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Sai Paranjpye's Sparsh (1980): Rethinking education for the differently abled

On Teacher’s Day (5 September), we look at a very different film which highlighted the education of the differently abled and the need to understand their needs and abilities.

Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah in a still from Sparsh (1980)

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh (1980) remains one of the few films in Hindi cinema to take an incisive look at the education of blind children, offering a nuanced view of the ways in which the world of the sighted interacts with the differently abled.

Anirudh (Naseeruddin Shah) is the principal of a school for blind children. A self-respecting man, he loathes the idea of anyone seeing his blindness as helplessness. He meets Kavita (Shabana Azmi), a widow who is unable to come out of the grief of her husband’s untimely demise. Anirudh and Kavita meet accidentally and, in time, Kavita is persuaded to engage with the school and give her time to the children — reading stories and teaching them music and other activities.

Through the interaction with the children, Kavita takes her first tentative steps back into society, developing a fondness for Anirudh as well. But he is thrown off balance when Kavita expresses her feelings for him. Befuddled by her choice to sacrifice her ‘normal’ life by loving a blind man, he is unable to reconcile the doubts that well up within him.

The film focuses on the relationship between the two and on the role of society in creating an inclusive environment for the blind. Through the two characters, Sparsh examines a range of issues that emerge while working with the differently abled. 

Anirudh is petrified of taking a favour, of being dependent on anyone, and berates anyone offering to help him, lest he be seen as weak. In one illuminating scene, the two characters debate about seeking the help of outsiders. He sees the interaction as showing the blind children to be dependent upon people with sight, while Kavita sees the engagement as enriching, an experience through which the children can learn new things. This strand is carried throughout the film as the characters resolve their insecurities and face their fears.

Sparsh is markedly different from most films that feature the differently abled in, thankfully, not adopting the high moral ground and preaching about the duties of responsible citizens, as most issue-based films invariably do. Instead, it contemplates the complexity of relationships between those with sight and those without.

Blindness, while very real for Anirudh, is also a metaphor for his inability to see and recognize Kavita’s love for him. In his self-contained universe, he is unable to see that she is struggling through her own emotions and complexes. Quite remarkably, the film shows that while she learns from her experiences at the school, he remains ensconced within his immutable ideas about people. 

While highlighting the difference in the ways of teaching blind children, the film points to the need to understand the children and be sensitive to what they need, instead of imposing traditional methods of teaching. In one scene, Kavita, new to the school, is about to narrate the fable of the lion who gets scared of his own reflection when it is pointed out that the kids will not understand what a reflection is.

Such moments reveal the small but numerous ways in which the sighted remain unaware of the world of these children. Deeply committed to the education and overall development of the children, Anirudh is vexed by the lack of entertaining storybooks for children, as only textbooks are printed in Braille, a fact that most sighted people would miss.

The antics of the children make for some of the more memorable scenes in the film as we see the everyday lives of young ones who are not encumbered by their inability to see but are curious, naughty, uninhibited, competitive, even protesting against boring food by gleefully singing, “Hai re kaisi uljhan, phir se aloo baingan”, just as any other child would!

They engage in a range of activities from theatre and music to making handicrafts. We see them playing various games like tug-of-war, even coming up with inventive ways to play cricket! Those of us who flock to the Blind School Diwali Mela in Delhi for our diya- and candle-shopping during Diwali will recognize the candles and other items that the children proudly make and put up for sale there. In fact, much of the film was shot at the Blind Relief Association in New Delhi and its focus remains the school and its activities.

Shah is exceptional as the upright, unrelenting educationist whose life is dedicated to the betterment of the school and the children, and his performance won him the National award for Best Actor. In his memoir And Then One Day: A Memoir, the actor recounted shooting for the film where his character was modelled on Mr Mittal, headmaster of the Blind Relief Association in New Delhi. “The thought that I would have to act as a sightless person with children who were actually sightless and acting as themselves took me as close to butterflies in the stomach as I have ever been,” he wrote.

He also wrote about his choice to play a blind man differently from the ubiquitous caricature of a blind person in Hindi cinema, “I knew how I was definitely NOT going to play the part — the way it always is in Hindi cinema; eyes fixed in a frontal gaze, stumbling around arms outstretched, bumping into walls, referring to oneself as ‘mai bechaara laachar’ and such nonsense. The script did not require me to do that anyway and Sai, bless her, forbade me from wearing dark glasses....”

Azmi matched Shah’s performance with her quiet resilience and gentleness, a stark contrast to the gruff manner of Anirudh. 

The film won numerous awards, including the National award for Best Feature Film in Hindi in 1980 and remains a landmark for the shades of grey it offers in exploring the world of the blind.