Most Indian moviegoers are familiar with the iconic Shirdi wale Saibaba song where a blind Nirupa Roy miraculously gets her eyesight back. Just like that! (It was perhaps the craziest medical 'miracle' of Hindi films until 1995, when a ridiculously insane 'brain transplant' surgery trumped it.) Blindness, it seems, is Indian filmmakers' most favoured physical impairment. From the time Gandhari vowed to forever cover her eyes out of (?blind) devotion to her blind husband, blind characterisation has become an important part of India's culture and art: Sholay, Bollywood's 'greatest story ever told', had room for a fairly important visually-challenged character (that of AK Hangal) despite Thakur's somber bilateral upper limb handicap; and Amar Akbar Anthony couldn't resist the Nirupa Roy vision miracle despite having already shaken the medical world through its gravity-defying 'triple blood donation' act.
"Blindness, it seems, is Indian filmmakers' most favoured physical impairment."
One of the first Indian movies to have a blind protagonist was the 1929 epic Shiraz. In this historical fiction film, the blind Shiraz is Mumtaz Mahal's gifted brother, and creates the architectural design of the Taj Mahal. The 1964 musical Dosti, the film which launched composers Laxmikant-Pyarelal on the road to melodic immortality, revolved around a touching friendship between two teenage boys, one of them visually-challenged. Ayesha Kapur was unforgettable, and Rani Mukherjee terrific, in the 2005 Black. But before Black exposed Indian audiences to a realistic (and perhaps borrowed) depiction of the intricate realities of being visually impaired, it was Sai Paranjpye's beautiful Sparsh (1979) which did that job for more than three decades. Sparsh is a tender love story between a blind man and a sighted woman, played by the SRK-Kajol of the 80s, Naseer-Shabana. Parallelly, it also throws light on the social and personal challenges of being blind in the India of those times, and the deft handling of these twin plots was generously acknowledged at the Filmfare Awards where it won Best Film, Best Director and Best Dialogue, and at the National Film Awards where Naseeruddin won the Best Actor prize. Sai Paranjpye, interestingly, was the only female 'Best Director' at Filmfare till Zoya Akhtar joined her in 2012.
"In simple (perhaps crude) words, at least 65 lakh people in India are unnecessarily blind."
Talking of beyond the cinema screen, things have surely changed for India's blind since Sparsh, but there is also a lot more work to be done. As per statistics from the central government, around 80% of the blindness in India, which has about 8-15 million blind persons (a wide range, but accurate health statistics for India are always hard to find), is a result of cataract and refractive errors - which are actually treatable conditions. There are other causes too of what is known as 'avoidable blindness', like corneal injuries. In simple (perhaps crude) words, at least 65 lakh people in India are unnecessarily blind. While changing that scenario requires a complex joint approach from policymakers, doctors, public health experts, NGOs and the society, there is one important way in which common citizens can contribute: eye donation. Thousands of people in India are blind because we as a society are still not serious about eye donation (and organ donation in general), that too despite Aishwarya Rai's ardent and gorgeous appeal more than two decades back.
A popular misconception in India is that one compulsorily needs to pledge eyes (or other organs) while alive to be able to 'donate' them after death. According to rules governing organ transplant, even if a deceased person did not make their wishes formally clear during life, their 'next of kin' have the right to authorize organ donation. Ironically, since we don't yet have the culture or infrastructure for a sophisticated voluntary organ donation system, it is much easier to make sure that the organs of those close to us, rather than of us, are donated properly. But this is sticky wicket, for when somebody close passes away we naturally find it difficult to focus on understanding the paperwork etc of the donation process when doctors approach us for it. (It can be problematic especially in eye donation because the eyes/cornea need to be strictly removed within 6 hours of death.) However, when someone from the family or friend circle itself broaches the topic of donation and approaches health personnel, the process becomes much easier and quicker. This being public service, we as citizens must be as much committed to it as the concerned health workers.
"India still lags phenomenally in terms of cornea retrieval."
The importance of that one fairly strong-hearted person close to the deceased who sets the ball rolling cannot be overstated, because India still lags phenomenally in terms of cornea retrieval. According to one statistic, we require around 120,000 donated corneas each year, while only around 45-50 thousand are collected through donations (with just 15-20 thousand usable, since many collected corneas are not medically viable for a variety of reasons). But with a little more public awareness and participation, it won't be hard for us to narrow or even close that gap. It may also help if mainstream movies start dabbling with this topic. While films are primarily for entertainment, it's not hard for a clever scriptwriter to insert an ounce or two of knowledge or 'message' in some corner, something spectacularly exemplified by Abhijat Joshi and Raju Hirani.
The prevalence of avoidable blindness in India and the world is truly a saddening story. It always reminds me of a good friend who is now an expert ophthalmic surgeon. Some years back when I had asked her why she wanted to be an eye surgeon, she had said, "As an ophthalmologist I will be one of the few persons in the world who can help people see again. Imagine what an awesome, satisfying feeling that will be." She was so spot-on. For anyone who has been visually impaired, there is nothing more liberating and powerful than getting back the ability to see. We just need to close our eyes and try doing our routine to realize that.
(This article was previously featured in India Medical Times.)