Screen syndrome

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By The hero with a debilitating condition may not be entirely convincing. But the city welcomes him in any case SAMHITA CHAKRABORTY LAHIRI
  • Published 7.03.10

Rizvan Khan is afraid of new people and new places. He can’t stand loud noises or the colour yellow. He does his tasks by the clock and does not understand most of what people say or do. He can’t cry. Rizvan has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, and is the hero of My Name Is Khan (MNIK). His biggest USP? He is played by Shah Rukh Khan.

Having lost his stepson to a racial attack for bearing the name Khan in the aftermath of 9/11, Rizvan sets out on a seemingly impossible journey to meet the American President and tell him: “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist”.

When Rizvan finally meets the President — of course since it’s a Hindi film the President comes to meet Rizvan — you get all misty-eyed.

Made with Rs 55 crore, the film collected Rs 150 crore in the first week in India and abroad, say initial reports.

In these troubled times, when “twitter” reminds you more of cows on planes than birds in the woods, and “wave” has more to do with social networking than with the seaside, the Hindi film hero needs some more ammo to pack in his punch. He must have a debilitating condition, rare and incurable, and preferably unpronounceable.

Novelty factor

In Paa, the 12-year-old schoolkid Auro suffers from progeria, a severe genetic condition where the body ages must faster than is normal. It is an extremely rare condition that affects one per eight million live births. In India, there is just one known instance — a family from Bihar now based in Calcutta with five children who suffered from progeria. Four of the kids have died. Ekramul, the fourth child, was supposed to meet Amitabh Bachchan after the release of Paa, but died before he could. He was 23.

In Paa, Amitabh’s handsome face is hidden behind layers of make-up, the commanding height shrunk with some superb cinematography and the rich baritone replaced with a raspy whisper. The film, made on a “tight” budget of Rs 14.75 crore, grossed Rs 3.5 crore in just nine days.

The Hindi film — and Amitabh Bachchan — has “evolved” since 1974, when the Salim-Javed scripted Majboor had Bachchan ready to face the noose for a murder he didn’t commit to secure the future of his wheelchair-bound little sister, played by Farida Jalal. Bachchan could only be whole then, and a saviour of the disabled. Now Bachchan is the disabled protagonist.

Disability sells, as the box office says. But is that such a bad thing?

According to trade analysts, the trend started with Aamir Khan’s directorial debut in December 2007, Taare Zameen Par, which had Darsheel Safary as a schoolkid with dyslexia, who stole all hearts. Made on a budget of Rs 12 crore, the film earned Rs 131 crore.

Of course, in 2005 there was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, though the portrayal of Rani Mukerji as a deaf-mute-blind girl in the film was more a caricature than a representation of disability, many felt.

But if Aamir the director was sensitive in the portrayal of dyslexia in Taare..., Aamir the actor followed it up with Ghajini a year later, a blood-and-gore tale of revenge, set apart by the hero’s inability to remember anything beyond 15 minutes — anterograde amnesia. With a budget of Rs 45 crore, Ghajini raked in around Rs 100 crore in the first eight days.

And now schizophrenia has come calling with Karthik Calling Karthik.

Box office

Moinak Biswas, a teacher at the department of film studies at Jadavpur University, feels the string of disability-based movies coming out of Bollywood is an “abominable trend”. “These films are nothing but a manipulative, commercial venture. I don’t understand why Hindi films need to preach so much,” he says.

There are other questions. The disabilities are either rare, or picturesque, or both (though dyslexia is an exception, as are Guddu’s stammer and Charlie’s lisp in Kaminey, but that was not the point of the film).

Asperger’s syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism and those living with it have much more cognitive and speech development than others on the autism spectrum. Had Karan Johar decided for Rizvan to have autism, much of what he does in the film would have been far-fetched.

Anindita Chatterjee, therapy in-charge at Manovikas Kendra, Rehabilitation and Research Institute for the Handicapped, who works with children with autism, says there are no kids with Asperger’s syndrome in her school. She says she was impressed with Rizvan’s gait, his mannerisms, his speech and his inability to make eye contact. “But most children with autism will not be able to achieve that kind of development in thought or movement,” she says.

Would Karan Johar have taken up that debilitating a disability? Would SRK have acted as such a disabled person? What does the film do for those with the disability in real life? The same question can be asked of Paa.

“Amitabh Bachchan depicted the walk well, but I don’t think a person with progeria can dance the way Auro does,” says Arunaloke Bhattacharyya, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Child Health, Calcutta, who has worked closely with the family from Bihar.

Besides, the crop of new films has stolen their plots from Hollywood.

Paa owes its origin to Jack (Robin Williams had Werner syndrome, where a person ages four times faster than normal) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt ages backwards in this film, which might have been inspired by progeria). MNIK to Rain Man (Dustin Hoffman plays a person with autism) and Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks plays a simple man who is a part of the greatest events of the 20th century without realising their historical importance). Ghajini is almost a scene-by-scene rip-off from Memento, a psychological thriller involving anterograde amnesia. Black is inspired by Miracle Worker, a 1962 film based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life.

But on the whole, in a sad irony, activists and families working with disability are far more welcoming of these films than critical. In a city, and a country, where there’s hardly any public awareness or empathy about people with disability — even a film with a less than satisfactory portrayal of disability is greeted warmly.

Cinematic liberty

“Amitabh Bachchan’s look was realistic in Paa, save for Auro’s height. Also, because of early ageing, such a person does not have so much mobility. But I feel one can grant the film-makers that bit of cinematic liberty,” says Bhattacharyya, with genuine appreciation.

Krishna Roy, an autism consultant, welcomes such movies too. “Nei mamar cheye kana mama bhalo (something is better than nothing),” she says. She remembers a teacher of a reputable city school had once told her: “I feel so repulsed when I look at a disabled child”.

“In such a milieu, films dealing with disability are very much welcome. And bigger the star power, greater is the impact,” says Roy.

The mother of a nine-year-old boy with autism speaks of her experience of watching MNIK. “Living with autism day in and day out is a totally different experience. And I also know that my son will not become as able as Rizvan Khan. But such a film gives me a tiny ray of hope that my boy might one day conquer some of his deficiencies and be able to fend for himself a little more than what he can do now,” she smiles.

Sometimes the effect of a film can be felt directly. Sharada Fatehpuria, the director-secretary of Manovikas Kendra, says Taare... had a huge impact on the public mind. “So many children who would earlier struggle to cope in class are now being given extra coaching to catch up with the rest,” she says.

But there’s also something called “too much awareness”. A young mother whose daughter studies in the autism section of Manovikas Kendra, says that Taare... definitely helped change the mindset of schools and parents. But now, sometimes even if a child exhibits a minor deviation in the learning curve, he is branded as “needing special education”.

Singer Ritika Sahni, who also heads Trinayani Foundation, a disability awareness group based in Calcutta, says that films are much more effective than seminars or workshops in spreading a message. “But while it makes commercial sense for the Hindi film industry to make movies based on disability, they must combine business with responsibility,” she says.

But by the time that happens, Indian cinema might have moved on to a different formula.