts a chilling, confident monologue, and then magically transforms into a Salman Khan-esque figure, taking on and defeating trained gundas and politicians with some super badass Krav Maga moves as his muscles ripple sexily. It doesn’t take a genius to guess how this film is going to end.

While I’m all for the presence of disabled characters in mainstream Bollywood movies, to say that their portrayal has been flawed would be a gross understatement. The earliest popular instance I remember within my lifetime was of the very same Hrithik Roshan playing Rohit, a young man with cognitive disability in Koi…Mil Gaya, accompanied by pretty Preity, a bunch of bubbly kids, and an alien creatively named Jadoo. As expected, at the end of the movie, Rohit not only beats the villains, gets a super-hot bod, and has the beautiful leading lady fall for him – he also becomes non-disabled.

Similarly, Kajol’s blind character in Fanaa regains her eyesight at the end, Ajay Devgn’s character (who has a developmental disability) gets custody of his child in Main Aisa Hi Hoon (an Indian remake of I am Sam), and Shah Rukh Khan’s character (who has Asperger’s Syndrome) is reunited with his wife in My Name is Khan. Exceptions like Margarita with a Straw, which portray the love stories of people with disabilities in a more realistic vein, are few and far between.

Disabled characters in movies are almost always objects of either sympathy or inspiration. What’s more, movies usually end with them having conveniently lost their disabilities along the way. The Kaabil trailer seems to be following this trend. From the very outset, as an audience, we’re pretty sure Rohan Bhatnagar is going to be portrayed as our typical Bollywood hero, leaving broken bones and broken hearts in his wake, his disability having no impact on the final outcome whatsoever.

Okay, maybe the producers of Kaabil needed to cast a big ticket star like Roshan who would draw in audiences, but the fact that people with disabilities rarely have acting parts in Bollywood is immensely problematic. In a world that already reinforces preconceived notions of how disabled people should be treated, movies like Kaabil insist we see the character’s disability through non-disabled people’s writing, direction, camerawork, and acting. This leads to overly dramatic, sympathy-inducing performances with little resemblance to the lives of people who actually live with disability. Meanwhile, actors with disabilities are not given a chance and are discriminated against.

We don’t have to see Rohan Bhatnagar overcoming every single impossible odd that comes his way. Getting revenge for his lover might be plausible, but a regular guy beating up trained henchmen who are running at him from all sides is highly, highly unlikely. We don’t have to paint an overly rosy picture of him transforming from an object of pity to an object of inspiration, thank you very much. He could just be a regular guy living his life.

Most disabled people in India don’t have access to basic rights – very few would live as privileged a life as Rohan seems to, in the trailer. Films need to reflect the institutional violence and social stigma faced by people with disabilities while speaking about their lives.

And above everything, we don’t need the done-to-death condescending screenplay that describes his love story – we need a more honest take on this subject. In an industry where most people with disabilities are not even seen as having sexual or romantic needs, we need more realistic and less patronising portrayals. I’d love to see a lead in Dostana who uses a wheelchair or an aunt who has autism in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, without the crux of the story being their ‘kaabiliyat’.

Featured image credit: FilmKraft Productions