Dilani Rabindran




The movie theatre has always been a venue for disseminating knowledge. Whether it is a history lesson or simply news of the latest fashion trends –cinema usually teaches us something new or makes us aware of something we haven’t quite noticed before. Indian cinema is no exception, and lately a few notable films have emerged that dare to increase awareness of important but lesser-discussed issues, by boldly mixing serious subject matter into commercial entertainers; a prime example is Haridas.

Tamil films have always been heavily rooted in familial drama, but Haridas stands apart with a story about a father who gradually learns to raise a son who has a developmental disability. Without divulging the plot it can be said that director Kumaravelan elegantly portrays how families adjust in such situations, and bravely tackles a rare topic in Kollywood. Similarly 2012’s award-winning Hindi blockbuster Barfi directed by Anurag Basu discussed autism in a heartwarming romantic-comedy format, shedding light on the various bonds that form between friends, family and caretakers and persons affected with autism. And, equally worthy of mention, was Aishwarya Dhanush’s beautifully directed 3, which distinctively explored tumultuous love and newlywed struggles, that aren’t rooted in finances, fidelity or in-laws, when one spouse is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Regardless of their stories, these films and others like it should be applauded for daring to look at love uniquely and, more importantly, for drawing awareness to the struggles of today’s modern families. All these films dealt with sacrifice and broke the typical Indian film notion that the most powerful display of love is when a hero and heroine defy elders or defeat bloodthirsty villains to be together. But, more significantly, films like Haridas tell stories of neural and psychiatric disorders that many are uninformed about. The truth is the modern South Asian family faces obstacles that very often include having a child/adult family member with a developmental or mental health condition. Such conditions surpass race, religion, income levels and education to affect almost everyone in some manner. Statistics show that globally 1 in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder (CDC, 2008) and bipolar disorder affects more than 30 million people worldwide (WHO, 2004). Awareness leads to better diagnosis, which leads to better care, and what better way to spread awareness amongst Indian populations than film? Cinema is a vehicle for information that reaches far and wide, across borders and socioeconomic status. The film industry in India is often a more effective means of conveying messages in comparison to social alertness campaigns, because, unlike most cultures, Indian cinema has a following so devout that many fans are sometimes compelled to learn more on a subject simply because they were exposed to it via the screen.

Bipolar disorder has no known cure but with effective treatment most people gain better control of their moods, and treatment of autism typically comes via the understanding of families, caretakers and educational systems. Without increasing awareness of common mental health and developmental conditions such as those discussed in 3Barfi and Haridas many common conditions will continuously go unnoticed and remain poorly understood. So kudos to the directors, producers and scribes of these rare films that tackle more than the usual romance, comedy and action genres, and blend mass appeal with serious subject matters that deserve more discussion. Cinemagoers who look for more than mere entertainment at the theatre will appreciate films like Haridas that raise awareness on developmental disorders though interesting stories. And hopefully this appreciation will encourage directors like Kumaravelan, Aishwarya and Anurag to continue to tell stories that educate as well as entertain.

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