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“The identity as a man or woman is denied to a person with disability”: Arun Chadha

Sexuality, in itself is a taboo in Indian society. Though its depiction in films has opened up over the years, real people can hardly be seen talking about their own sexual issues. So, when a film maker makes a film on sexuality and disability, an issue that just about no one cares to talk about, with real life subjects, it opens up many a doors. Arun Chadhas film Mindscapes of Love & Longing, recently won the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. caught up with him to find out the motivation behind the film and his experiences through its making.

D.N.I.S.: Your film Mindscapes of Love & Longing has won the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues. How did the idea to tackle a difficult and taboo subject like sexuality and disability occur to you?

Arun Chadha: The idea to make a documentary on the subject of sexuality and disability had germinated about 3 years back. Whenever I watched persons with disabilities participating in family wedding celebrations or watching romantic scenes in T.V. programmes, I found them completely involved and emotionally engaged. This made me think about their desires, fantasies, love and sexual needs.

There are so many problems that persons with disabilities have to face. Many of those issues have often been explored and talked about, such as inclusive education, employment, special facilities in public places and many other issues related with human rights. However there is the core issue of their identity. It is very personal. Many parents do not understand this complex problem and even if they understand they just do not want to show or express it. The identity as a man or woman is denied to a person with disability.

People are generally ignorant about this issue and persons with disabilities do not have many fora to discuss it. A number of N.G.O.s working in the disability sector might be aware of this issue, but they have not been able to give a platform to people with disabilities to voice their need for a sexual identity, probably because they fear an unfavourable response of the society.

Public discourse on sexual aspects of disability remains a taboo in India and in many parts of the world. Three years back, a newspaper report about a girl with intellectual disability fighting for her right to motherhood in a court also made me explore this subject further.

D.N.I.S.: How easy or difficult was it to find people with disabilities who would share their lives on camera?

Arun Chadha: It was not very easy for me to find people who were willing to be part of the film. I needed people from various social and economic strata, who would be able to communicate in front of the camera. Mostly parents of persons with disabilities from the poorer communities were not ready to talk on this subject. For them, there were bigger problems relating to disability of their children than discussing their sexuality. And others, who were willing, had no communication skills. I had met an educated, upper middle class girl affected with cerebral palsy in Mumbai. She was quite willing to be part of the film initially. She was in love with a non-disabled person but was emotionally exploited by him. But both she and her mother were not open to speaking on camera. On the other hand, I also met Sujata Goenka who was quite willing to be a part of the film without any inhibitions.

D.N.I.S.: You have chosen to show the sexual needs of people with disabilities at different stages of life and with different struggles. What made you chose this particular treatment?

Arun Chadha: Yes, the people in my film are living with different disabilities and are from different age groups. The idea behind this treatment was to bring forth the wider perspective on sexuality and to deconstruct the disability and sexuality debate through personal voices and choices they have made as they came to terms with their physical and sexual selves. I wanted to remain a quiet listener and preferred to record only what they wanted to say.

Trisha is like any other young girl who dreams about the glamour world and her mother tries to find a balance between her own desires to protect her and yet support her in her growing up years. The young man affected with cerebral palsy has had crushes and would love to have a wife - but like all young men he tries to weigh the pros and cons of getting married.

For Sujata, her disability is no deterrent to her independence, love and sex. A young couple, both wheelchair users with an inter-religious marriage would like to have a child of their own. Vipul, affected with muscular dystrophy, has married a non-disabled girl and they have a child. A deaf girl, by narrating poems through sign language, not only expresses her own desire for love but also expresses the need for a sexual identity for other participants as well.

The chosen treatment is such that it makes people participate in the characters lives. During the screening of the film it was observed that the audience was laughing at many places, not at the characters but along with them.

D.N.I.S.: Any difficult moments during the making of this film?

Arun Chadha: Our own idea of sexuality is a sensitive one. We all wonder if we are normal, we often have doubts deep within us about how normal we are. So, I thought I should explore the wider view of sexuality - romance, love, feelings for someone, living together, touching each other, wanting to talk to the opposite sex, all these are part of our sexuality.

I was making a film on their lives. So the most difficult part was asking questions, sometimes really sensitive questions. I had to make my schedule according to their convenience. I had to make an effort to create a familiar space and get to know each other. Like Trisha, the young girl with Down Syndrome in the film, started thinking of me as an Uncle since I spent so much time with her and her family.

I spent a lot of time with everyone who was part of my film to make them feel comfortable. They knew that I was making a film on sexuality. My style of asking questions was very conversational - I never asked them any direct question on sexuality and there were no formal question and answer sessions. Whenever I felt that we were touching upon issues that were sensitive and difficult for them to speak about, I switched off the camera and stopped filming. I knew that the film had to be made with whatever they were comfortable in telling me in front of the camera.

D.N.I.S.: What are your hopes from this film as to what it can and should achieve?

Arun Chadha: For people with disabilities, sexuality assumes greater importance as their self-identity is already dominated by disability. Social misconceptions add to the problems faced by people already dealing with serious physical and emotional issues.

The society is ridden with lots of stereotypes and prejudices related with sexuality of persons with disabilities. One common stereotype is that they are just not sexual, which in fact is not true. The other common myth is that people with disabilities who have sexual feelings like everyone else should learn to live with sexual frustration as nobody could possibly want to have sex with someone with a disability.

The intention of the film is to question the social conditioning and assumptions regarding persons with disabilities who are sexually and emotionally as normal as any other human being.

D.N.I.S.: How does one get a copy of the film or if one wants to screen it for an audience working in this field?

Arun Chadha: The film is produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust. Their office is at A-86, Nizamuddin East, New Delhi -110013. One can write to Rajiv Mehrotra who is the Producer and Managing Trustee of the Trust.