Children of a special god

Inwardly ravaged physically challenged and specially-abled characters have always found a niche for themselves in Bollywood, which have not only been praised by audiences but have received accolades

Sridevi in Sadma
Sridevi in Sadma

Subhash K Jha

What’s it about inwardly ravaged physically challenged characters that makes them awards-worthy? Here’s looking at 12 actors who have played specially-abled characters.

1. Rajesh Khanna in Khamoshi: After a breakup, Rajesh Khanna comes to a mental asylum to be cured by nurse Waheeda Rehman who has the hots for him. The performance was remarkably controlled…no hysterical laughter, no nervous twitches or pointed giggles... it was all amazingly smooth-sailing. Salman Khan played the same role in the recent Kyun Ki…quite effectively.

2. Smita Patil in Arth/Bipasha Basu in Madhosh: Hiccuping hysterically, wheezing in anguished nervousness , screaming as she falls dangerously into dementia, Smita was a sight in Arth! Years later, in a strange adaptation of Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind called Madhosh, Russel Crowe’s character underwent a sex change. He was transformed into Bipasha Basu! And she pulled out all plugs to deliver a rousing performance as a woman who ‘sees’ her imagined lover John Abraham. Schizophrenia in kitsch form…Bipasha also played a traumatised woman in Saurabh Shukla’s Chehra.

3. Raakhee in Dacait: As a woman who suffers a complete nervous breakdown after she’s incessantly tortured by villains, Raakhee was scarily real in this brilliant Rahul Rawail film. The fear and, later, the void in the actress’ eyes were palpable.

4. Salman Khan in Tere Naam: You could doubt the medical authenticity of this cock-and-bull story. But the angst in Khan’s eyes as he lapsed in a dungeon-styled dementia (chains on his hands and feet) and the pain of unrequited love stayed with you. A truly bravura performance, it deserved a lot more recognition.

5. Farida Jalal in Bobby: It was an underrated gem of a performance. As an adult with an under-developed IQ, desperate to latch on to anyone who would marry her, Farida was poignant and cruelly funny.

6. Ayesha Kapoor in Black: It was just chilling. Though she wasn’t mentally challenged, her acute isolation caused by her deafness and muteness made little Ayesha’s character a portrait of volatile dysfunctionalism. The little girl gave what can comfortably be called the best performance by a child.

7. Kamal Haasan in Abhay: If you haven’t seen the Tamilian maverick play the psycho in this psychedelic thriller, you haven’t really watched an actor go over the edge without going over-the-top. Kamal Haasan walked that thin dread line without losing hold of the character’s heart-ripping roots.

8. Sridevi in Sadma: As the child woman suffering from amnesia, Sridevi pouted, preened and pirouetted without looking monstrously hammy. Her performance was cute, endearing, heartwarming and utterly authentic.

9. Konkona Sen Sharma in 15 Park Avenue: If Sridevi in Sadma was cute, Konkona is acute. As a girl slipping and sliding into total mental collapse, Konkona comes into her own. Her understanding of the nature of schizophrenia is so acute, you wonder if she’s ‘acting’ for a camera or assuming a personality disorder that comes from within her. This is one split personality that doesn’t have you in splits. The portrait of schizophrenia raises harrowing recollections of Smita in Arth.

10. Sanjeev Kumar in Khilona: In this bizarre melodrama about a kothewali’s (Mumtaz’s) efforts to wean a “paagal” (that’s how mentally disturbed souls were known in our past movies) away from insanity, Sanjeev Kumar gave a broad but clenched performance. In scenes where he was locked in a room, he behaved like King Kong on steroids threatening to break the window grill and leap at his lady love.

11. Priyanka Chopra in Barfi: As the autistic Jhilmil in Anurag Basu’s gentle and joyful new film, Priyanka Chopra brings to her role the kind of elegant edginess that very few actors in India have managed while playing psychologically special human beings. Priyanka strips her persona of all glamorous vanity and outstrips even Ranbir Kapoor who is outstanding in his right, thereby proving herself once again the best actress in the post-Sridevi generation.

And how can we forget Rani Mukherjee in Sanjay Bhansali’s Black? Again psychologically normal, her anguished realisation of a blackened existence was lanced by pain passion and a hunger to excel…and a fierce determination to fight a world that has no patience with special people.

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