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Vishakha Sen
The film ‘My Left Foot
Vishakha Sen

“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick”

Mental health discourse in the film My Left Foot


In fourth generation world major mental health crisis is occurring with over a billion people suffering from depression, anxiety, eating, and bipolar disorder, intellectual and developmental disability, suicidal tendencies, Schizophrenia, alcohol and drug use disorder. What seems more unfortunate is that people are still unable to understand and respond considerately such issue if symptoms are visible and even after diagnosis. When a mental condition affects body and vital systems of a person, they are vaguely categorized under disability. The response factor of family or person’s circle to deal and help patient overcome such non-communicate illness affects treatment largely. Irish biographical drama My Left Foot 1989 depicts how combined clinical and familial concern can help patient overcome intellectual disability despite lifelong physical disability. This film is based on 1954 autobiography of Christy Brown, who was born with Athetoid cerebral palsy on 5 June 1932 in Dublin, Ireland. With daunting support of his mother Christy is able to write, speak, and paint. This film delineates how controlling challenges of mind can assist in challenge of body, further giving meaning to one’s existence.

Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker won Academy Awards for their role as Christy and mother respectively. After his birth in Dublin, doctors diagnose Christy Brown with severe mental condition of cerebral palsy Athetoid, a neurological disorder which leaves him almost entirely spastic in his limbs. Refusing to live in hospital, Brown's mother becomes determined to raise him at home with other children. As Brown reaches adolescence, doctor and philanthropist Dr Eileen Cole played by Alison Whelan is informed about his case and she begins home visit for his therapy regularly. She brings Christy books and painting materials due to his keen interest in the arts and literature. Soon Christy demonstrates exceptional aesthetic ability. He begins to write using typewriter with the only body part which he had unequivocal control- his left foot.

Mental health issue is usually caused by internal and external environment. Christy also embarks upon such personal struggle to be accepted by his father and society. It also involves a struggle to express his individuality in a community that dismisses him by loathing him as a “cripple”. Despite physical limitations imposed by cerebral palsy, Christy teaches himself to speak and to express himself through painting and writing with the use of his left foot. A blatant misconception of people is that a disable’s crippled body is associated with a crippled mind, and people are not attentive to person’s potential. In On Being Ill 1925, Virginia Woolf characterizes periods of illness as having a time of their own self life, revealing humans’ finiteness and inspiring unprecedented creativity. The modes of narrative like biography, autobiography, film adaption give fully-abled readers a better understanding of differently-abled people’s mental faculties. Michael Foucault has argued that such a mode is double-edged. It construes a powerful speaking subject who is simultaneously subjected to the very institutions which address problems, ranging from healthcare to patient support groups and the normal readers who are unaware about their strength and creativity. Film My left foot represents survivorship. It presents the unconventional building of institutional support at home other than hospital, countering social stigma and handicap of people’s empathy encountered.

Struggle for acceptance midst discrimination

The very first scene introduces the underlining conflict as Christy attempts to put his record on a gramophone with his left foot. The close shot depicts how in five attempts he inserts the music record in the pin of gramophone. Quite similarly people keep trying hard to fix and adjust their life in perfect pin of satisfaction, success, and fulfilment all their life. It hints that life for Christy has not been easy. Jim Sheridan depicts this journey from struggle of an outcast to accomplishment of acceptance in a mentally disabled life. The film narrative moves in technique of flashback as Mary, his nurse during facilitation ceremony at the Church reads Christy’s autobiography with his childhood, his adolescence, his youth and his manhood. Celebrations like Halloween during childhood, his seventeenth birthday during youth mark these stages. And the transition is completed with child’s play when Christy is small, and games like truth dare when he is adolescent. Even as an when Dr Cole comes to visit, she finds him sitting in his room with his head covered by a blanket. His refusal to communicate is mirror imagery of people who refused to understand him, like his father. On the other hand, childishness in this scene is in fact a symptom of a serious bout of depression which later leads to a suicide attempt, a phase of youth full of aggression. The action centres around fixed internal setting bar, neighbourhood, house lobby, Christy’s room. These spaces concentrate the ebb and flow of emotions surrounding Christy, his mother and father. For Christy’s father Paddy, the bar is seclusion from his own home where he escapes from his shortcomings and insecurities about his son. His unchecked family planning puts him in situation of constant domestic financial crisis at home front. His son despite illness learns and overcome from his situation but Paddy as a father figure would never improve.

Contrast between care-giving and casual behaviour

The film applies definite contrast in characters to show difference of perspective towards mental and physical disability. Paddy is hopeless about his son’s physical condition and ignorant about son’s capabilities. His wife is juxtaposed opposite as she has faith in her son that Christy will do wonders. She with minimal available resources of subsistence nurtures needs of each child. Whatever Paddy earns he spends it at the bar, whereas his wife saves each penny for a good cause, “another pound saved Christy” (Pearson 35). Her habit of saving money is a lesson experienced by Christy. His love and respect for his mother thus is profound. An emotional scene highlights the contrasting condition of Christy and his mother. While pregnant mother carries Christy up the staircase to his bed, he crawls down through stairs to save his mother as she falls unconscious due to pain. He kicks his right leg with his left to push his body all the way down to the stairs. He kicks the door hard enough when the neighbours come to help.

The society scorns Christy, despite his rescue effort to save his mother. They call him a moron and “a terrible cross to the poor woman” (Pearson 36) There is hence a contrast in behaviour of society and his family. His family except his father is supportive and positive about Christy but his neighbour who babysits Christy teaches him letters, emphasizing on ‘d’ for ‘dunce’, calling Christy a “poor unfortunate gob shit” (Pearson 43).  Colin Barnes believes that labels like disabled, retard are imposed than chosen (12). It is society that chooses to abhor disable and impose labels like crippled, lame, retarded etc. While kids in his locality read explicit magazines and hide it under Christy’s trolley, his mother is unaware about their deception. He then is taken to church clergy for confession. She tells him about the legend of All Souls’ Night. She tells him to pray for souls in the purgatory. It is in contrast to Father who tells Christy that one can go out of purgatory but he can never come out of Hell. Beneath this teaching he thinks Christy’s condition is nothing better than Hell. Christy insists to light more candles through his voice. She is glad and tells him, “don’t forget Christy if they can’t understand you, god can.” (Brown 47) She saves 28 pounds for Christy’s wheelchair despite financial crunch. Her effort of faith in child increases Christy’s faith in his own self. It is her devotion and determination that facilitates Christy’s development and emergence as an artist.

During Christy’s adolescence he is shown as goalkeeper who bites his opponents. He hits the ball with his left foot and scores a goal. This shows his left foot is strong enough to deal with difficult situations in life. He accepts challenges like a free spirit. His friends cheer and support him. He like any normal youth enjoys courtship. During truth-dare game, a girl kisses him and assures, “Sure you are the nicest of the lot”. (Pearson 68) He makes a painting for the girl expressing his love but she is forced to refuse.

At times it is observed that parents keep their mentally ill child isolated from nearby surrounding. This isolation further breed sense of discomfort, fear in the child. He is unable to trust or understand the outside world. In return the society is unable to volunteer, witness and understand his condition. In the film, major part of childhood stage depicts the children’s play in the locality. It suggests the more one keeps ill child among other children, the more confidence he gains to feel normal about himself. While Paddy considers twenty percent of a quarter is a stupid question, it is the first time that Christy uses chalk and writes the answer one-fourth on the slate. Though his father thinks Christy does not know the answer and calls the writing on floor just “an old squiggle.” (Pearson 45) Paddy thinks of Christy nothing more than a cripple. Paddy’s mind which is crippled unable to see ability of Christy and look beyond his physical disability. Such false assumption is harmful both for parents and the child.

Parallelism and interdisciplinarity

With mental illness studies established in first worlds, it became imperative to open discourse on illness, disability from multiple viewpoints of social criticism like Marxism, phenomenological theories of postmodernism, post structuralism, like Carol Thomas 1999 assimilated disability within a framework of feminist materialism. The film also employs such parallelism, by backdrop of Ireland during 1950s and its repercussion on Brown family through coal stealing, only meal of porridge, lack of electricity which hinders Christy to paint. 1950s marked as lost decade is characterized by high unemployment, poor economy and mass emigration from countryside to cities. (Keogh 23) The neighbours hail Christy for unlocking coal truck and collect the scattered coal in their baby prams. The black colour is significant of their failed hopes and poverty. Such instances make Christy an unusual hero. The film also refers to another flawed hero, Shakespeare’s Hamlet gifted by Dr Cole. Christy identifies with Hamlet’s dilemma, “to be or not to be”. (Shakespeare 63) When he describes Hamlet as “a cripple who can’t act” (Pearson 92) he conceals his own love for the doctor. Adjacent of Hamlet’s procrastination, Christy feels optimistic and hopeful about his ability to paint and presents it in his exhibition. The inability to express relegates patients to the fringes of periphery. Christy breaks this tradition with his expression in paintings and writing.

The concept of Hell and faith is recurrent to suggest that outside worlds’ definition about Christy’s health was that of Hell. Instances like priest’s comment, his brother refers to last candle of Christy’s seventeenth birthday cake as “the bleedin’ fire of hell”, the painting of Hell in his book define depth of suffering and pain at one hand and height of purging one’s self towards knowledge on the other.

The film narrative places symbolism at turning points of Christy’s life to establish a linkage. The tin can in which his mother keeps money and hides it in ashes is for Christy’s wheelchair. Though Paddy is angry about this secret, the can is symbolic of phoenix, the bird which rises from its ashes. Christy experiences a kind of rebirth with new wheelchair and counselling. Coal from truck gives a backdrop of Irish’s economic condition during 1950s. Christy’s drawing of the letter A and “m-o-t-h-e-r” proves his mother’s faith on Christy’s mental prowess. Eventually Paddy’s dismissive nature gives way to acceptance. He carries him to the bar, his social circle and proudly tells his fellows that his retarded son can write. Dr. Cole through occupational therapy not only gains physical control over his facial and pulmonary muscles but also to get control over his emotions. Christy benefits immensely under his tutelage.

The contentment of constructing a room for Christy strengthens the climax of his adulthood. Father’s efforts to raise wall is aided by mother’s force to create a creative seclusion, “(she) was slowly, patiently pulling down the wall, brick by brick, that seemed to thrust itself between me and the other children...."(Brown 56) Similarly the way mental illness is used in the narrative of the film is determined by the state of the society and the reflection of political and economic factors which are prevalent at a specific time in the history of the culture and society. Society’s attitude toward the subject is to examine the history of the interaction between disabilities and film (Norden 1994). While analyzing disability and cinema, Morris explains “disability in film has become a metaphor for the message that the non-disabled writer wishes to get across in the same way that beauty is used. In doing this, movie makers draw on the prejudice, ignorance and fear that generally exist towards disabled people, knowing that to portray a character with humped back, with a missing leg, with facial scars, will evoke certain feelings with the audience. Unfortunately, the more disability is used as a metaphor for evil or just to induce a sense of unease, the more the cultural stereotype is confirmed.” (300) Daniel Day Lewis in 1989 felt it was a powerful narrative to act on, "I saw it as more than a rather grim story of a man in a wheelchair. Christy represented for me a real kind of heroism and I really wanted to try to capture the rage and frustration that led him to paint and write. To show, I suppose, that the trap is not the wheelchair or the afflictions, but our attitude to disabled people." (Lewis 1) Relationships are central to Christy’s story as he moves from a position of isolation and dependence to one of self-expression and independence. As Christy grows older his emotional needs extend beyond the formative relationship with his parents. The flashback leads to final scene where Christy as an emotionally independent, and socially accomplished person relaxing on hilltop viewing Dublin. Hope deferred makes Christy sick and impatient but gradually when he obtains his goal of expressing his inner self, it is reviving to his soul.

Overview of efforts in India for differently-abled: an email interview with PYSSUM

Many postmodern films are giving new meaning to mental illness and disability discourse. Indian film Choo lenge Akash ‘We will touch the sky’ 2001 is about courageous Sonu, a polio handicap who climbs a mountain when is encouraged by an old man that mountains are meant to be crossed. Austrian film Das pferd auf dem balkonA Horse on the Balcony’ 2012 deals with a boy Mika suffers from Asperger's and finds it difficult to communicate and make friends. One day he sees a real horse of a doctor who is a broke. Mika soon befriends the horse and rescues it from ruthless creditors.

Rehabilitation council of India has handful of regular and distance mode courses on visual, hearing impairment, mental retardation, learning disability, locomotor cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder and rehabilitation therapy. In India hardly any youth opts for this career and is oblivious about. There is lack of course in the field of rehabilitation engineering and technology. PYSSUM (Paramahansa Yogananda Society for Special Unfolding and Moulding), a selfless effort of some of his disciples, began its activities on 24th July 2005, with the PCDC (PYSSUM Child Development Centre), dedicated to the sole purpose of helping children with special needs in a class room setting with two children. PYSSUM has grown into an organization with its efforts beyond Day Caring into Public Awareness about Disability, Creating Support Systems for Parents of special need people, mental disorder counselling, through PYSSUM Research & Training Centre with the technical support of Centre for Development & Disability, New Mexico University, USA, ECHO Project.


Here is an interview with PYYSUM Secretary Dr Naval Pant via email on 23rd June, 2017:-

1. What are basic goals of PYSSUM aims to achieve?

Ans. PYSSUM aims to achieve the same goals as any other quality organisation, the education, training and rehabilitation of people with intellectual disabilities in the main stream society by using evidence based on spiritual tools given in the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda along with other scientific methods recommended by special educational researches.

Most of our special need children and adults display amazing confidence as they get the exposure of an environment that gives them immense opportunities to display their abilities.

2. Does PYSSUM conducts interactive programs to help adults with illness?

Ans. It is the society that must become more inclusive and accepting. The purpose of all our workshops and festivals is to bring awareness to the people about the skills, the talents and the abilities of intellectually challenged individuals. This awareness is equally important to the parents and families of special need individuals. More people know and see the truth about them, more inclusive and accepting the society will become.

3. On visiting rehabilitation council of India website it has been found that there are no courses under Rehabilitation Engineering/Technology. Indian youth engross themselves in major career engineering /medical/ law/ banking. Despite job criteria for disabled, do you think Indian higher education bureaucrats lack this foresight or approach in opening more career avenues/ classroom curriculum to inculcate basic understanding mental illness, disability and create a network of edu-medical-rehab institutions and channelize skilled professional of these fields towards holistic disability action and support?

Ans. Actually the exposure of the disability sector should come into picture at school level itself, however our schools, private or semi-govt, lack interest and willingness to bring in the special need individuals into main stream. They don't invest in improving the infrastructure conducive to the enable the learning of special need children or adults. If the main stream schools open their gates for these children, they would be visible and main stream children would understand the issues related to their existence.

PYSSUM has been organising the Festival of Joy (Anand Utsav) to bring intellectually challenged individuals on a single platform and we invite the school children from the main streams to become the cheering audience. We are proud to observe that many of these children later on opted to work in the intellectual disability sector.

4. PYSSUM has recently got technical support from ECHO Project and Centre for Development and Disability of School of Medicine, New Mexico University. How crucial is such technical support for PYSSUM? Have any Indian Govt./Ngo/social organizations collaborated with PYSSUM?

Ans. PYSSUM was introduced to the Centre for Development and Disability (CDD) and the Envision New Mexico (ENM) through ECHO Project in the year 2006, at a time when we were desperately looking for help regarding Autism as we had no know-how about this neurological conditioning found in some individuals. Ever since, experts CDD and ENM worked tirelessly to train not only PYSSUM educators but also other teachers from special schools in Lucknow using tele-health model. It began with teleconference initially, gradually switching over to video conference once we developed our broadband facilities.

Gradually this project expanded to Chandigarh, Delhi and Mumbai. It has the potential to reach pan India, but India still needs to improve its broadband infrastructure. We tried to connect with Govt of India through Rehabilitation Council of India and National Trust, however it seems we were not ready then. We do believe the way situation is changing under the new regime; the disability sector will seek benefit from this mode of knowledge expansion. 

5. What is the response of training courses conducted by PYSSUM? Also has establishment of Divyangjan helped in spreading awareness to parents and communities about scholarship/facilities disabled children only 9 national institutes and has failed to recognize institutes like PYSSUM?

Ans. Any kind of effort in this direction will help. Establishing the ministry would help but it needs lot of work and support at ground level. PYSSUM is working selflessly for people and is not seeking any recognition. We do not want to waste our energies. Govt must be having some criterion for listing the institutes however there are lot of organisations working selflessly. The society can be benefited immensely if they are supported unconditionally without bureaucratic or networking system.

6. Divyangjan mentions only two financial/technological enterprises The National Handicapped Finance and Development Corporation (NHFDC) and Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India, popularly known as ALIMCO. Is it not scarce in context of whole India?

Ans. Yes, it is not enough. Actually in India disability sector is not yet fully organised and active. There are lot of people working on their own with limited means. Once the actual data base is ready and there is strong political and bureaucratic will, the sector needs help and support of the government and corporate institutions to bring concrete changes in our society. CSR is a great effort but needs to reach the working ground.


This interview is significant in bringing out the existence of many independent social services working on mental emotional disorders, disability, available in India. Such discourse aims at reception of people towards illness of any kind, physical or mental or a combination of both, which demands more admissions to pursue clinical, rehabilitation and psychological courses on disability. More than the patients, it is the people who need awareness education about their condition. Miller and Gwynne consider that unacceptability leads to disable’s social death, requesting for an “enlightened guardianship”. (123) Social media, television and film are mediums to involve not patients, but society. They should spread message of awareness, struggle, medical and psychological solution and positive stories. The macro ideology of society requires amends to be supportive towards mentally disturbed, disable individuals. Office, public and personal spaces should facilitate communication and information platforms to help in proliferation of facts, clear misconception and doubts about mental illness. There are only 364 worldwide websites on disability and lesser for mental health. Psychological counselling of all children at young age in schools and institutions about mental disorders, disability and ethics to deal with it is necessary. Thus as Paul Longmore analyses that "because disease and disability seem so self-evidently matters of biology, rather than sociology or public policy, the disadvantaging social and economic consequences endured by sick or disabled individuals are perceived as 'natural,' the inevitable social outcomes of biological 'facts'” (134). Such pathological presumption by society needs to be inverted by artefacts like film which provide linguistic voice to historically erased and culturally vexed people.

Works cited:

Barnes, Colin. “Disability Studies: what’s the point?” Notes for a verbal presentation at the Disability Studies: Theory, Policy and Practice Conference. University of Lancaster, 4 September 2003.

Cumberland, G, R. Negrine. Images of Disability on Television. Routledge, 1992.

Keogh, Dermot, Finbarr O’ Shea, Carmel Quinlan. The lost decade: Ireland in the 1950s. Mercier, 2004.

Lewis, Daniel Day. Arena Magazine. Summer/Autumn, 1989.

Longmore, Paul K. "Conspicuous Contribution and American Cultural Dilemmas: Telethon Rituals of Cleansing and Renewal." Discourses of Disability: The Body and Physical Difference in the Humanities. Eds. Mitchell and Snyder. Michigan UP, 1997.

Miller E. J. and G. V Gwynne. A Life Apart. Tavistock, 1972.

Morris, Jenny. Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability, Celebrating the Difference. The Women’s Press, 1991.

Pearson, N. Prod. My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown [Motion picture]. Dir. J. Sheridan. Miramax Films, 1989.

Saini, Virendra, director. Choo Lenge Akash. Children’s Film Scoiety of India, 2001, Accessed 16 June 2017.

Sharma, Dorody. “Why Does Mainstream Indian Discourse On Digital Inclusion Leave Out Disability?” The wire, 9 May 2017, Accessed 14 June 2017.

Tabak, Hüseyin, director. Das Pferd auf dem Balkon. MINI Film, 2012, Accessed 16 June 2017.

Thomas, C. Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability. Open University Press, 1999.

Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Hogarth Press, 1930.


Issue 81 (Sep-Oct 2018)

  • Editorial
    • Kainat Azhar: Editor’s Intro
  • Poems
    • Amanda Basaiawmoit: An open letter to parents
    • Aseem Sundan: Drowning In Shadows
    • Ayushi Khemka: 9 AM Lamotrigine
    • Harnidh Kaur: In which little gods discover puberty
    • Jyotirmoy Sil: The Last Soliloquy of a Poet before Lunacy
    • Khushbakht Memon: Trigger
    • Mandvi Mishra: Mental Health in Today’s World
    • Riya Dogra: Curate
    • Sarba Roy: Doctor Vs Patient
    • Scherezade Siobhan: Radius
    • Sidra Amin: Untitled
    • Sivakami Velliangiri: Symptomatic
    • Tehreem Hassan: If Insanity were a Poem
    • Yogesh: I Guess
  • Fiction
    • Abhyuday Gupta: Field Notes
    • Dimple: Depression
    • Jyoti Verma: Deliberations of a Disease
    • Priyanka Das: An Abated Mass of Flesh
  • Reviews
    • Saroja Ganapathy: Shanta Gokhale’s ‘Rita Welinkar
    • Sushumna Kannan: Kate Millet’s ‘The Loony Bin-Trip
    • Vishakha Sen: The film ‘My Left Foot