Meet Nikhil Pherwani, young director who has made a path-breaking feature film on Down Syndrome

Young filmmaker Nikhil Pherwani has created history by making a feature film on Down syndrome in which he has cast the newcomer Abuli Mamaji who has this condition as the protagonist

Abuli Mamaji (Left) and Director Nikhil Pherwani (Right)
Abuli Mamaji (Left) and Director Nikhil Pherwani (Right)

Rana Siddiqui Zaman

The World marked March 21 as World Down Syndrome Day as it entered its 12th year after United Nations initiated it to create awareness about the natural chromosomal arrangement that creates this condition. “1 in 800 live births, although there is considerable variation worldwide. Down syndrome usually causes varying degrees of intellectual and physical disability and associated medical issues,” according to an estimate by the UN reports.

Therefore, awareness is being created at various levels for this condition worldwide with an aim that the people suffering from the same should be accepted in the society with empathy than sympathy and love than charity.

In the league, a young filmmaker from Mumbai, Nikhil Pherwani has created history by making a feature film on a young adult with Down syndrome called Ahaan, in which he treats this condition in a matter-of-fact way. The film hit the screens on March 19.

What makes the film unique is Nikhil’s choice of character for the lead role of a boy – Ahaan -- with Down Sydrome – is actually a boy with this condition. 25-year-old Abuli Mamaji is Mumbai-based son of a well-heeled family. Abuli plays Ahaan in the film, which is virtually himself, while pitted against one of the most talented actors of the film industry, Arif Zakaria.

The film tells the story of a 25-year-old adult with this condition, who has his adult aspirations but is treated like a child by his over protective parents and a nuisance by mohalla kids but a friend by those who treat him well but they still treat him as a child -- less than a normal person. They are, however, sensible towards them.

The film is based on Nikhil’s long research on the subject through NGOs, and his interaction with parents, caregivers and the people with this conditions.

That’s why the sensibility with which the film is dealt with his a thing to watch. For instance, Ahaan, when avoided by the kids in the colony who don’t want to play with him, chooses to interact with poor vendors, street children and sellers at the intersection and treats them with goodies and food, trying to seek their love and attention. He isn’t helped by anyone, whether in a mall or road, so he chooses to be compassionate towards one and all; for instance, he helps the poor cart loader to lift his cart safely on the busy road. He manages his emotions hurt with cruel words and attitude by crying alone; he shares his dream and aspirations with his servant Hari (Haresh Raut). He tells him he wants to have his own life, a car, marriage, two children; a boy and a girl, and an office job like his father. In the film, he is taken to special skill learning centre for special children, but he refuses to stay there for he doesn’t like machines.

Ahaan also knows how he has to register his protest. In a scene, where his friend Ozzy (Arif Zakria) tells him that his wife tolerates him and pampers him because she thinks he is a child – and sarcastically, almost disgustingly says, “an adult with the brain of a child” . Reacting to this, Ahaan gets out of Ozzy’s car in anger in the middle of the road, and bangs the door behind him. He goes away in the unknown lanes to find people who would love him and want him.

A shocked Ozzy who cannot stop the car in the middle of the road, frantically searches for him and finally finds him with street urchins, playing and gifting them! A way to find acceptance by giving first.

Ahaan’s own way of telling Onella (Plabita Borthakur) that he loves her and his excitement to spend time with her at the beach, for street food, travel in the same car for a picnic, delivering her brownies that her mother (Shilpa Mehta) makes and sells and his mastery at crafting brownie boxes at home to keep himself busy – are all dealt with, in quite matter of fact ways. They tell inside stories of persons with such conditions, whom, unfortunately we don’t treat as ‘normal’.

Obviously hence, such scenes in the film, cannot be created unless one has known the mental state of people with this condition.

Nikhil echoes, “It took me a long research to read into the minds of people with this condition. Constant interactions with Abuli during my research helped Abuli reveal his aspirations, joys and sorrows. He told what I have shown in the film. He wants to have a family of his own, a car which he wishes to drive, home and a good job. They wish to be freed from over protective and underestimating people around them, and that’s the reason they want a normal job, a normal life. Born with special conditions that they themselves are aware of, such persons look for acceptance among ‘normal’ people to be treated normally and have natural desires like others”, says the 35-year-old who has learnt the skill of storytelling from advertisement agencies he has worked with, before taking up filmmaking full time.

Since the boy has a slur in his speech and he is not an actor but was very fond of “becoming a hero like Salman Khan”, Nikhil prompted all dialogues for Abuli, and “had to be very patient with takes”. He innovated ways to make him do what he wanted on screen.

It took him seven years intermittently to finally make it, but with his own finances for “no one was ready to take risk with such a film”. He and his brother are producers of the film.

Nikhil has done a great service to the nation by telling the story of the people with Down syndrome in a no nonsense way. It could well be a teary affair, losing its purpose of getting them acceptance in the society. A one-hour-and-a-20-minutes film is worth a watch with a mix of some facts interspersed with doses of humour and a lot of goodness to take home.

Bollywood has a hope hence.

Click here to join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 25 Mar 2021, 5:00 PM