By Utpal Borpujari
A documentary film on the life of a disabled person has every chance of becoming a sob story, especially if it is made by a family member. Still Standing surely triumphs on this score. Pankaj Johar, who has just won the Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari Trophy for the best debut director in the international competition section of the 12th Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films (MIFF), never allows the personal to bog down the professional in his film based on his father Rajinder Johar’s life.
Johar senior’s story is inspiring to say the least. He was shot by a colleague soon after joining as a physiotherapist in Lucknow’s King George’s Medical College way back in 1986. Shot twice, he miraculously did not die, but a bullet injury in the spine ensured that he would have to leave a life of a quadriplegic – in other words, completely bedridden for the rest of his life. He could have very easily gone into depression, but instead, after an initial phase of that, he chose to live life. And how!
He started what is known as Family of Disabled (FoD), an NGO that has over the years provided help to thousands of disabled people in Delhi to be self-dependant and live without pity, either self or from others. From his bed, Johar coordinates a team that provides help to disabled people from various strata of society to overcome their physical problems and become self-sufficient and confident to live life.
Johar junior has captured in the film, structured as a simple narrative, his father’s life as he has seen it over the years – how he has fought his own demons and overcome them, how he started his mission to help others and how through his own life, he has inspired many. But while doing so, he has completely eschewed all things personal. It must have been quite a tough task for the son in him, but Pankaj Johar has remained focused on his father’s inspirational role in society throughout the film, refusing to even once let it peek into the family’s travails over the years, especially in the initial years when his father was attacked and he and his sister were small kids.
The film encompasses two parallel narratives actually. One is the life of Rajinder Johar itself – how he fought destiny and turned it into his favour. And the other is how he has played an inspirational role in changing the lives of many others. “Still Standing” starts with the visual of a bed-ridden Johar meeting streams of people. From there, the film moves into Johar’s daily life and also the lives of people like disabled artists Sheila and Imamuddin or roadside tea stall vendor Sabina, who had lost her legs in an accident as a child and has now been helped by Johar to get a better life.
The film is minimalistic in its visual design, and obviously has been made with very limited budget – Pankaj Johar says that he left his job as an accountant to pursue his mission to enter filmmaking with this film – but where it scores is its inspirational tone, which comes clearly from the protagonist. The director’s success comes from the fact that he has only barely let the son come to the fore in the film, letting it become inspirational rather than emotional cinema.
(Published in The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com, 26-02-2012)