A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Disability and Pedagogy in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black

Richa Chilana

Bhansali’s Black is loosely based on Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life and emerged out of Bhansali’s fascination with the ways and means employed by parents and teachers to reach out to the hearing impaired children-“How do you start the communication? How do you keep it going? What takes other children a year to learn takes ten years for them to absorb” (Ramnarayan, 2005). The film shows how Mitchell’s teacher Debraj Sahai takes her from darkness to light and it concludes with her graduation in arts from a prestigious university. It is narrated by the adult Mitchell; it is thus, a film in which disability occupies the center and the non-disabled people are pushed to the periphery to look at life inside out. The film shows the challenges before a teacher who tries to teach language to the differently abled, the need for innovative, alternative pedagogical approaches and the need to bridge the “politically charged chasm between ‘special help’ and regular teaching” (Berberi, Hamilton and Sutherland, 2008, p.30)

The disability theorists, who espouse the social model, vigorously argue about the difference between impairment and disability. According to the Union for the Physically Impaired against Segregation (UPIAS), impairment is defined as the loss or dysfunction of a limb, organ or function of the body while disability is a disadvantage imposed on one’s impairment by the society. Shelley Tremain points out that the social modellists discuss disability within the purview of Foucault’s juridico-discursive notion of power - a belief that power is imposed from above or by an external authority. But, following Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Tremain (2006) argues that power is about government, not a confrontation between adversaries-“Discipline is the name that Foucault gives to forms of government that are designed to produce a ‘docile’ body that is, one that can be subjected, used, transformed and improved” (p.187). Black begins with the production of this ‘docile’ body. Mitchell is an unruly, wild child who is disciplined by her teacher. The first time her mother sees her eating with a spoon and with a napkin spread over her lap, she is overwhelmed with gratitude for her teacher who has transformed her into a ‘lady’. Before she learns language and before she learns the meaning of words and things, she is to be disciplined to be “subjected, used, transformed and improved.” Black, considers this lesson a prerequisite, the first step in the movement towards knowledge. Although the film shows innovating teaching strategies, it does not qualify this notion of disciplining students, of making them learn without breaking their spirit.

Many disability theorists and teachers have spoken about how impaired hearing/vision/speech leads to many problems in learning, socialisation and intellectual development. The inability to hear and participate in class room lectures can cause immense frustration for the disabled students. Hence, the most crucial goal in teaching the disabled is advancing their language skills (Westwood, 2009).

The film devotes a lot of space and time to the way Debraj Sahai teaches language to Mitchell - a blind, deaf and mute girl and how he gives her shabd ke pankh (wings of words). Whatever she touched/felt / ate had a name and a meaning; he teaches her those names and meanings through signs. We see how she learns the relationship between thorns and pain, water and thirst, but she struggles to fathom the relationship between words and their meanings. This teaching methodology also makes us realize the tremendous challenges faced by language teachers when they have to deal with non tangible/abstract concepts like think/ love. In The Story of my Life, Helen Keller shows how her mentor, Anne Sullivan circumvented this challenge. She vividly describes how she was struggling to string beads of different sizes - two large beads followed by three small ones and so on. She made many mistakes and Sullivan patiently corrected her. She finally understood the mistake she had made and for a while she concentrated on Sullivan’s lesson and tried to think how she should have arranged the beads. It was at that moment that Sullivan touched her forearm and spelled the word, “think”: “In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.”

Sahai, reconfigures and redefines words and worlds for Mitchell - black is, according to him, not the colour of darkness but the colour of celebration and the colour of the graduation robe; disability is not a deficit or an impairment; it is a stage we all will reach if we live long enough. Elizabeth Hamilton talks of how her pedagogy “de-emphasises the behaviourist, rehabilitative, occupational and even technological aspects of blindness in favour of the humanistic” (Berberi, Hamilton & Sutherland, 2008, p. 25). Debraj, in a similar vein, underscores the similarities between the disabled and the able-bodied by speaking of disability as a stage and not a medical condition. The latter half of the film shows how Mitchell uses the same pedagogical approaches to teach Debraj who is in an advanced state of Alzheimer’s. It is a definition which goes beyond the medical, the rehabilitative and the social model of disability.

The film also shows how the word, “special” metonymically symbolises the exclusionary practices of educational institutions. Debraj wanted Mitchell to study in an inclusive classroom. When he approaches the Principal of a prestigious University, he finds the idea of Mitchell studying in his college preposterous. According to Simi Linton, the word “special” is an example of what Freud called “reaction formation”, in which an individual embraces ideas or behaviour which is opposite to their true feelings to protect their ego from the anxiety of their real feelings (Davis, 2006, p. 164). Because of Mitchell’s zest for knowledge and her determination, she finally gets admission to this University. The film depicts the challenges as well as the joys of inclusive teaching. In a lecture, when Mitchell listens to her teacher talk about aspirations and the dreams that we see with our eyes, she vehemently disagrees- “aankhein sapne nahi dekhti, mann sapne dekhta hai. Main aankhon se nahi dekh sakti phir bhi main sapne dekh sakti hoon” (Eyes don’t dream, the heart does. I can’t see but I dream.) This shows how an inclusive approach goes beyond accommodating a disabled student; it also broadens the horizons of our thinking by bringing new perspectives to the classroom.

An analysis of this film and films like this is enabling in terms of the light they throw on the urgent need for innovative and alternative pedagogical techniques for teaching language to the disabled students. It depicts the frustration of not being understood, of not being able to communicate with others and the crucial role that language and communication play in social, intellectual and personal development. More often than not, the disabled is considered the un-teachable. Debraj Sahai chastises ‘special schools’ by arguing how they teach students to make baskets and mats. The film makes a strong plea to dissolve the barriers between us and them, regular schools and special schools and strongly champions the idea of inclusive classrooms. Above all, it shows how teaching a disabled student in a mixed classroom is not an isolated activity; it enlightens the disabled and the able-bodied alike.


Bhansali, Sanjay Leela. (Producer and Director). (2005). Black.

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Sutherland (Eds.) Worlds Apart? Disability and Foreign Language Learning. (pp. 23 -41). Yale University Press.

Harigai, S. (2004). Hearing impairment in school children. In J Suzuki, T. Kobayashi & K. Kogan (Eds.) Hearing impairment: An invisible disability. (pp.154-156). Tokyo: Springer-Verlag.

Keller, Helen. (1903). The Story of My Life. Retrieved April 28, 2014 from http://www. gutenberg.org/files/2397/2397-h/2397-h. htm#link2HCH0006

Linton, Sam. (2006). Reassigning meaning. In Lennard Davis (Ed.) The Disability studies reader. New York and London: Routledge.

MacFadden, B. & Pittman, A. (2008). Effect of minimal hearing loss on children’s ability to multitask in quiet and in noise. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 39(3), 342-351.

Ramnaryan, Gowri. (2005, February 4). A film from the heart. [Review of the film Black]. The Hindu.

Tremain, Shelley. On the government of disability-Foucault, power and the subject of impairment. In Lennard Davis (Ed.) The Disability studies reader. New York and London: Routledge.

Westwood, Peter. (2009). Sensory impairment: hearing and vision. What teachers need to know about students with disabilities. Australia: ACER.

Richa Chilana

Richa Chilana is Assistant Professor at Maitreyi College, University of Delhi and a PhD scholar at Centre for English Studies, JNU, Delhi.