Years ago, I had read Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon. I left out the end because I could make out it was too sad and depressing. The novel was made into a film Charly, in 1968 with minor changes and fetched for actor Cliff Robertson who played the title role of the slightly mentally retarded factory worker, the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
When Koushik Roy's (German Star of India at the Stuttgart Festival winner) directorial debut Apna Asmaan began to unfold on screen, and I heard the 15-year-old Buddhiraj's (Dhruv) cheerful, out-of-tune refrain of We Shall Overcome on the soundtrack, my mind went back to Charly from Flowers for Algernon. I was almost beginning to think that this film was an intelligent plagiarization of Daniel Keyes' controversial novel. It is not. Director Koushik Roy decided to base this film on the real-life experience of having fathered his autistic, 17-year-old younger son.
Apna Asmaan is not only about the vulnerability of a slightly mentally retarded child who is an artist of talent but cannot cope with the business of leading the life of a normal child. It is also a scathing attack on urban Indian parents who cannot accept a child who is 'differently abled' as Dr. Sen rightly comments, try to push him beyond his limitations and choose to drown their grief in a large deep pool of self-pity.
The film takes serious potshots at our ruthlessly brutal social system that ignores a good-hearted, innocent child even on a festive day like Holi just because he does not 'belong' to the mainstream. The academic system has no place for his kind either and his parents are advised to institutionalize him. His parents' married life is on shaky ground. Then, thanks to Dr. Sathya (Anupam Kher), a dubious scientist who claims to have discovered an injection that can reverse brain disabilities, his desperate father gives him the miracle injection. It turns him into a mathematical genius within minutes. But there is a catch – he loses his memory completely and cannot recognize his parents. The injection has also damaged the part of the brain responsible for our emotional sensitivity, feelings of love, belonging, nostalgia, and so on.
The very world that turned its back on him when he was differently abled now turns him into a money-churning machine, not knowing that the once-naïve and innocent boy with the heart and brain of a child is already a machine. His life, his mindset, his persona and his name, everything changes towards material affluence and national fame. His parents' lives also change forever. They discover their lost love for each other and at the same time, are shocked to see the dramatic change in their son who has turned into a cold-blooded, murderous and greedy maniac with the brain of a genius. What happens then? It would be unfair to give out the climax at this point but suffice to say that Apna Asmaan is an eye-opener for all of us who live in a jet-paced world of affluence, greed and one-upmanship where emotions take a backseat, parents suffocate their children in the name of love and genius is given a brand identity.
Buddhiraj's father, a UP-ite, is a plastic goods salesman and his frame of reference in everything gets back to plastic. Roy gave the father's character this vocation with designed intent. "Love is plastic, it never dies but only gets recycled again and again," says Ravi to his wife as they dine at their favourite restaurant after a long time. This constant falling back on everything 'plastic' underscores the plasticity of contemporary urban life where parenthood, genius, relationships, love, success, have turned into synthetic, man-made plastic. Juxtapose this against Dhruv's constant refrain of Hum Honge Kamyaab and the message comes across, loud and clear, blurring the line between who we consider 'normal' and who we don't.
The film is structured as a straightforward narrative that often dips into the psyche of the 15-year-old Buddhiraj through scary nightmares that often extend to similar nightmares experienced by his parents. Dhruv Piyush Panjuani, who makes his debut as Buddhiraj-Aryabhatta, is outstanding. He brings out the dramatic change in character with incredible smoothness, turning from an innocent, slightly mentally retarded boy to the scheming, cold-blooded, cruel and murderous young man. He acting is defined by a near-perfect sense of timing. Irrfan Khan whose character is also heavily shaded between white and black, gives a brilliant performance while Shobhana could have cut out the over-weepy bit. Rajat Kapoor plays the doctor-friend with his signature style, while Anupam Kher is wasted in a role he could have done without.
Cinematographer Barun Mukherjee strikes the right fusion between aesthetics and technical finesse. But the music by Lesley Lewis is a bit too loud and the songs, except the telling title song, could have been scissored out in a film like this. Does the technology match the disturbing content? It does, and perhaps that is why the editing seems a bit too jerky at times and the sound design too loud.
Apna Asmaan is not for entertainment. It disturbs you and educates you about aspects of life that you do not read in books and rarely get to watch on television or in cinema. Koushik Roy makes a promising debut with this insight into our own little bits and pieces of a mental skyline that is growing smaller with every passing day.