The incurable, chronic ailment of stereotyping autism

The movie has a weather-beaten formula, clichéd situations, stock characters, bad actors and a stale plot

“Lok Sabha TV is showing a film on an autistic child at 10 am” was a message from a well-meaning friend on a Sunday morning. Lok Sabha TV. Doesn’t bode well, says a voice inside me. But I try to suppress the prejudice against government channels by dredging up positive memories of Doordarshan’s Sunday afternoon broadcast, in the distant past, of award-winning desi feature films.

It is 10 am and the titles come on. It’s a Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) offering, children in white school uniform dance to Bollywood-type numbers. Might be a short film, I say hopefully. Almost two hours, says husband, spotting the time of the next programme. (Excluding the commercial breaks, it turned out to be 89 minutes long.) After 10 minutes, husband asks, “are you really going to watch this?” and pushes off for a bath. I’ll tell you when the doctor comes on, I say. Because the film bears all the ominous signs of a sarkari-social-message film from 50 years ago, and I know that sure as eggs is eggs a doctor will enter at some point in the saga, to give the parents a textbook lesson in autism.

Did I say 50 years ago? I later checked the CFSI website to find that it was a 2008 movie, and its director had made many Doordarshan serials (well, that figured). Before five minutes were up I knew what to expect: the weather-beaten formula, clichéd situations, stock characters, bad actors, stale plot. Take the opening scenes. Sikh family notices next door neighbours moving in. First, mother looks through binoculars, then two hatta-khatta boys take their turn. Mother tells father that new neighbours have come. Sardarji dances and sings comically ‘nayi padosi aa gayi, nayi padosi aa gayi.’ He looks through binoculars. Can’t see anything, he complains. Mother tells him, you’re holding it the wrong way around. Sardarji, no? Time to laugh, bachche-loge.

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Cut to — little girl next door staring fixedly at ray of light emerging from high window in new house. Girl with autism (Gwa), methinks. Her parents are outside supervising furniture being shifted indoors. Sardarji family comes barrelling in. Rather, they reach the gate and Sardarji pushes it inward but it doesn’t budge. It opens the other way, says mother. Laugh again, bachche-loge. It would be a shame if you didn’t, poor CFSI, trying so hard to promote films that ‘provide healthy and wholesome entertainment for children.’

You get the picture. Stereotypes galore, because children can’t understand complex characters. Good headmistress admits Gwa to school because of her smile (if only school admissions were that easy!), evil teacher throws Gwa out of class on the very first day because of her smile (she thinks she’s mocking her). When Gwa isn’t wearing a fixed, vacant smile, she’s frowning. None of the agitation that persons on the autism spectrum often display. Meltdowns might be too disturbing for young viewers, eh? In fact if you read the synopsis of the film on the CFSI website you’d see that there’s absolutely no mention of the word ‘autism’! Gwa is described as having ‘no interests,’ one who ‘dislikes interacting with anyone and sits quietly on her own.’

But this is a film about a girl with autism after all. (And it’s got to be a girl, although boys are four times more likely than girls to have autism, because, you know, promote girl child, and besides, cute girl tugs at heartstrings and whatnot.) So you must have contrived scenes that check the boxes in the diagnostic manual for autism. Gwa cycling endlessly in circles in the park. Gwa answering ‘seven’ to all questions in Hindi class because she’s stuck on the number from the previous (Maths) class. Repetitive behaviour, check one, check two.

I barge into the bathroom, where husband is soaping himself, to announce, “Doctor has come.” He has just finished describing symptoms of autism to parents, adding helpfully, “there is no cure for this sickness.” Can’t believe my ears, he actually says ‘bimaari!’ Mother theatrically bursts into tears, delivers the standard ‘meri bachchi mera sub kuch hai’ line, father takes it like a man, stoically, wearing constipated expression. Next scene: parents take daughter to poojari, ah, praying for cure. Next stop: any guesses? Dargah, maulvi ties thread to her wrist. And then? Church, wow, who’d have imagined?

Cut to — father desperately playing the piano. The piano in the opening scene should have alerted you to the inevitable, the piano thoughtfully left behind by the previous owner just so that Gwa can demonstrate her talent at an appropriate juncture. She takes to the instrument like a cat to milk. Mother pleads with headmistress to allow Gwa to play piano in school function, evil teacher tries to thwart her but finally talent, like truth, will out, and whole school applauds performance, evil teacher’s heart melts etc.

But Gwa still under-performs in class. Father tells mother, solution to our problems is to put Gwa in ‘institute’ (he uses the English word, probably meant ‘institution’). Mother bursts into tears — here comes that ‘meri beti mera sub kuch hai’ line again — but gives in. They go to school to inform headmistress of decision, she asks them to reconsider, tells them go see what Gwa is doing. Sure enough she’s at the piano encircled by her admiring classmates who’re beaming and clapping heartily. Headmistress tells kids that Gwa’s parents have come to remove her from the school. Children pipe up plaintively one by one, uncle please mat le jao please, uncle please. Smiling parents agree. Children cheer.

Repentant former-evil teacher apologises to mother for not having understood Gwa. Mother says I should apologise to you, even I did not know she was not normal. Teacher corrects her, don’t say ‘not normal’ say ‘alag.’ And then that stirring, utterly novel and radical message: “Every child is different.” Integration in education, achieved in a blink.

As the synopsis says, “The message of the film is simple — even the most disinterested looking child has some talent that can be found by sensitive observation.” Or should you say, an uninteresting product of a simple-minded, insensitive filmmaker?

(The writer is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author currently working on a book on disability and inclusion in India).

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