The irony of Zero is that the film, in part, is about a woman with a disability — a scientist who finds water on Mars and sends a man to the planet — and yet, it treats persons with disabilities in the most dehumanising way. In addition to that, it is repeatedly homophobic, and constantly reinforces the idea of formal education being the only indicator of intelligence.
While a part of Zero is about human excellence and aspiration in science, the film also, unwittingly, exposes the failure and lack of imagination for social change. It’s attempt at representation of persons with disabilities isolates rather than includes. It uses their disability to humiliate them and has the audience watch it, sometimes in laughter, sometimes in pity, but rarely in dignity and respect. It represents them by ‘othering’ them.
In the first encounter between Bauua (Shah Rukh Khan), a person of short stature (living with Dwarfism) and Aafia (Anushka Sharma), a scientist who is a wheelchair user, the latter is seen giving a talk at a school. Bauua is roughed up by a student as he is mistaken for a child — and the tone of this scene is that of slapstick humour, not outrage.
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Later on, Aafia tells Bauua, “Tumhari akal tumhari height se bhi kam hai (your intelligence is even lesser than your height)”. The next encounter between them has Aafia dragging herself on the floor to pick up a pen after Bauua challenges her to do so. Afia is credited with finding water on Mars. That her worth is reduced to picking a pen off the floor is testimony to how the dignity of people with disabilities is violated by absurd demands to ‘prove’ their ‘ability’ to do something mundane while erasing their knowledge and diverse ways of thinking and being. The scene culminates in a room full of people who have turned up to hear her speak about her research on Mars, clapping when she picks up the pen!
The film with two lead characters with disability introduces them to each other through the eyes of ableism, making humiliating jokes about each other’s disabilities and ‘settling’ for each other because no one else would see them as ‘human’. There are three persons with disabilities (Aafia, Bauua and Guddu - Bauua’s friend who experiences night blindness) but it is Bauua’s treatment in the film that is the most troubling to me.
The slow stripping of dignity of the central character Bauua and the physical violence he experiences at the hands of the women is excruciating to sit through. The scene where Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif), actor and Bauua’s other love interest, drags him out of her house and violently throws him on the street and the scene with Afia in the zero gravity simulator are two examples of the physical violence. The instances of emotional abuse and humiliation are numerous by family, acquaintances and strangers, and on many occasions directed by Bauua towards himself. The characters perpetrating these instances of violence, somehow, are treated with a sympathetic directorial gaze.
Bauua and Aafia’s story perpetuates the idea that as persons with disabilities, they should not expect much from love. The film seems to believe that Bauua should be grateful that Afia treats him better than others, she doesn’t ‘limit’ him to his stature, and that is all that is possible for a person to disability to expect from a relationship. The snatching of agency and dignity from this man is voyeuristic and reeks of pity and sympathy but not a drop of empathy.
I work with children and young people with disabilities, the disservice that this kind of representation does to thousands and thousands of people with disabilities is significant.
The intention of making a film with lead characters having disabilities is lost in its total lack of research, and feedback from the disability community. My movie watching companions and I wondered how could it be possible that all the people involved in this film missed the gross violation of dignity Zero is?
Was even one person with disability consulted in the making of this film? Two scenes in the film have Aafia sitting on her wheelchair and behind her is a dais with steps — in one of the scenes, the dais in question is her wedding mandap. No thought has been put into whether the spaces the film was shot in were actually wheelchair accessible which is the least a film revolving around a wheelchair using person as one of the main characters can do. What if, instead of Anushka Sharma, the actor had been a wheelchair using person?
My movie watching companions and I wondered how could it be possible that all the people involved in this film missed the gross violation of dignity Zero is?
I was reminded of Maysoon Zayid, a comedian and person having Cerebral Palsy recounting the time she was refused a role of a person with Cerebral Palsy in a play because she would not be able to do the stunts. In her TED talk , Zayid said, “If I can’t do it, neither can the character.”
The laughter of the audience is a harsh reminder that ableism is a nasty pervasive parasite and we are all grossly afflicted. It pains me the harm that this film does to perceptions of disabilities. It not only perpetuates ableism, but also uses disabled characters as a means to provide entertainment to non-disabled people.
I work with children and young people with disabilities, the disservice that this kind of representation does to thousands and thousands of people with disabilities is significant. When we choose to represent people with disabilities, it cannot be with such callousness, without their consultation, without their expertise. Think for a second what this film would be like for a short statured person, a wheelchair using person or a person with night blindness to experience? Now sit with that.
Prathama Raghavan is a mental health and disability support professional working with children, young people and families.