The first shot is of a young man sneaking into his father’s bedroom. He slips his feet in a black leather shoe. Wears a blazer and admires himself in the mirror. Smiles, poses, brushes his hair. Takes his spectacles off and strikes another pose. Ahaan (Abuli Mamaji) is imagining himself as a white-collar worker: a life he’s never had — a life he craves. But before he could plan his future, his past — his family, his ‘disorder’ — decided on his behalf, for he has Down Syndrome. Nikhil Pherwani’s debut, Ahaan, streaming on Netflix, dignifies an unacknowledged dream.
The other part of the drama revolves around a bickering couple, Ozzy (Arif Zakaria) and Anu (Niharika Singh). Whiny and irritable, Ozzy has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Any deviancy from the routine annoys him — and he’s annoyed her so much that she leaves him to stay with her parents. He misses his wife; she’s indifferent. Only one person can make him meet Anu, her close friend, someone whom Ozzy didn’t care for: Ahaan.
Ozzy and Ahaan make an unlikely pair, sharing crucial commonalities and differences. Ozzy is married; Ahaan’s never dated. Ozzy’s free; Ahaan’s dependent. Ozzy’s tied himself in knotty problems; Ahaan is chirpy and carefree. Like Ahaan, Ozzy’s disorder makes him different — sometimes, difficult to understand. But unlike Ozzy, who needs therapy to save his marriage, Ahaan doesn’t need to be ‘fixed’. He’s Ahaan, and that’s enough. By seeing a person as who he is — a mélange of dreams, disappointments, and frustrations — and not through the patronising confines of a label, Ahaan frees itself from sanctimonious sermons and focuses on the story.
Because there’s much to absorb here: the interiority of someone that doesn’t get enough (in fact any) attention in Hindi cinema, the varying cadences of a complex life that isn’t considered complex, the restlessness of a person splashing on the shore craving an entire ocean. Ahaan often talks about his dream: a satisfying job, a decent salary, a car, a wife, two kids. Or, in short, the desire to be perceived normal, to be a part of this world. A feeling that deserted Ozzy a long time ago. Ahaan then also becomes a film about finding yourself in someone else, a ‘coming-of-age’ drama centered on a middle-aged man.
By casting Mamaji as the protagonist — who has Down Syndrome and an abiding interest in acting — Pherwani reveres the story and complements its themes. Unlike many films about differently abled characters, Ahaan’s leading man is devoid of artifice. Most scenes centered on him have a natural rhythm and seamless credibility. Besides, Mamaji doesn’t strain himself to produce a ‘profound’ meaning or a ‘controlled’ performance. Watching this role feels like witnessing life — and the filmmaker deserves a lot of credit for the impressive blend of fact and fiction. The camera stays with Mamaji during intense moments, even when his garbled lines are difficult to understand and — the film implies — it’s okay. It would have been easy for Pherwani to use cinema’s sleight of hand — say, a convenient pan or a cut — to smoothen the imperfections of life, but he steers clear from such kid-glove treatment, prioritising a person over a performer, life over art.
But the movie also suffers from the anxiety of a debutant director. Like many Hindi films, Ahaan’s background score bends its back to elicit a reaction from the audience. The near-constant cues undermine the film’s confidence and power. At a runtime of 81 minutes, Ahaan’s story needed more layers. We only get a few scenes between Ozzy and Anu before she takes the big step. As a result, we don’t really register the reason and impact of their separation — an important part of the film as it furthers Ahaan’s story. Some bits are borderline clichéd, such as the simplistic portrayal of Ahaan’s parents — cold father, empathetic mother — and him getting rebuffed in a mall and a showroom when he asks for a job, appearing as contrived attempts to inject (needless) pathos. In a crucial conversation between Ozzy and Anu, where the former is looking at Ahaan having a blissful moment on the beach, he spells out the film’s beating heart, instead of allowing the audiences to connect the dots: “After spending time with Ahaan, I’ve realised we complicate things a lot (…) Look at him, he’s so simple, uncomplicated, no pretenses.”
Once the film is over, however, what stays you with is not the words but that image: a young man gamboling near a sea of possibilities — accompanied by a woman he likes; she doesn’t know his feelings yet, but the glint in his eyes says that one day she will.
This review was published on The Wire.