Autism in cinema: a flashback

While autism needs to be discussed more, many films over the years have brought attention to this important issue. Here are some of them. April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day
Last Updated 31 March 2019, 18:53 IST

Cinema influences our thinking immensely and often helps shed light on important discussions. A rule of thumb here is that the better the film is, the more effective the discussion will be. Metrolife looks back at that dealt with the subject, and how they made the conversation more lively.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

Remember when the internet went crazy after Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for The Revenant? Jokes and memes about DiCaprio being ignored at the Oscars had been amassed over the years, and this one move by the Academy had made all that redundant. The film that started DiCaprio’s tussle with the Oscars was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, one of the best performances of his career. He plays a teenager called Arnie, one of the most nuanced and unromanticised portraits of autism Hollywood has seen. While a sympathetic characterisation, it also pays attention to the complications around the issue.

Rain Man

Rain man, starring, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, may be the most famous Hollywood film to portray autism. The film tells the story of a young man (Cruise), who discovers that his father has bequeathed a multi-million dollar estate to his autistic son (Hoffman), whose existence Cruise’s character was not aware of. It tackles a very important question: while Hoffman’s character in the film may be a genius, we quite don’t know what he is thinking. The film is notable for its attempts to understand the inferiority of an autistic person.

Mozart and the Whale

In the two movies above, the relationships shown are between an autistic person and a non-autistic person, which some say is because they were made by filmmakers without autism trying to understand a complex issue. Mozart and the Whale, on the other hand, is about the romantic relationship between two people who have Asperger syndrome (a form of autism). This was a bold move forward by the filmmakers, although the film was criticised for perpetuating the stereotype that all autistic people are savants.

My Name is Khan

When the film came out, the one thing everyone had to say was: who thought Karan Johar had it in him! My Name is Khan is important for a number of reasons. A title card from the film makes the disclaimer that they have tried to be as faithful in portraying autism as possible, and some writers who have autism have said that the Asperger syndrome as shown in the film, although slightly exaggerated for the needs of Bollywood, is authentically portrayed. The film, coming right from the heart of the Indian commercial film industry, was very effective in beginning conversations about autism in India. The most brilliant part of the film is that it does not limit itself to a study of autism, but sets the syndrome against contemporary political events, such as 9/11 and events of sectarian violence. Even those who were not fans of KJo’s films gave a grumpy nod to this one.

The filmography of Alfred Hitchcock

Many historians today look at historical figures, having studied both their life and work, to see whether their patterns of working show something more than genius. Many savants in history are speculated to have autism, but it’s hard to tell. One name that keeps popping up is that of director Alfred Hitchcock. If the rumours are true, one of the greatest minds in all of cinema, the one who created a new grammar for the medium and completely redefined our idea of suspense, had Asperger syndrome. Although Hitchcock has not made films about autism, it is inspiring to think that a person with autism may have been one of the great revolutionaries of cinema.

(Published 31 March 2019, 13:15 IST)

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