Thirike: Representing Down syndrome on and off screen

A fresh take on usual tale of a brotherhood

Cinema

March 21, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Thirike: Representing Down syndrome on and off screen

Thirike, a Malayalam film, released on February 26, paints a realistic picture of life with Down syndrome

Recently released Malayalam film, Thirike, is the story of two brothers separated in their childhood. It is not only a heart-warming tale of brotherhood and an unbiased depiction of people suffering from down syndrome, but also the first Indian movie to cast an actor with the disease in real life.

For several minutes, the camera does not show the other child’s face. There are two children who are the subject of discussion – two little boys just orphaned after the death of their parents. The younger of them – four or five years old, looks worried, anxious, even protective of his older brother. By the time the camera finally falls on his face, the older one is riding away, adopted by a couple. He has Down syndrome.

Thirike (2021), a Malayalam film that released on February 26, on NeeStream, a Malayalee OTT platform, sets the premise in those few minutes.

What makes this film important as a piece of art is that one of its lead characters, Ismu, is played by a first-time actor Gopikrishnan, who actually suffers from Down syndrome in his real life. Film critics say that whatever the business of the film turns out to be, it will always remain a ‘milestone’ in Indian cinema industry.

The plot of the film revolves around two brothers Thoma and Sebu, orphaned at a very early age. They are separated when a couple (Gopan Mangat and Shanti Krishna) opts to adopt only Sebu.

The film then cuts to Thoma as a grown man, now employed at a bakery. Though he gets to pay occasional visits to his endearing brother, that is not enough for him. To make Sebu remember their childhood and their late parents, Thoma coaxes him to go on a trip with him. What follows is a string of heart-warming bonding moments between the two brothers.

“The good thing about Thirike is that it hopes to see everyone treat special kids like they would a normal human being instead of alienating them or making them feel bad about their condition,” says a Delhi-based film critic Shreyas Tiwari.

He points out a particular scene where an insensitive child friend of Sebu’s, mentions the name of his condition, adding that his father told him people affected by it are not able to do all the activities that others do. “This particular scene in the film epitomises the kind of discrimination that people with this syndrome face. Specially, it is heart-breaking to look at Sebu’s reaction to this remark, as he never thought of himself as lesser than any child,” explains Tiwari.

“Had I not found Gopi (Gopikrishnan), the film wouldn’t have been made,” George Kora, the writer and co-director of the film wrote on his Twitter handle.

Be it the LGBTQ community or a character with a certain kind of disease or syndrome, Indian cinema has failed the test of representation, according to film critic Tiwari. “But finally, it is so heartening to see that someone like Gopikrishanan had been selected to play a character with Down syndrome. It is a giant step towards wise casting and expanding cinematic representation,” he adds.

March 21 is observed as World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD) annually, by the United Nations since 2012. While the day is focussed on spreading global awareness about Down syndrome, its causes and effects and towards ending discrimination against the people suffering from this syndrome, it still remains unheard of, by a majority of people.

“Down syndrome (or Trisomy 21) is a naturally occurring chromosomal arrangement that has always been a part of the human condition, being universally present across racial, gender or socio-economic lines in approximately 1 in 800 live births, although there is considerable variation worldwide,” reads World Health Organisation’s website.

Down syndrome usually causes varying degrees of intellectual and physical disability and associated medical issues.

“It is for causes like this that films become an important medium to make people aware. It is important to show people that Down syndrome is not an infectious disease, can happen to anyone and people should care for those suffering, instead of discriminating. Thirike , as a medium of spreading awareness about the disease along with entertainment is an amazing idea,” says Tiwari.

According to the director of the film, Sam Xavier, a few prominent OTT platforms that he approached did not show interest because there was no ‘big name’ in the cast but finally, Neestream, which gained prominence with the release of The Great Indian Kitchen, another Malayalam film, agreed to release it.

Film critic Tiwari calls Thirike a celebration of people with Down syndrome, of seeing them for what they are without the filter of sympathy. “I was very moved when I saw the film. Let’s celebrate them. They are fascinating, pure people. With all the pros of a child and none of the cons of adults,” he adds.

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