In May 2016, it was revealed that Shah Rukh Khan is taking on a major acting challenge. He will be playing a man with dwarfism in film Zero.
Director Anand L Rai had spoken about his collaboration with SRK saying, "He has seen life not just as an actor but also as a person. It's the story of a man who is just three-feet-one-inch tall. Nobody understands ordinariness better than Mr Khan. I'm looking forward to seeing him in the dwarf avatar."
The film has now released, with posters, teasers and trailers already out for about a month. But with each sneak peak, we grew more and more uncomfortable with the idea of Shah Rukh Khan taking up the role he did.
It's 2018. We have learned enough about the importance of representation to know that Shah Rukh Khan playing Bauua Singh is not okay. And we're rattling our brain to figure out why he was cast in this role. Whatever justification we'd try to come up with, we'd have an answer as to why that's as ridiculous as Zero's casting.
Is it because they couldn't find an actor with dwarfism?
Are there no actors with dwarfism that could've taken up the role of Bauua Singh? Were the makers so strapped for an actor they thought "Hey, let's get SRK and CGI him short"?
There are numerous actors in India with dwarfism such as KK Goswami from the classic show Ssh... Koi hai and Dekh Bhai Dekh actor and writer MM Faruqi - also known as Lilliput.
Actors with dwarfism are usually restricted to either pantomimes like Snow White and the seven Dwarves and the way Goswami was in Shaktiman or they are used for comedic relief, the joke usually being that they have dwarfism. We've had an unfortunately recent incident like this with the 2016 Lux Style Awards.
Faruqi has spoken up on many occasions the hardships he felt as an artist with dwarfism in the entertainment industry.
"For the last one year, I have been making the rounds of producers’ offices with two scripts. Some say, ‘Dekhenge, sochenge,’ while others are blunt, ‘Baune uthke chale aate hain director banne," he'd revealed to Mumbai Mirror in 2017.
"Accha, you can do serious roles also, I thought dwarfs were apt for only comedy.”
He added the stereotype is strong, with even top stars of Bollywood - he wouldn't name who - would say "Accha, you can do serious roles also, I thought dwarfs were apt for only comedy.”
Actors like MM Faruqi, who aren't even given fair opportunities behind the camera, are seen as lesser beings.because of their heights. "Every day I feel wasted as an artiste and that’s my biggest regret.”
MM Faruqi has been alienated from the industry and for what?
Rarely does the global entertainment industry get powerful characters for actors with dwarfism. Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage - who in many films has played characters where his dwarfism is not what defines him - is the exception, not the rule and even he's had quite the struggle getting to where he is now.
For Shah Rukh Khan to take on this role is to deepen the stereotype that people with dwarfism have no place within the entertainment industry except as items of ridicule.
Is it because of the star factor?
We get it, we really do. You need a recognisable face to get the audience's attention and a high-profile actor to get the ratings. SRK is both and then some. But did Anand L Rai really need to cast good ol' Shah Rukh as a man with dwarfism to get the hits for Zero?
Let's talk about the rest of the cast. We have Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif as the two leading women of Zero, each with a large following of their own.
The film also boasts cameos of Om Shanti Om level, with Rani Mukerji, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and the late Sri Devi having noticeable screen time, along with Salman Khan who has a song in the flick with Bauua.
Don't know about you but that's ample amount of star power for a movie to have a lead be someone new... and appropriate for the role.
SRK could've made a cameo himself. This roster could have supported a new face in the industry who would've actually been someone to admire for bringing on the representation that is so needed right now.
Was Shah Rukh Khan what the character demanded?
Was Shah Rukh Khan bringing something to the table that no one else was? Were his acting skills so unique for the role that it had to be him?
We saw the trailer. SRK acts like SRK. Mind you, we enjoy the King Khan persona every now and then, but it doesn't set Bauua Singh apart from anything we've seen before.
"He looks short, but nothing like a dwarf. The body structure of a dwarf is nothing like this, the limbs are different."
Also, SRK's body language is all CGI. You know, because they had to make him short? So where is the acting quality in all of this?
Shah Rukh's style is one that can be and has been emulated by thousands. Even Hugh Jackman has claimed to channel his energy for live performances. Had they actually auditioned actors with dwarfism and said, "we need some King Khan style there," they could've easily gotten someone on board.
Was there a huge budget for VFX?
When you become desperate for logic, you might wonder if there was a team that wanted to show off their VFX talent... by shortening someone's height.
Anand L Rai spoke about the VFX in Zero saying, "I am the last person who should have done a film like Zero because it is high on VFX. It has been a horrifying journey for the VFX team. I have survived the journey only because they love me and I have exploited that love."
Well, they did it wrong then, because SRK does not look like a person with dwarfism. The team behind SRK's design just shortened him proportionately. As Lilliput told The Quint when watching the trailer, "He looks short, but nothing like a dwarf. The body structure of a dwarf is nothing like this, the limbs are different."
So not only did they not cast a person with dwarfism, they didn't make Shah Rukh Khan look like a person with dwarfism. Is the body of a person with dwarfism too unappealing for the industry? Also, just an FYI, casting a person with dwarfism as the lead would have greatly reduced the film's budget. You could've gotten another cameo on board.
Did they just not care?
Did Anand L Rai really have a reason to bring a character with dwarfism into the spotlight?
According to the director, "I wanted to celebrate Zero; I wanted to celebrate the incompleteness in people. There is nothing great in being a complete person. There is a beauty to incompleteness. We all are humans and Zero comes from there."
People with dwarfism do not see themselves as incomplete, they are shown that way. As is the case with most disabilities, their scant representation in the media — where they struggle carrying on with their normal lives and being an 'inspiration' to us all — further demeans their disability showing it as a burden to the non-disabled. Late activist Stella Young pointed out at numerous occasions how people with disabilities are viewed as 'objects of inspiration'. The inspiration solely being their disability is exploitative and alienates them from the rest of humanity.
The objectifying of one's disability is never viewed in a positive light for the person but rather another group of people who look at them for their own motivation. Disability should not be seen as an exception from the norm. And guess what? The biggest struggle that disabled people suffer through isn't going along with their daily lives, it's the discrimination they face by the non-disabled. Because people with dwarfism see themselves as people who just have a genetic variant.
While Anand may have said he doesn't want people to sympathise with his characters, his talk on incompleteness implies otherwise. He may have spoken about celebrating the ordinary with Zero but when he didn't cast the very ordinary person he wants to celebrate, it makes us wonder if it's all just a cash grab.
We've had conversations about inclusivity all throughout 2018, and now it is ending with Zero, a film that excludes the very people that its lead is based on.