Language: English with some Hindi
At a critical juncture in writer-director Nikhil Pherwani's Ahaan, the eponymous protagonist " a 25-year-old with Down's Syndrome " is asked what he would like to be 10 years from now. Whatever guess you may hazard about the hero's likely response, chances are you will get it wrong. Because Ahaan's reply is so simple, so spontaneous and comes from such a clean heart that it is too unique to be predicted.
That description pretty much also sums up the film: unique and unpredictable.
Ahaan (played by Abuli Mamaji) lives in a housing complex for the well-to-do in Mumbai and longs for a normal life. His peers in the building find him irritating. His mother (Shilpa Mehta) wants him to integrate more with society but his worried father (Kaizaad Kotwal) overrules her, thus further isolating their child. Ahaan's friends are his household help Hari (Haresh Raut) and a pleasant woman he addresses as Anu Aunty (Niharika Singh). Anu is herself struggling in her relationship with her husband Ozzy (Arif Zakaria) who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
The film is charming, funny and sweet as it tells the story of Ahaan and the unlikely, life-changing bond that develops between him and Ozzy.
Persons with disabilities are rarely leads or even significant supporting players in Indian films. Not only does Ahaan make an adult with Down's Syndrome its central character, the storytelling is shorn of clichÃ©s, condescension and melodrama.
When seen through Pherwani's lens, Ahaan is a man with massive challenges but never an object of pity. The camerawork by Saket Gyani and Dipankar Sikder is at no point exploitative, and not a single shot is designed to invoke pity or contrived to wrest tears out of viewers. That the film is moving anyway is not a consequence of any emotional manipulation by the DoPs or Pherwani and his co-writer Abhishek Pherwani, but because their empathy with their protagonist is evident in every cell of Ahaan's being.
All these elements combined make Ahaan special, but what makes it pathbreaking is the casting of the leading man and his innate talent. Abuli Mamaji is a Mumbaikar who, like Ahaan, was born with Down's Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes physical and developmental delays and disabilities. Mamaji's acting is so impressive that he is all the proof naysayers should need for the representation of persons with disabilities not just in stories being told by our films but in the acting profession too.
There is no doubt that Dustin Hoffman was brilliant as a savant with autism in Rain Man in 1988 and that other fine actors across the world have delivered immersive performances playing persons with disabilities. However, when you watch an artist like, say, Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones or in this case, Mamaji in Ahaan, you realise that no conviction can equal the conviction that comes from mining your own lived experiences for a role.
There is not enough space here for a larger debate on the matter, so let us focus on the evolved casting in Ahaan that gives it layers and sensitivity few other directorial choices could have.
The film does not do quite as well with the writing of Ozzy as it does with Ahaan. The script is unable to go much beyond the vague public awareness of Ozzy's disorder that results in the casual use of the term "OCD" in the popular discourse to signify anyone who is particular about cleanliness and orderliness.
(>Spoiler alert for this paragraph) A chapter in which a doctor (Rajit Kapur) pushes Ozzy to shake hands with a stranger on a train as part of his therapy, implies that that man can indeed justifiably be deemed dirty. Do note that other things Ozzy is made to do in that passage include walking barefoot on a filthy beach and being forced to visit a stinking public toilet. The hand-shaking scene misses the extreme complexity of that situation in caste-ridden India where people with no diagnosable medical issues " the sort of people who would be viewed as 'normal' by society " blithely consider their fellow humans unclean and untouchable. (Spoiler alert ends)
An earlier episode in which Ozzy and Hari argue over which of them should get to sit in the front seat of a car is written with a similar seeming lack of awareness of the caste and class concerns that would be intrinsic to this scenario in real life.
Still, Zakaria is wonderful, and Ozzy's learnings through his interactions with Ahaan somewhat compensate for the over-simplification of his condition and the politically problematic treatment of his circumstances.
The writing of Anu Aunty too lacks the depth and consistency that permeates the examination of Ahaan. She goes out of her way to be kind to him, but her exasperation towards Ozzy comes off as lack of empathy. This is largely because she is already at the end of her tether with him when we first meet the couple, and we are never given a chance to understand the years-long journey that brought this woman who was probably once a loving wife to this pass. This is not to suggest that that stretch of time ought to have been literally portrayed on screen. Quite simply, since she is not given interiority and no effort is made to bring home her pain and stress in that period to the audience, she unfairly ends up seeming unfair to Ozzy.
The handling of Ahaan's difficult father is far more plausible and thoughtful: Ranjit is not painted as uncaring, he is afraid and uninformed.
Ahaan gets so much right that it is tempting to paper over its flaws, but that would be patronising to this film that has its heart in the right place and has stretched itself beyond what we have seen in Indian cinema so far to draw us into the inner world of a man with Down's Syndrome. The detail and authenticity in the conceptualisation of Ahaan and Mamaji's perfect timing are so startling that I reached out to the director to find out how he worked on the film. Pherwani (who assisted Amole Gupte on 2011's Stanley Ka Dabba) met Mamaji in 2013. A considerable part of his research for the script included observing the young man and spending time with him. The actual shooting was a slow process and was done in 2016-17. The outcome of this investment of time and affection is Ahaan, an important milestone in the portrayal of persons with disabilities on the Indian screen.
There are many other things Pherwani gets right: English dialogues in Indian films are of better quality these days than they once were, but still often remain stiff and unnatural sounding. The language used here " English with some Hindi occasionally thrown in " seems just right for the milieu Ahaan inhabits (although an English song thrown unnecessarily into the mix has embarrassingly bad lyrics).
The Christian community, a minority that has virtually disappeared from Mumbai cinema in recent decades, also organically finds noteworthy representation in Ahaan far removed from the stereotypical Gangster Robert, Anthony the perennial drunk and the sexually available cabaret dancer of the "Lily don't be silly" era of Hindi films.
Ahaan is shown developing a romantic interest in a young HR professional called Onella (played by the lovely Plabita Borthakur from Lipstick Under My Burkha and Bombay Begums). She is warm and friendly, but the film steers clear of exploring the question of what might happen if and when he expresses his feelings for her. That would inevitably be a tricky situation " life, after all, is not only sunshine and roses, and Ahaan is not a cute little boy, he is a full-grown man albeit a loveable one. Examining that equation would be a writing challenge, and hopefully, Pherwani or another filmmaker will head in that direction someday soon. Until then we have Ahaan and the excellent Abuli Mamaji to celebrate.
This entertaining, insightful film is poignant precisely because it does not set out to be a tearjerker. This and the casting are what make it a landmark in Indian cinema.
Rating: 3.5 (out of 5 stars)
After a brief theatrical run, Ahaan is now streaming on Netflix