The film’s treatment of intellectual disability is especially galling.
Bollywood filmmakers have to shed their insincerity in filmmaking if they want us to believe that they care about their art form. But I will come to my grouse with filmmaking later.
First, let’s dissect Laal Singh Chaddha.
Aamir Khan’s new film is a purported remake of the 1994 Hollywood classic Forrest Gump. I say “purported remake” because more than a remake it appears to be a vanity project of the actor, driven by his desire to make and star in his own Forrest Gump. I don’t begrudge him that, but the expectation with a remake is that it’ll do justice to the story, be relevant to its time, translate to its audience, and build on the existing template. Laal Singh Chaddha completely fails on all these accounts.
Making a remake is always a tricky job: it’ll inevitably be compared to the original, which more often than not is a cult classic. So, the odds are stacked against the new offering.
I’m not saying moviegoers won’t enjoy Laal Singh Chaddha, or leave with a feeling similar to the original. I am saying that irrespective of its reception by the public, the movie fails at everything that makes any remake worthy of the original.
Laal Singh Chaddha is the fictional tale of an intellectually disabled Sikh man who passes through life with an uncanny ability to escape every ugliness that life has to throw at him. Chaddha struggles with shortcomings but holds no grudges, never really understands other people when they ridicule him, and loves his childhood friend Rupa unconditionally. Sounds nice, but it isn’t.
Which brings us back to Forrest Gump, an adaptation of William Henry Groom’s eponymous 1986 novel. The original isn’t without flaws. The 1994 Oscar winner has received criticism over the years for sidestepping the horrors of the Vietnam War, the treatment of women in America and racism. It’s now also panned for the way it portrays mental health conditions, especially autism. Still, Forrest Gump gets a pass because we didn’t know much about autism back when it was made. In fact, neither the original movie nor the novel ever mentions what condition Gump has. Two years after the movie released, a couple of Japanese doctors playfully diagnosed Gump as autistic and there has been a debate ever since about Gump showing autistic traits. But the more we learn about autism, the less likely it seems.
Autism – now termed Autism Spectrum Disorder – isn’t a disease or condition that can be treated. It is a diverse group of conditions that primarily affect the person’s ability to communicate with others and learn through conventional channels and sensory issues. Most people on the autism spectrum aren’t intellectually challenged. Conversely, about half the children with autism were found in a 2014 study to have above-average IQs and less than a third were found to be intellectually challenged.
According to WHO, one in 100 children globally have autism. But a 2020 study in the US found that the rate of diagnosis has tripled in the past two decades, meaning that there are nearly twice as many autistic people as estimated by WHO.
A primary problem in identifying autism is the lack of understanding in our society of the symptoms, which are commonly disregarded as personal shortcomings. I am on the autism spectrum myself.
Situated in this context, while Tom Hanks’s portrayal of Gump was a caricature of intellectual disability, Khan’s Chaddha is a caricature of the caricature. It’s especially infuriating because research on autism is now easily available to anyone with a smartphone and a willingness to learn.
Chaddha mutters “hmmm” after almost every other sentence. The way he speaks and forms sentences would be laughable if it did not make me feel mocked as an autistic person who regularly converses with other people on the spectrum. Couldn’t a film with a budget of Rs 180 crore have hired an autism researcher to refine the script?
The researcher would have told the remake makers that people with autism do not gawk at the world like ostriches. Most of them, in fact, struggle with making eye contact. They suffer burnouts, sensory overloads, bullying, and frustration, and their lack of understanding of social cues makes them more hesitant and unsure about opening up.
The hokey portrayal of autism and intellectual disability isn’t the only problem with the film. It wants us to believe, for example, that a Sikh from the hinterland of Punjab cannot speak a proper Punjabi sentence. It also displays a lack of nuance in the portrayal of Chaddha’s enrollment in the army and of the soldier who becomes his friend, Bala: Chaddha, in real life, would never pass the test for active duty which requires more than just a penchant for running, while Bala is fashioned into an offensive cartoon of a South Indian man
This is especially disappointing because Aamir Khan’s films tend to tackle the subject matter more sensitively. He made Taare Zameen Par, after all.
The self-indulgent vanity of the makers of Laal Singh Chaddha isn’t new for Bollywood. Still, while film is a social art form, it’s personal experience for the filmgoer. For me, Aamir Khan’s remake of Forrest Gump was an utter disappointment.
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