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What Bhansali could learn from The Kings Speech

Bollywood backstage
4 March 2011

When I first watched 'The King's Speech', I felt like dashing off an article on this subject right away. But journalistic principles made me hold my peace for the moment. After all, before writing about something, one must ensure it is topical. Fortunately, the film's spectacular display at the Academy Awards this year, (rounding up the best actor, film, director and original screenplay trophies) means one thing: we can talk about it and deliciously, even compare it to the Hindi film industry.

Bollywood's treatment of people with disabilities can be best described as lame. Blind mothers, deaf sisters and speech-challenged comic characters are mere props for our filmmakers to create convenient situations. This has held true for Hindi movies, down the ages. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has mastered the art of the formulaic magnum opus productions, is another example. Bhansali's films are, ostensibly, tales of quiet desperation, laced with social ostracisation and a generous dose of pathos. This fool-proof formula for extracting audience sympathy flunked with 'Guzaarish', as the treatment and  approach became increasingly predictable and the purpose, apparent. So when quadriplegic Hrithik Roshan idiotically sways his head, trying to shoo away a fly, you feel not pity, but disgust, because its oh-so-transparent what the director is trying to do. It is such a desperate plea for compassion that the director's idiocy seems a more unfortunate disability than the one the actor is enduring.

The magic mantra is: Don't try too hard. Perhaps this is where The King's Speech scores unwittingly over its Bollywood counterparts. The film deals with the handicap of stuttering in a subtle manner, without re-enforcing the social stigma and tastefully portraying the challenges. And a disability that could directly hamper the character's career (a stammering king can hardly be taken seriously) could end up as a Disneyland of clichés, with every scene focusing on the ruler's pitiable state. Yet, the film cleverly focuses more on the character's journey of trying to overcome his impediment and less on how he is perceived by others. So despite the character's faltering speech, you hardly pity him, yet understand the discomfort he goes through. This delicate balance of communicating the irritation but not allowing it to snowball into sympathy is what makes this film a delightful watch.

Unfortunately subtlety is not a virtue our desi filmmakers consider worth assuming. So don't be surprised if in the next Bollywood breakthrough, our limbless hero tries brushing his teeth with his nose. Awww? I think not!

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