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Bollywood shines spotlight on health disorders

The opening of a film focusing on the rare progeria disorder is the latest in a spate of Bollywood films about health disorders. The BBC's Prachi Pinglay in Mumbai looks at why India's film industry is departing from its traditional formula to tackle weighty issues such as autism and Alzheimer's disease.

Still from Paa
Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan plays a young boy with Progeria

Auro is 13, but looks 65. He has progeria - a rare disorder which accelerates ageing in children.

Pia has been married to a man for over 20 years but she does not always remember him. She has Alzheimer's disease.

Ishaan, eight, is a gifted painter but messes up his numbers and letters. He is dyslexic.

Sanjay Singhania cannot remember how his wife was killed, yet he wants to take revenge. He suffers from "short-term memory loss", a type of amnesia developed after a traumatic incident.

What links these people?

They all have neurological conditions, and are the protagonists of mainstream Hindi films released in the last two years.

'Social change'

Bollywood has long been known for stories with predictable beginnings and endings.

But now film-makers are exploring seemingly different plots with films such as Taare Zameen Par (Stars on earth); U, Me Aur Hum (You, me and us) and Apna Aasman (Our sky) over the last two years.

Still from U Me aur Hum
U, Me aur Hum dealt with the issue of Alzheimer's

The latest to join the list is Paa, which opened this weekend.

Bollywood's biggest star Amitabh Bachchan plays a 13-year-old boy with progeria. His real-life son Abhishek Bachchan plays his father.

The reasons for making these films differ with each film-maker.

Paa director R Balki says he wanted to make a film with Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan and cast them in reversed roles.

"Once I saw Mr Bachchan joking with Abhishek, and Abhishek was behaving in a mature way. That is when I decided to make a film with the roles reversed. We consulted doctors and researched progeria. The film is not about progeria but about father-son relationship," he said.

Amol Gupte, writer of Taare Zameen Par, said he made the film primarily "to take a re-look at parenting".

In the film, eight-year-old Ishaan is dyslexic, but a gifted painter. However, he is always compared with his "normal" elder brother and goes through several ups and downs before his talent is finally recognised.

Mr Gupte, who says he makes films for "social change and sensitisation", maintains dyslexia is not a disability but a neurological difference.

A feature film needs to entertain. This is not a medium for preaching. You have to connect with the audience
Director R Balki

"It is called the gift of dyslexia. Problems are not in children. Problems are in the system. They are making patients out of children. You cannot be whipping a child into 'ability'."

These films can be broadly divided into two types: Tug-at-your-heart films where the underdog rises above the adverse situation, such as Taare Zameen Par, and Iqbal which has a deaf and mute protagonist; and thrillers such as Ghajini, where the protagonist has anterograde amnesia, and Bhool Bhulaiya, which deals with multiple personality disorder.

Most recently, super-hit Kaminey had the hero playing twin brothers - a pet Bollywood formula, but in this case one with a lisp and the other with a stammer.

More accepting

Trade analysts say audiences will accept a different film if it is entertaining.

Moreover, because of the growing number of multiplexes and the corporatisation of the film industry in the last few years, several production houses are producing cinema that is off-beat.

Sanjeev Lamba, chief executive of Reliance Big Pictures, which produced Paa, explains why they went ahead with financing the film.

"We think Paa is a wonderful, light-hearted family film at the core of which is a very warm and loving father-son relationship. We believe that audiences are rapidly building an affectionate relationship with the central character Auro. While the story is about an unusual child and a rare father-son relationship, the film is extremely entertaining with emotional high points grounded within a loving family.

Still from Taare Zameen Par
Taare Zameen Par deals with dyslexia

"We have no doubt that audiences all over the world will embrace this story and its characters."

Though the stories may be different, most of these films have bankable, popular mainstream stars like Aamir Khan, Kajol, Irrfan Khan and Amitabh Bachchan.

Experts feel the Indian audiences are better informed now and hence more accepting of different themes.

Taran Adarsh, a well-known trade analyst, says: "Earlier people were only aware of tuberculosis and cancer, but now people have access to information.

"Also, filmmakers are getting more realistic. They are going beyond "the revenge for father's death" and "the love triangle" formula.

"Audiences also want to know more. Even if the backdrop is different, audiences can relate to it because they read about it. So if a film has Progeria as the backdrop, it is fine. Because it is there, it exists."

As Amol Gupte says, "underdog overcoming difficulties" is the strongest theme in world cinema and choosing a medical condition as the backdrop is not uncommon to Western cinema.

More films are under production which have a central character with a certain medical condition.

For example, Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan is playing a man suffering from Asperger's syndrome in an upcoming film, while Nana Patekar is directing his son in a film with autism. Another untitled film is based on a character who has a bipolar disorder.

Asked about the box-office performance of these films, director R Balki feels that as long as a film connects, it will work.

"A feature film needs to entertain. This is not a medium for preaching. You have to connect with the audience," he says.



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