Writer, Director: Nikhil Pherwani
Producer: Abhishek Pherwani, Nikhil Pherwani
Touted as the first Hindi language film to have a Down Syndrome person play the main role, Ahaan is certainly at the vanguard of representational cinema. Its preoccupation, though, is entirely with this vanguardism, focusing on what makes it unique — a representation of OCD and Down Syndrome that is missing from the film fabric — unable or unwilling to dig deeper to create fully realized characters and moments.
The film follows Ahaan (a charming Abuli Mamaji, himself living with Down Syndrome), a 25 year-old man living with Down Syndrome. His family’s fierce overprotectiveness has both an element of shame manifested in the father (Kaizaad Kotwal) and fear manifested in the mother (Shilpa Mehta). He’s cooped up and there are a tonne of shots of him staring out into the landscape holding onto the railings, connoting the caged condition he finds himself in. They have a sweet house help Hari (Haresh Raut) who also calls Ahaan’s mother ‘Mama’. He also serves as a companion to Ahaan, but there’s not a hint of either resentment or patronizing.
Ahaan’s mother makes brownies and cupcakes which Ahaan delivers to the neighbours. Some like Anu (Niharika Singh) call him in, and feed him Biryani, much to the ire of her husband Ozzy (Arif Zakaria) whose intense articulation of OCD is initially played for laughs. Ahaan also has tender feelings with lusting implications towards Onella (Plabita Borthakur, seen recently in Bombay Begums), which due to the speech impediment comes out as O Laila or Vanilla.
It’s a charming world centered entirely around Ahaan’s condition. Ahaan wants to marry, have two kids — one boy and one girl. He wants financial security — a car with a driver, a job. But none of these conceits are fully realized in the narrative, a cursory catharsis given to each.
There is a moment when Ozzy, who is warming up to Ahaan, tells him that everyone around him treats him like a child, and that he must grow up. Ahaan gets out of the car and Ozzy eventually apologizes. But there is a seed of truth in that statement, where the affections people show him are not different from that we show towards children, with a lilt of concern in the Hi-s and Take Care-s. It’s hard to gauge if Onella’s affection for Ahaan is entirely platonic and the writer-director Nikhil Pherwani deliberately doesn’t provide clarity. Because to do so would be to get into the weeds of Down Syndrome and the messy reality it pushes up against. It’s easier to show Ahaan looking at couples coupling and imply longing. It’s easier to have him articulate loneliness.
Ahaan short circuits any criticism against the film by being so damn well-intentioned.
Similarly with the job, there is a moment when Ozzy and Anu are trying to speak to a mother who got her child living with Down Syndrome a job. It’s a moving monologue performed by Sonali Sachdev — on being a single mother to a child with a disability in a world with codified concerns. But its arc is so barren of details — What is the work he does? What does work satisfaction entail? Is there a sense of patronizing at the workplace?
At the very end of the movie we see Ahaan gearing up for an interview for a job that we know nothing about. The specifics which root a character aren’t provided, and I think this too is deliberate. The point is to make a film that fronts Down Syndrome. It isn’t to make a film about a character who is living with Down Syndrome. So Ahaan becomes a symbol, and symbols don’t need detailing, they need rhetoric. But the downside of rhetoric is that it only takes one so far in the journey of empathy.
In this manner, Ahaan short circuits any criticism against the film by being so damn well-intentioned. The kind where even to raise a finger against it, isn’t as much pointing a finger at the film as much as to one’s own humanity. The reverse-Kabir Singh, if you may. It’s certainly not a bad film. With sweetness, and uncomplicated arcs, it’s all heart. But it’s not so difficult to want the heart to tug too and not just coo in admiration.