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Revathy’s Salaam Venky Seems To Suggest That A Disabled Body Is Inherently Useless. Why?

Salaam Venky. When able-bodied individuals peer into the lives of disabled people, the way they choose to tell that story is often quite appalling.

Trigger Warning: This speaks of persons with disability, their caregivers, and of death, and may be triggering to some readers.

When able-bodied individuals peer into the lives of disabled people, the way they choose to tell that story is often quite appalling. And I speak from the lived experience of being a sister and caregiver to my brother who has a disability.

I watched Salaam Venky last night, where the protagonist has DMD (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a hereditary disorder of progressive muscular weakness, typically in boys).

From the outset, the movie was successful in giving me an idea about the gaze that’s addressing the story. In her review essay on The Whale, body-positivity activist and best-selling author Roxane Gay goes to the extent of saying that the way the movie has been made, gave the impression that the makers hated fat bodies.

I’m not sure if I should say the same about Revathy with reference to Salaam Venky, but one thing I am sure of is that she fails in making her point persuasively.

The movie starts with the scene of a beach and a lighthouse. Shaan’s voice is singing ‘zindagi lambi nahin, badi honi chahiye’ (life should be lived large, even if not long) in the background.

This was an ‘oh, boy!’ moment for me. Sometimes, the very first scene is the window to peek into the director’s mind. ‘Zindagi lambi nahin, badi honi chahiye’. I knew everything was going to revolve around the imminent death from the beginning itself. Since the movie is based on someone’s real life, I do not know how to frame my complaints. I’ll try to be forthright nonetheless.

Living with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy for both the afflicted person and family

Let me first address that the diagnosis of a disease like DMD (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) causes immense emotional damage to both the person living with DMD and their family members.

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Accepting reality doesn’t happen in a day. It often takes several years to finally come to terms with the fact that life’s going to be different. That you’ll have to constantly deal with a world that thrives on perpetuating the idea of a body that’s ‘useful’ and ‘productive’ and that doesn’t require much ‘looking after’. A body that’s less fussy. There will be people, both within the family and outside, who will declare the disabled person worthless, their existence pointless. They will always be an unprofitable investment for them.

There will be unsympathetic doctors who will make them aware of the reality and constantly remind them how small a disabled existence is in their eyes. Then there will be those sympathetic doctors who will ask them every time how old they are, count the years left, and tell them that they should be happy and eat whatever they want to eat. Sounds like a good thing to say to someone, isn’t it? “Be happy and eat everything.” Because you’re gonna die soon anyway! And since you’re gonna die, why waste time asking you about anything but your age?

Can the makers have done things differently? Yes!

The movie has different characters reacting to the disability differently.

There’s the mother, abandoned by her husband, who has to stay away from one of her children only because she couldn’t give up looking after the disabled child. I feel her, I empathize. There’s Venkatesh aka Venky, the disabled child, who has to grapple with the realities of his life and be a braveheart. It breaks my heart, I understand, I empathize. There are supportive doctors, nurses, friends and family members. Actually, everyone except the father appears to be a kind person.

The people who play Venky, first the child actor and then Vishal Jethwa, fail in convincingly portraying a person living with DMD. It makes me ask if they spent sufficient time with DMD patients. The body language just doesn’t feel right. But okay. Every DMD person is different. Maybe, Venky was exactly that way. Since the focus is on him wanting to die by Euthanasia (because he wanted to donate his organs while they were viable), how he lived his life is shown through snapshots towards the end of the movie in the final court scene. So the portrayal is different from the one we see in the movie Fundamentals Of Caring.

Could they have cut down on the melodrama that takes away from a more relatable portrayal? Yes!

They have cast good actors but the acting felt torturous at times. There’s so much melodrama, it becomes boring. That all Venky has to say to people around him is how he will be gone soon, how others will be relieved of the burden, seems unfair.

Chronically ill people do not just talk about death and dying. Their dark sense of humour doesn’t just cater to that. The writers should have used their imagination and come up with better dialogues. The writing falls flat on its face. Every character delivers agonizingly redundant dialogues. The background music, too, sucks. The friendship and its culmination into love between Venky and Nandini has also been fleetingly touched upon. Though it felt good seeing them together.

The ‘gaze’ is of able-bodied people, which is not acceptable

Coming back to the premise of the movie, that is Euthanasia or assisted death. The movie says that Venky is choosing to die because he has a purpose in mind. He wants to be able to donate his organs. If he dies by organ failure, he won’t be able to do so. I have nothing against what Venkatesh wishes to do while he is on his deathbed. However, I do know where the sympathetic gaze of able-bodied people towards such decisions by disabled people comes from. It’s their abhorrence towards disability that makes them believe that it’s absolutely okay if a disabled individual wishes to die.

Ahana Kumra who plays a reporter in the movie is one interesting character. She’s all charged up to tell the story of a disabled person who wants to die and his mother who is standing by his decision to do so. The moment she meets Venkatesh her eyes are all teary and it feels like her body has frozen. She doesn’t move, keeps staring at Venkatesh, giving an impression she may have a breakdown soon. Later in the movie when she comes across the trophies and accolades that Venky has won, she’s amazed and cannot contain her surprise. Her face throughout gives an impression of what an able-bodied person thinks of a disabled existence. She’s amazed that he’s living a ‘normal’ life despite his disability. My brother often gets told by his classmates how inspirational he is. That if he can go to the university regularly, they can too. That’s pretty much all most of them have to say to him. For them, his existence is merely a reminder of how tough life can be.

With our capitalist value system, able-bodied people can’t conceive of the intrinsic dignity of a person with disability

The structural problem that disabled people deal with instills in everyone a certain idea of ‘dignity’. This idea tells the disabled that their dependence on others is undignified. That there’s value attached to doing everything on your own. That there’s value attached to being so independent that you need no one else. That there’s value attached to contributing to production and reproduction. That there’s value attached to adjusting oneself to how the world functions.

The core of the psychological pain a disabled person experiences is this idea that is perpetuated through the robust structures in place. The structures that enable certain bodies and disable the other.

I find myself in agreement with writer and disability rights activist Marta Russel who writes in her book Capitalism And Disability– “Why is it that some people are so quick to join the death-is-the-answer position when it comes to disablement and don’t seem to be able to see disability as a neutral factor in life? Why is disability so charged for them? I can only surmise that these non-disabled people fear disablement so much that they automatically assume that they are doing us a favor by supporting our right to die. But, in a social justice context, if the right to die was an equal opportunity matter and not specifically directed at those with chronic conditions, then the advocates would give healthy twenty-year olds the same right to die too, wouldn’t they?”

Since the movie doesn’t just aspire to tell a story but also has a dialogue with the viewer, I’m compelled to ask why must Venky prove his ‘usefulness’ by donating his organs? Why is a disabled body inherently useless?

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About the Author

Nishi Sharma

A little vain, and profane. Have a master's in Women's and Gender Studies. read more...

3 Posts | 3,782 Views

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