Supreme Court provides a framework for portraying PwDs (persons with disabilities) in visual media

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While hearing the Nipun Malhotra vs. Sony Pictures Films India Private Limited & Ors. case on July 08, 2024, the Supreme Court (SC) bench constituting Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and Justice JB Pardiwala provided a framework for portraying PwDs (persons with disabilities) in visual media. The bench said, “This Court is cognisant of the impact of stereotypes on discrimination and the enjoyment of fundamental rights.” The top court, in its judgment, highlighted the concept of Disability Humor vs. Disabling Humor. It said, “...historical use of humor to mock disability, make jokes at the expense of persons with disabilities and to use them for comic relief. Also, the medical model treats disability as a personal ‘tragedy’ which is by definition, incompatible with humor. This understanding is now obsolete under the social model which views disability as a function of social barriers that disable such individuals.97 The social model says that stereotypes stem from a lack of familiarity with disability. This lack arises due to inadequate representation and participation of persons with disabilities in dominant discourse.” The bench added, “We must, therefore, distinguish ‘disabling humor’ that demeans and disparages persons with disability from ‘disability humor’ which challenges conventional wisdom about disability. While disability humor attempts to better understand and explain disability, disabling humor denigrates it.”

In this case, the appellant (Nipun Malhotra) is the founder of an organization that promotes awareness about disabilities, conducts policy research, and provides education to underprivileged children. He is a person with arthrogryposis and is aggrieved by how persons with disabilities have been portrayed in the movie titled ‘Aankh Micholi’. The appellant addressed a legal notice to the first respondent, Sony Pictures, raising objections to the trailer of their film. He was particularly aggrieved by the introduction of some of the characters of the film, who were portrayed to suffer from physical impairments. On October 17, 2023, Sony Pictures replied to the notice stating, “The movie was released on 3 November 2023 with ‘U’ certification from the Central Board of Film Certification.” Nipun Malhotra claimed that the film violates the constitutionally protected rights of persons with disabilities; and the provisions of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016. He also contended that the Central Board of Film Certification violated its statutory duty to certify films following the applicable guidelines. 

Following, the appellant highlighted instances in the trailer, as well as the film where certain medical conditions have been misrepresented and derogatory terms, have been used for characters who are PwDs. The Delhi High Court noted that the appellant had not disputed the explanation offered by the first respondent that the overall message of the film was around overcoming the disability and dwelt on the strength of the characters suffering from disabilities. It added, “The primary challenge that the film is offensive to the sensibilities of persons with disabilities, is thus not established.” Underlining that the film was granted certification for unrestricted public exhibition by CBFC, the HC held that the reliefs sought by the appellant were non-maintainable. The matter was therefore mentioned before the top court. While hearing the matter, the SC bench observed, “The certification in the present case implies that the Board found that the overall message of the film was in accordance with the guidelines and the RPwD Act. Therefore are not inclined to interfere with this finding by recommending beeping out parts of the film, especially considering the inclusion of a disclaimer in the film.” Moreover, the SC said, “Since the issue involves the fundamental rights of persons with disabilities, we take this opportunity to provide a framework of the portrayal of persons with disabilities in visual media that aligns with the anti-discrimination and dignity-affirming objectives of the Constitution as well as the RPwD Act.” Some of the points to consider while portraying PwDs include:

  • “...Terms such as ‘cripple’ and ‘spastic’ have come to acquire devalued meanings in societal perceptions about persons with disabilities. They contribute to the negative self-image and perpetuate discriminatory attitudes and practices in society.”
  • “Language that individualizes the impairment and overlooks the disabling social barriers (e.g. terms such as ‘afflicted’, ‘suffering’, and ‘victim’) should be avoided or adequately flagged as contrary to the social model.”
  • “Creators must check for accurate representation of a medical condition as much as possible…”
  • “Persons with disabilities are under-represented. Average people are unaware of the barriers persons with disabilities face. Visual media must reflect their lived experiences…”
  • “Visual media should strive to depict the diverse realities of persons with disabilities, showcasing not only their challenges but also their successes, talents, and contributions to society…”
  • “They should neither be lampooned based on myths (such as, ‘blind people bump into objects in their path’) nor presented as ‘super cripples’ on the other extreme…”

Therefore, the SC bench disposed of the appeal stating “There shall be no order as to costs."