A teenager with a developmental disorder anchors a gently affecting drama. Plus a low comedy with a high laugh quotient.
SEPT 9, 2007 – THEREâS ALWAYS A POINT in a movie where you begin to second-guess whatâs in store, and that point, in Kaushik Royâs Apna Asmaan, came for me at the very beginning. A patient is being wheeled into an operating theatre, and we see that most clichÃ©d of hospital shots: the camera at trolley level, looking up at the anguished mother and father, desperate to be with their son (Dhruv Piyush Panjnani) till the moment the doors shut on their faces. What follows is the inevitable waiting-room wait â and I geared up for an against-all-odds medical drama, a notion that was bolstered by the appearance of Dr. Satya (Anupam Kher) on a television set.
Dr. Satya talks about Brain Booster, a wonder-drug heâs fashioned â and even as he deflects the interviewerâs more controversial questions (about underworld drug connections in Mexico, about having no published papers, about experimenting on apes and not on humans), he promises that his drug can cure the autistic. Padmini (Shobana, playing the mother, and possibly named after her famous actress-aunt) perks up at this information, for her son â the boy wheeled into the hospital â is autistic. And you instantly know sheâs going to have to deal with the drug. You know that the drug will cause a miraculous change in her boy. And you know that the rest of the film will spool out like Lorenzoâs Oil meets Awakenings.
What you donât know is that Apna Asmaan will veer off into science fiction. Dr. Satya, you see, is the mad scientist, and the boy is his nature-defying science-experiment-gone-wrong. (They are, in other words, respectively drawn from the templates of Frankenstein and the Creature.) Thereâs a reason a painting thatâs alluded to (in this film full of allusions) is titled Lakshmanrekha, the metaphorical boundary-that-shall-not-be-crossed â for Apna Asmaan goes on to detail the consequences of crossing that boundary. If youâre still looking for proof that this is some sort of fable, the name of this boy â the functioning of whose brain forms the basis for the drama â is practically out of the Panchatantra: Buddhi Raj. (Such roles are usually scenery-chewing opportunities that actors canât wait to sink their teeth into, but newcomer Panjnani delivers a solidly unshowy performance).
But Apna Asmaan isnât just a cautionary tale about what happens when you mess with nature. After all, the very foundation of modern medicine is that you try to fix natural maladies through non-natural means, and which parent would rather not take that risk when their childâs future is at stake! When Padmini discovers that her son has been cheated out of ten rupees by a shopkeeper â Buddhi hands over a fifty after making purchases for twenty-five rupees; he gets a ten and a five in return â her grief isnât about the loss of money so much as the lousy way her child routinely gets treated by society. So you donât need a Brain Booster infusion to see why the family is driven to Dr. Satya and his miracle drug.
But is that really the answer? Apna Asmaan opens with Buddhi doodling with a marker on paper, squeezing paint out of tubes and filling in his outlines. And what the director is after is this: When Buddhi has these other talents, is Padmini justified in wanting her son to be ânormalâ? like the other kids? Just because she is a gold medalist in mathematics, is she right in yearning for her son to replicate those same feats? So yes, sheâs given up her dancing, and she prays incessantly â in a temple, at a cross in a cemetery, even by the side of a tantrik â for her Buddhi to get better. But simply because sheâs put her life on hold, is it fair to want her son to be something heâs not? Isnât that kind of sacrifice the very job description of being a parent, whether your child is differently abled or not?
Apna Asmaan is thus a cautionary tale about parenting, about setting goals for children that they may not necessarily be equipped for. To see it simply as a medical drama â about autism, though the film is certainly a little of that â is to miss the big picture. There are plenty of annoyingly overwrought touches â the surreal bits; the early image of a self-flagellator near a temple being invoked later to anchor the pain felt by Padmini when she hears insensitive remarks about Buddhi (a whiplash echoes on the soundtrack) â and the closing portions devolve into routine (and somewhat silly) plot mechanics, but for all that, this is an extremely assured feature film debut by the director (who based the character of Buddhi on his own autistic child).
Apna Asmaan works because the sci-fi trappings remain at an allegorical level. Theyâre merely the motor for what is otherwise pure, potent drama. Buddhi may experience a burst of genius at one point, after being administered a Brain Booster shot, and he may end up solving IIT-level problems on the blackboard at his classroom, but Roy doesnât fail to give us a shot of two girls giggling to one another: â Heâs so cute, na!â? Elsewhere, when a neighbour complains about Buddhiâs noisemaking â he keeps singing, rather yelling out, Hum honge kaamyaab â and Padmini asks him to stop, he counters that the neighbourâs daughter plays her music real loud too. And Padmini explains that they own their flat, that they are not tenants like her family. There is genuine texture to this universe.
And there is genuine complexity in its characters. I was startled when Padmini complains to Dr. Sen (Rajat Kapoor, as a neurosurgeon), âMain logon ko kya munh dikhaoongi?â? But then, the fact that sheâs been Mother of the Year for so many years does not mean that she cannot experience her little moments of resentment, as in this case, when she all but says sheâs ashamed of her son. Thereâs also the hint of an undercurrent of a not-just-professional relationship between Padmini and the doctor (itâs revealed, in an awkwardly phrased line of dialogue, that he is a bachelor); she almost calls him during Holi, when she feels particularly left out of the general revelry outside, but she hangs up before he answers. Shobana plays Padmini beautifully.
And Irrfan Khan â as Ravi, Padminiâs husband â is simply marvellous. (But then, he hasnât been anything less of late. Heâs the male Konkona Sen Sharma, capable of greatness even if the film around him is less than great.) Heâs one of those men whoâve spent years at the same, small office â heâs a plastic salesman; a nice touch has him praying before a red, plastic Ganesha at home â giving vent to his frustrations with frequent alcohol and the occasional outburst. He loves his son, but he canât do much else â especially in the face of the frightening levels of commitment and dedication that Padmini shows. His utter helplessness, at times, makes you see that becoming a parent is the easy part. Holding on to that job â now, thatâs real work.
I EXPERIENCED A VAGUE sense of dÃ©jÃ vu as Dhamaal began to unfold, with its setup of four never-do-wells (Riteish Deshmukh, Arshad Warsi, Aashish Chowdhry and a very funny Jaaved Jaffrey) stumbling upon a man whose car has flown off a cliff. Then this man (Prem Chopra) kicked the bucket â literally; a final death spasm results in his leg knocking over a pail â and I knew. Itâs based on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World â a comedy so obsessed with size, it ran close to three hours, roped in dozens of Hollywood funnymen (and women), and squeezed in three additional (and quite redundant) repetitions of the titular adjective. This is an adaptation right down to the long chase leading to a big load of money buried under âa big W.â?
That said, Dhamaal is a riot. You could get all nitpicky about the pace that flags during the mid-section, and thereâs a distasteful kids-in-peril development that had no business being here. (It appears to have been inserted simply to give the nominal hero, Sanjay Dutt, something heroic to do.) But director Indra Kumar steers clear of song sequences and love interests (thereâs no heroine, go figure!), and trains his focus on the large â and very game â cast, the standouts being Sanjay Mishra as the silliest dacoit in living memory, Vijay Raaz as an air traffic controller who retains his calm during the worst crises, and Manoj Pahwa as an alcoholic pilot who triggers the funniest Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak joke ever. I canât recall the last time a comedy this low delivered such a high laugh quotient.
Copyright Â©2007 The New Sunday Express