AFTER three decades of getting shut, a multiplex made its way into Srinagar’s Sonwar area. The inaugural ceremony closed with the screening of Laal Singh Chaddha, a movie that was to be Bollywood’s messiah for commercial resurrection.
Laal Singh Chaddha is a 2022 Indian film directed by Advait Chandan. The film sets out by introducing the protagonist, a boy named Laal who needs leg braces to walk. He faces ableism– discrimination against disabled people in the favor of able-bodied people– in school, both from the students and the administration. Even as his mother helps him build a resilient outlook on his condition, he continues to face sidelining. The film treats Laal’s disability as a shackle to break out of. Instead of affirming the disabled protagonist’s life and his rights to accessibility, the narrative takes an ‘inspirational’ turn, treating disability as something to be fixed.
Laal is shown to be chased by bullies as a kid. In order to escape them he starts walking fast. Suddenly, he finds himself running as Rupa, his close friend, watches. This ableist narrative is coupled with music that marks this event as one of rising action. The sunlight falls on his face as he finds himself sprinting. The braces he used as a mobility aid are run over by the bicycles of the boys chasing him, a final discardation. Rupa can’t believe her eyes as Laal is ‘fixed.’
Laal tells this story later in his life, and follows up his recollection with, “You won’t believe it, I run faster than the wind.” Not only is a disabled person fixed to match an able-bodied standard, but the expectation is to exceed the standard, to serve as a spectacle of inspiration. The scene is shown as a breakthrough for him, symbolized by him running through sesame fields, saturated with color, like Moses running through the parted Red Sea. Laal says “After that day, I ran everywhere.” There is a horizon of expectation where the disabled boy flies out of his ‘bindings’ and enters a life of possibility. His college coach closes the scene by remarking, “Is that a human or a rocket?” Thereafter, in his adulthood, Laal is shown as expressing his masculinity through races, i.e. through physical and muscular capacity. The film constructs his story such that the rejection he faces due to ableism as a boy is followed up by a recovery arc of masculinisation which culminates in the heterosexual family unit.
Ramaswamy, in her essay, Visualizing India’s geo-body argues that when the nation is constructed as a motherly geo-body, the territory falls under the guardianship of her loyal sons, like all women are in a paternalistic world. Laal steps up into dominant masculinity through joining the army, a masculinist institution. This not only makes him combatant but also heroic, he is shown to rescue his fellow fighters on the battlefield, saving the lives of other men defending the nation. Moreover, Rupa tells Laal he looks handsome in his army uniform. The aesthetic signifier gets attached to him for the first time in the film when he is in the most masculine garb imaginable.
Ableism is an ideology that functions in tandem with capitalism and hence colonialism. This is not to say that there is a linear relationship between them but that the ideas that govern the three are the exact same: the commodification of the human body for capital ends. The nation-state is the colonial manifestation of this ideological triad. Laal instrumentalizes his body for the nation, stepping into dominant masculinity as a result.
Masculinised Indian vs Emasculated Pakistani
Mohammad, a Pakistani commander Laal saves from the Kargil war is constructed in opposition to him. Laal is chivalrous enough to carry the enemy to safety while the latter tries to shoot him in the back, Laal offers Mohammad a kulfi while he throws it away.
Mohammad is brought down from a position of aggressive masculinity to one of a person whose life falls apart after he loses his legs in the war. He is shown with disheveled clothes and hair, drinking from a bottle, self defining as “still a cripple.” While this Muslim enemy-of-the-nation is ‘brought down’ to the level of a meaningless man, Laal is shown to travel around the world as a part of the Indian army, and is even awarded with a medal of valor for saving his comrades. Leaving Mohammad to die would have been too neat a choice in the film. By keeping him alive, he serves as a constant reminder of everything Laal ‘rose’ out of.
Laal remembers the promise he made to his friend Baala on the battlefield and goes to great lengths to fulfill that promise. Mohammad on the other hand becomes a homeless man without any valor to his name. As opposed to Laal being fashioned out of his own intrinsic goodness as well as the support of those around him– his mother, Rupa, co-combatant Baala– Mohammad is shown as a man who is disposable to his community. After settling down in India, he states, “They (Pakistan) disowned the dead, let alone the living… there was no longer any need for us.”
The idea here is that the Indian nation makes moral men and gives back to them, while Pakistan treats its fighters like chattel after reaching ideological ends.
As Mohammad gets a redemption arc through Laal’s business ventures, he thanks Laal for saving him, not only physically but from the fate of those involved in the Taj attack. He asks Lal why he never worships to which he replies, “Religion spreads malaria,” an allusion to violence. The villainization of religion in order to create peace is a typical secular-liberal argument that refuses to engage with the colonial history of secularism itself, pitting a changing, secular self against the rigid, fundamentalist other.
Mohammad says he was brought up with the belief that everyone there was an enemy and a disbeliever. But he met Laal which changed him, that he himself was a victim of “malaria,” another allusion to extremism. Here we see an articulation of what was manifest visually all along. Mohammad says he plans to become someone who saves others from ‘malaria’ through schooling. The conversation of ‘teaching’ them ‘there’ about ‘good friends here’ paints Pakistan as a land full of hateful people who don’t know better than being brainwashed into violent praxis. Mohammad subscribes to the idea that they then require Education about better ways of being from one of them enlightened by a dutiful Indian man. Deepa Srinavas, in her essay on the figure of the Muslim Other in popular culture says that this portrayal has never been free from an underlying anxiety of belonging/ unbelonging to the idea of the nation. The Indian nation and its moral, dutiful citizen, Laal are both constructed through articulating what they aren’t, Pakistan and its violent, barbaric citizens.
Man as Provider
Rupa’s life moves from her father’s abuse due to monetary constraints to a gang member Abbas’ abuse. As Rupa fails to make the life she wants for herself and is victimized by multiple men, Laal steps in to rescue her. He beats up any man who dares to touch Rupa. He shows up whenever she needs him with an uncanny foresight. Later down the line, Laal tells her about his successful endeavors and how she doesn’t have to worry about money anymore. Not for a single moment does the film sit in the possibility that Rupa could provide for herself, not until the very end. Joane Nagel, in theorizing the construction of men in relation to the nation states that women are relegated to symbolic roles while men defend their honor, their homeland and their women. In Laal’s journey as an army official and later as a businessman, Rupa becomes a beneficiary rather than an agential subject.
Rupa’s later separation from Laal due to associations with Abbas, a murdered and gang member, only reinstates their roles with respect to the nation. Laal continues to be a nation wide spectacle of masculinity, this time by running for four years straight. Rupa, as a less threatening yet supportive role to nationalism, testifies against Abbas, the violent Muslim germ in the nation and gets him arrested.
As Laal and Rupa enter the family unit, the one thing Laal asks at the get go is if their kid is smart or ‘like him.’ Any deviation from being able-bodied is seen as a regression. Rupa assures him that the kid is the smartest in his class.
At the tail end of the film, as Rupa lies sick in her deathbed, Laal speaks of how watching the Himalayas glow and witnessing the sunset at Kanyakumari was what took away the fear he felt while in the army. The map of India is affirmed here – from Kashmir to Kanyakumari- a material reality to attach oneself to, to quell fear. Ramaswamy articulates how patriotism requires persuasion and it happens most potently through the map. Rupa’s fears are laid to rest through attaching herself to the map of a monolithic, stable entity of the nation, of an akhand bharat. The complexity of illness, death and separation are flattened through the mythos surrounding India as an absolute entity to look up to.
This film visualizes the inseparability of nationalist and masculinist discourses, in the way they articulate each other. Manliness becomes the rhetoric of the nation in the film, becomes an epic of endurance through running, becomes a singular story of a man. Rupa and Lal’s mother stay static in their roles and never shift from the margins into the center stage. However, the film moves Laal from disabled, subordinate masculinity into an abled, dominant masculinity characterized by muscularity, valor and patriotism. KNO
- by Saadia Peerzada for KNO, she is a student of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University