Why Zero Makes Light of Disability: A Disability Activist Writes
Bollywood Producer: Let's make something different this time?
Assistant: Like what, sir?
Producer: Like a love triangle
Assistant: What's new in that, sir?
Producer: Arre! We will take Shahrukh and make him a dwarf and we will take Anushka and give her cerebral palsy (CP).
Assistant: Wow. I got an inspirational orgasm just thinking about it. But sir, hero heroine with a disability — how will that work?
Producer: We will tone down the disabilities. So... Shah Rukh will look and walk like Shah Rukh, have the body proportions of an able bodied person and Anushka, she can sit on a wheelchair and speak just clearly enough so that audiences can understand her while still feeling bad for her. Or we can give her half CP (cerebral palsy). Who cares about CP anyways?
Assistant: Amaze balls sir, 1000 crores sir. 1000 crores!
I had written this social media post when I had first seen the trailer for ‘Zero’. But as I was entering the theatre to watch the movie on Friday, I was hoping that I was wrong. That this might actually be a film where disabled people like me can see a reflection of themselves on the big screen. But of course, my hopes were dashed after just an hour into the film.
We start with Shahrukh Khan’s character Bauua who keeps reminding us after every two minutes that he is a dwarf. And then there is Anushka Sharma, who forgets she has cerebral palsy from time to time. She stammers once at the beginning and then never does it again.
As I had guessed earlier, the intention was not to show someone with CP at all — a leading heroine spitting saliva and often being incomprehensible would not make for a a watchable mainstream film (?)
By the way, if you are wondering how things get started between Anushka and Shahrukh, Anushka’s character is a scientist responsible for discovering water on Mars (yes!) and guess where she goes to find a groom? To the nearby local matchmaker who keeps her photo in his drawer at all times.
Logic is not a revered thing in many of these superstar driven films. But after a point, this film is not even entertaining. And because it’s just not interesting enough, you go back to think about the disabled characters of the film. You start to wonder why filmmakers chose to make the female lead a groundbreaking scientist, and yet, pen her character as one that lacks any form of self respect when it comes to choosing a partner. Does disability make people hopeless about relationships?
The Joke’s On Us
Disability has been often used for comic relief in films. This film is no different. Shahrukh’s character Bauua has made himself the butt of all jokes. Add to that some self deprecating humor and homophobic jokes and the audience has quite a few laughs. In fact, throughout the first half, the audience was into the film. They even offered some pity for Anushka’s character Aafia but her performance is so unconvincing and character so inconsistent that people stop taking an interest in her after a point of time.
As a person with disability, you can’t help but feel a bit humiliated by the buffoonish and dishonest depiction of disability in the film. And despite the entirely unconvincing swagger that the two disabled protagonists possess, the film has nothing new to offer. Finally, a person with disability is ‘matched’ with another person with disability. Even in this badly made film, disabled people are told time and again that they can never have a relationship with an able-bodied person.
What sums 'Zero’ best is the character played by the otherwise impeccable Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays Shahrukh Khan’s sidekick Guddu. His character has some form of visual impairment that has not been explained in the film. Apparently, for the filmmakers, his ‘blindness’ seemed the perfect ingredient to add a ‘comic element’. In a cringeworthy scene, he takes a torch in his hand and tries to get up on an elevated stage and keeps failing because guess what, he is partially blind (so much for championing the cause of disability).
Because that’s what this film is all about. It is supposed to make you laugh at ‘our’ expense. And far away from telling the story and pain of disabled people, it makes a mockery of them for some cheap laughs.
(Abhishek Anicca is a poet and disability rights activist)