Representation matters. Inclusion matters. Disabled lives matter.

07 Apr,2022

The Oscar audience applauding Best Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur in sign language. Picture: Screengrab from the Oscar award ceremony – Access/ABC

 

 

By Shruti Pushkarna

 

Shruti PushkarnaCODA (Child of Deaf Adults) was named the ‘Best Picture’ at the 94th Academy Awards presented in Los Angeles on March 27, 2022. Equal rights and disability inclusion advocates across the world, reveled at this historic win.

 

Personally, I felt vindicated. As someone who firmly believes in integrating persons with disabilities into the mainstream, I have consistently decried stereotyping, misconstrued portrayals and minimal visibility of the subject and the community in the media.

 

We have seen several Hollywood and Bollywood productions in the past, focused on the subject of disability and social issues around it. What makes CODA worthy of such an esteemed accolade?

 

Unlike its predecessors, the disabled characters in this gripping family drama are played by deaf actors. The central character of the movie is seventeen-year-old Ruby Rossi who is the sole hearing member of a deaf family. She is torn between her desire to pursue her passion of singing and helping her parents and brother with their fishing business. After years of playing the interpreter and the link to the ‘speaking’ world, she finds it hard to prioritise her dreams.

 

The film has several scenes which bring out the unique identity of each family member, through the interactions between parents, children, siblings and the external environment. In an emotional exchange following her choir recital, Ruby’s father feels her vocal cords as she sings exclusively for him, so he can ‘experience’ what others can ‘hear’.

 

Soon after the official announcement, social media platforms were full of admiration for the cast and their outstanding performances. Troy Kotsur became the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for his role of Frank Rossi (Ruby’s father) in the film. Sign language memes and GIFs populated timelines with ensuing threads on accepting differences, accommodating diverse groups and adopting new ways of communication to stop the ‘othering’.

 

There was also a flurry of coverage in the Indian media, especially news items showcasing awe-inspiring stories of successful hearing and speech impaired people. Journalists and critics compared the American production to some of the Indian films that have tackled similar themes. One piece deemed CODA as the ‘spiritual successor’ of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Khamoshi that released in 1996. It’s true that both the movies revolve around a young girl torn between responsibilities towards her deaf family and personal aspirations to pursue music. Yet, the depiction, characterisation and messaging vary in more ways than one.

 

Following the coverage on cinematic representations of deafness and disability, I also recalled the 1972 Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri starrer, Koshish. It’s the story of a deaf-mute couple and their everyday struggles, including the challenges of raising a son. Unlike the Oscar winner, there is little use of sign language on screen and the hearing child ends up giving in to his parent’s desire.

 

None of the Bollywood productions have been brave or open enough to cast disabled actors for an authentic performance. In a way, we have only witnessed an ableist act projected on the big screen. Films like Black, Margarita with a Straw, Paa, Guzaarish et cetera attempted to address the social stigma around different types of disabilities but somehow, ended up propagating a misconceived idea. Exaggerated fictional accounts and over-dramatisation reinforced stereotypes in the minds of audiences.

 

The same is true for some Hollywood portrayals. Disability advocates have criticized the shallow understanding of issues and incorrect depictions in films like Rain Man, The Theory of Everything, My Left Foot and so on.

 

Does the prerequisite to entertain supersede the need to educate and sensitize? Does dressing up the reality make it more palatable and less alienating?

 

More than the credible rendition, what truly sets CODA apart for me, is a critical shift in the approach towards inclusion. Through the movie and ultimately through Ruby’s choice of going off to Berklee College of Music, the onus to include no longer lies only with the deaf. The surrounding able-bodied fishing community takes cues from the Rossi family and finds ways of interacting, socialising and transacting in mutually beneficial ways.

 

 

Shruti Pushkarna is a former journalist who now works as a programmes and media specialist for the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Shruti was part of the founding team of MxMIndia and now writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. She can be reached via Twitter at @shrutipushkarna

 

 

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