Sensibilities gone softer

Grim Tones

Sensibilities gone softer

Shahrukh Khan and Kajol in ‘My Name is Khan’.

Other than its backdrop of terrorism set in the US and the love story of a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, another point of emphasis the film zeroes in on is that the hero, Rizwan Khan, portrayed by Shahrukh, suffers from Asperger syndrome.

Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder, and people with it therefore show significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Such people are often physically clumsy and they use atypical language. There is no single treatment, and the effectiveness of particular interventions is supported by only limited data. Intervention is aimed at improving symptoms and function. The mainstay of management is behavioral therapy, focusing on specific deficits to address poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness. One hopes that with the thumping box office success of Paa, this film will also pull the audience by the light it hopes to shed on this little-known mental disorder.

 Granted that Taare Zameen Par was a commercial film designed to tug at the hearts of the audience and rake in big bucks. But it did one good thing — it introduced the Indian masses to a new term and added this to their limited vocabulary of learning disabilities — dyslexia. The nation woke up to Ishaan Asthana’s pain that began with the basic ignorance of his parents and teachers about this grave learning disorder. Taare Zamin Par set a new trend in mainstream Hindi cinema — the trend of taking a deep look into the minds of people mentally troubled for no fault of their own. They are normal people with average and above-average levels of intelligence. But since they do not fall within our accept notions of ‘normality’ we tend to alienate them from the mainstream. The film turned out to be a miracle. It had all the ingredients of a masala film and yet got across the message it intended to spread.

 Indian films are not generally known for having their feet grounded in reality. Yet, one must also concede that films like TZP, Paa and the forthcoming Shahrukh Khan starrer My Name is Khan deals with reality as much as it possibly can within the framework of the commercial world. They do not deal with madness in any form but some kind of mental deficiency per se or some physical trigger, like an accident that could lead to a mental deficiency.

 Trade analysts believe that English films like A Beautiful Mind, Iris, Philadelphia and I am Sam have inspired filmmakers to translate some of these sensibilities on Indian celluloid. One must point out, however, that not all filmmakers in Bollywood are as sincere in their research of the deficiency they wish to show in their film. The Alzheimer-afflicted Debraj Sahai in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black touched the audiences but evoked the wrath of medical specialists for its misrepresentation of Alzheimers which they insist is incurable. The same would apply to Aamir Khan’s representation of Anterograde Amnesia in Ghajini. Ghajini is not a patch on what one expected it to be — a psychological thriller inspired by the radically different Memento directed by Christopher Nolan.

 The much-hyped Paa is more authentic in its research of the genetically acquired disorder of the mind and body. In Paa, the 13-year-old boy is born with Progeria. Progeria  is an extremely rare, severe, genetic condition wherein symptoms of ageing are manifested at an early age. 

Medical experts however, are far from happy about the projection of diseases in films. Harish Shetty and an organisation called Maitri took the initiative of exposing, through the Human Rights Commission, the fraudulent depiction of both illness and treatment in cinema. Bangalore-based consulting psychiatrist Ajit Bhide was so angered by the misrepresentation of mental illness in the Ajay Devgun film Main Aisa Hi Hoon, plagiarised from the Sean Penn film I am Sam, he wrote a scathing piece in the Karnataka edition of The Indian Psychiatric Society. “The director remains totally unclear about the condition of the hero, the exact handicap(s) he has, and does a great disservice by confusing autism with mental retardation,” he wrote. Dinesh Bhugra’s ‘Mad Tales of Bollywood’ is an exhaustive study of the representation of mental disorder in Hindi cinema.

There is little distinction made by filmmakers, insist medical and psychiatric experts, between intellectual disability and psychotic disorder, and the character ends up with a bizarre depiction. The saddest part of this whole story is that when we watch films that are designed as powerful psychiatric melodramas, we respond with neither laughter nor fear, but pity for the bewildered victims. Is that what they would want?

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