Neurodiversity, as a concept, remains shrouded in misinformation. There is an urgent need for a more positive representation of autistic characters in mainstream media to dispel the many myths surrounding autism spectrum disorder.
While international shows deal with these delicate subjects with due sensitivity, Indian television shows often fail to do justice to characters with special needs. The actors resort to displaying exaggerated stereotypical symptoms of ASD yet the shows hardly ever acknowledge that the character is autistic. Additionally, in many such shows, the disorder gets magically cured as soon as the seemingly autistic characters get married to the leading lady!
Let’s take a look at how many shows use this condition as a plot twist rather than as a tool of character development:
- Koshish… Ek Asha
This show aired on Zee TV from 2000-2002. The central character Kajal is tricked into marrying Neeraj, who is “mentally unstable”. Neeraj is shown to display several symptoms of autism, but it is never clearly specified as to what his condition really is. Initially distraught, Kajal plays a dutiful wife and manages to take Neeraj to the US for his treatment. Of course, in the end, he is magically cured, and they live happily ever after!
- Sapna Babul Ka… Bidaai
Bidaai aired on STAR Plus from 2007-2010 and followed a somewhat similar plotline as Koshish… Ek Asha. A “mentally unstable” (again!) boy named Alekh is married off to a girl named Sadhana. Several misunderstandings and parallel plotlines later, his brother and sister-in-law decided to help Sadhana in finding a cure for Alekh’s condition. He does get cured, albeit temporarily.
- Banoo Mai Teri… Dulhan
The show Banoo Mai Teri… Dulhan also aired on Zee TV from 2006 to 2009. A beautiful village belle Vidya gets married to the son of a rich businessman from Delhi, Sagar who she later learns is “not normal”. Even though his symptoms indicate that he might be autistic, it is said to have been caused by a car accident. Cut to several sabotage attempts from evil stepsisters later, Vidya is successful in helping Sagar complete his treatment and he becomes “normal”.
There’s a clear pattern here, a tried and tested plotline that all the shows follow. Even the ones that show a lot of potential in the beginning, tend to fall into the same entrapments sooner or later.
Nevertheless, although just a few and far in between, some shows do handle autistic characters sensitively:
- Aapki Antara
Far ahead of its time, Aapki Antara aired on Zee TV from 2009 to 2010, as a social drama that focused on the issue of autism. The protagonist is a 5-year-old autistic girl who comes to live with her father after the tragic death of her mother. The father, Aditya, doesn’t know about her condition. She finds it difficult to express her emotions and she’s usually lost in her own little world. Along with Aditya, the audiences also get to know more about Antara, autism, and the struggles of living with the condition.
- Baa Bahoo Aur Baby
Baa Bahoo Aur Baby was a much-loved show about a strict matriarch, Godavari Thakkar aka Baa. She has eight children, one of whom is physically handicapped (Baby) and one has an intellectual disability (Gattu). Gattu’s character is autistic, and the way the entire family deals with him and treats him with respect is truly commendable.
- Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai
This show deserves an honorary mention for the recurring character of Dushyant. He is not explicitly said to be autistic but several of his traits like compulsive behavior, his inability to understand social cues, etc., indicate a mild case of autism. However, he is shown to be in a loving marriage, living as a high-functioning and intellectual individual, leading a well-adjusted life.