A different approach

Increasing awareness

Darshan Pandya and Zaynah Vastani.

The winds of change in the world of Indian television can be felt everywhere. If it is a newcomer who is ruling the screen on one channel, it is a new concept that has the audience glued to on the other. These days, no one seems to be interested in watching anything old on television. The latest one to corroborate this point is Aap Ki Antara, currently being aired on Zee TV.

A show based on a five-year-old girl called Antara, who suffers from autism — a brain development disorder which leads to impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviour — Aap Ki Antara has caught the interest of viewers across regions, social status and age. Though this is not the first serial on differently abled people, this is perhaps the first to deal with the problem at the child’s level.

What complicates matters (or makes it more interesting, depending on your perspective) is the fact that Antara is the illegitimate child of her father. Born outside wedlock, as a result of an affair between Aditya and Anuradha, Antara is forced to go to an orphanage after her mother passes away. Thankfully, Aditya rescues her from the orphanage and brings her home. Understandably, his wife Vidya does not like bringing up her husband’s illegitimate child and leaves home. Slowly, things change and Antara reunites the family.

With a storyline that has shades of Taare Zameen Par, the serial has struck a positive chord with most viewers and is one of the biggest TRP grossers today. This is the maiden venture of Drishtant Films, a production company run by Monish Sekhri. Wasn’t this a big risk to take for a new production company? “When we started thinking of producing a show, the first thing we had thought of was to make a serial that would not deal with saas-bahu or typical social issues. We wanted to make something that appealed to everyone and dealt with a complicated issue, but in a simple way.”

Sekhri is also the writer for Aap Ki Antara and explains his reasons for choosing the topic. “Once we decided that we would take the risk of being different, I thought of dealing with the sensitive topic of autism. Unfortunately, only few people know about it and those who know it, do not practice it well. I have seen incidents in my neighbourhood where children tease an autistic child and think he is mad. I wanted to do something that would stop people from ridiculing autistic children.”

Writing the story was just one half of the problem. The next step was to identify the people who would play the roles. “Again, I did not want to bank on tried and tested faces. I was not sure how they would be accepted by the audience in such different roles. It was like casting Shahrukh Khan as the President of India. So overpowering is his image of the Bollywood Badshah that no on would like to see him in this role, no matter how well he performed,” opines Sekhri.

As a result, almost everyone you see in the serial is a new or relatively unknown face. While Zaynah Vastani plays Antara, Darshan Pandya plays her father, Abhishek her brother and Rupali Ganguly her mother who dies. Prabhleen Sandhu plays Antara’s step-mother Vidya.

Darshan Pandya, despite the fact that he is playing the lead role in this show is a relatively new kid on the block. Originally from Gujarat, he moved to Mumbai after getting a transfer in his job. “After coming here, I picked up an interest in theatre and started acting in them. Suddenly, a friend of mine told me about the role of Aditya,” remembers Darshan. “But I said no. I thought, this would be my debut in the television industry and if I start off with a father’s role I would be typecast. But my friend insisted that this is a very good role and that I should speak to the producer at least once.”

Pandya went to meet Sekhri and came back convinced. “I was moved after listening to the story. It gave me a completely new insight into the world of autistic children. There was no way I could say no to such a role,” says the actor, whose portrayal of Aditya’s role has won many accolades. “Since I had no idea about autism, I visited few special schools to get a feel of what it really is. One particular visit to a school in Kalanagar, Bandra (a Mumbai suburb) changed my perception a lot. I realised that autistic children are very intelligent. For instance, I met a child who can speak seven languages, sing and memorise almost any song and another child who knows everything that is there in the newspapers!” explains Pandya.

The actor is also very happy at the way the whole serial is being made and also about his fellow actors. “Interestingly, when I say fellow-actors I mean Zayna and Raj because they are the people whom I share maximum screen space with!” Zayna and Raj have just crossed five years of age and are already stars in their own rights, thanks to the popularity of the serial.

The show is going to take a leap in the next couple of months and everyone seems to be tensed about how it is going to be handled. “Don’t worry, I will not change Antara the way you have seen heroines in daily soaps change. Since autism cannot be changed, there is no way Antara will be cured. The leap will show the positive impact that Antara will have on everyone’s life.”

‘Aap Ki Antara’ is aired on Zee TV every weekday at 8:30 pm.

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