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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 

 

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Rani Mukerji plays Brad Cohen in biopic Hichki, about living with Tourette Syndrome

Rani Mukerji plays Brad Cohen in biopic Hichki, about living with Tourette Syndrome

Front of the Class, a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie shown on CBS in 2008, was viewed by over 12 million people. The movie is based on the true story of Brad Cohen, a young man diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, who defies the odds, to become a teacher. Ten years later, it is coming to Indian screens as Hichki (hiccup), releasing on March 23, and a probable audience of 120 million or more. The earlier date announced was February 23. Rani Mukerji, the lead actress who has given Brad a sex change make-over by appropriating the role, spent the last month or so promoting the film with personal visits to schools, including her own.

Brad was played in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation by Jimmy Wolk (The Spiral Project) young Brad was played by Dominic Scott Kay (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Students and teachers at the Maneckji Cooper Educational Trust, Juhu, Mumbai, were thrilled when a couple of weeks ago, Rani and Raja, her brother, landed up to talk about Hichki (written in brackets). Mrs. Najma Riaz, who taught Hindi to both siblings, is now retired and lives a five-minute walk away. But Najma’s daughter Salma, who teaches English at the school, recalled the goof-old days, when Raja was her classmate and practicals partner, and Rani, her and her brother Raza’s contemporary, was in another class. Pity she was taking classes when the duo visited, and the old buddies could not meet. Salma’s own two children, Abbas and Sukaina, are Maneckji alumni too.

Hichki will be a comeback vehicle for Rani. The actor got married to YRB Head Honcho Adiyta Chopra, had a baby girl, and is now returning to the screen after some four years. Siddharth is from a film/TV family (he is the son of actor-producer Prem Kishen and grandson of actor PemNath). "It took me six years to make Hichki,” he has said to an Indian news syndicate. “After We Are Family (2010), this is the only film I wanted to make (he acquired the rights in 2013). I found a God in Aditya Chopra, he believed in me when no one did. He gave me a second lease of life, I was washed out," he told PTI. Wonder whether he recalls his kiddo act in the late 80s, when he would glare at anybody, he chose, including me, and say menacingly, “Siddhu sey pangaa liya to nanga kar doonga,” meaning, “If you dare pull a prank on me, I will strip you naked!” Post Hichki, Siddharth says, he would love to direct one film a year, and that seems very reasonable.

Brad Cohen himself was due to take class at his school, when he was woken up by personnel from YashRaj Films (the production banner, one of India’s biggest), for a video conferencing call with Rani, the director Siddharth P. Malhotra and an audience that consisted mainly of media personnel, including yours truly. The event was organised at the YRF campus off Link Road, Andheri, on the fourth floor. Scheduled at 4.30 pm, it got going only an hour later, but the guests were treated to sumptuous snacks in the meanwhile. Brad proved to be brave and ‘normal’ at the same time, and answered the ten-odd questions fluently and candidly.

When Brad was growing up, teachers and other adults--even his father--interpreted Brad’s involuntary sounds and sudden jerking movements as attempts to get attention or simply acting. He was ridiculed and teased by other kids. As a result, he hated school…until a principal learned his “acting up” was a result of Tourette’s. The principal used an all-school assembly to educate the faculty and students, which helped Brad win their understanding and acceptance.

“That convinced me that I should be the teacher I never had,” he revealed, from the screen, sitting in the USA. Brad had interviews with 24 schools in the Atlanta area that had teacher vacancies, but no one was willing to take a chance on him, despite an impressive college record and glowing recommendations. But he would not give up. On his 25th interview, he was offered a job as a 2nd grade teacher. At the end of the year Brad was named the outstanding first year teacher for the state of Georgia.

Answering questions from this writer and other journalists, Brad went on, “You might think, wistfully, that I had one special teacher who became my mentor, and things became easy after that. Well, that never happened. Some of them were more understanding than the others, but there was no one single teacher who was really close to me. I had no real friends either. Till Middle school, I appropriated my brother’s friends—he’s normal, and does not have any of my conditions—and only after that did I begin to find friends. Things gradually changed after I put up my true profile on the Internet. I even found a girl friend, we dated and got married. I am 44 now, and have two sons. My condition developed when I was about four years old.”

About Hichki, Brad said that he was in constant touch with Rani and Siddharth and that he loved the trailer. Some media-persons wanted to know whether Brad had seen the film yet. “No. Not yet. I am looking forwards to seeing it,” he confessed. “We’ll correct that very soon,” responded Rani and went on, to show us dome scenes wherein she replicated the ‘tic’ which characterises Tourette, including the cupping of the lower jaw on the reverse of the palm, and the noises, which, in the scenes shown on video, sounded like “chey, chey” (those who suffer from the Syndrome make barking like sounds too, which punctuated the Skype screen at the venue every time Brad spoke. We, in Mumbai, were connected to the US with a video-conferencing unit that held-up well, doe almost the entire evening, except for a few hiccups in picture and sound, due to connectivity problems. But as the publicity line of the film goes, what is life without a few hiccups.

Brad attended Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where he graduated Cum Laude, and received his bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. He went on to attend Georgia State University where he received both a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and a Specialist Degree in Leadership and Administration. He has been featured on Oprah, CNN, Inside Edition, People Magazine, The New York Times and several other magazines and newspaper articles.

Q. WHAT IS TOURETTE SYNDROME?

A. Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder of the brain, which causes involuntary movements and vocalisations, known as tics.

Q. WHAT IS A ‘TIC’?

A. There are two main categories of tics: motor tics and vocal tics. Motor tics are sudden repetitive movements of the muscles of the body that occur repeatedly. Vocal tics are in the muscles that control speech and cause involuntary sounds that may be loud at times. Tics may include eye blinking; neck, arm, or leg-jerking; sniffing; throat clearing; barking noises; and in some cases saying bad words (this only happens in about 10 percent of the people with TS). Tics will come and go, based on stress, anxiety, excitement, and fatigue.

Q. HOW IS TS DIAGNOSED?

A. The criterion for diagnosis is the presence of at least two motor tics and one vocal tic. No two cases look the same. Tics can increase and decrease over time and new tics can emerge with no warning. Most symptoms begin at about age seven. TS is found more frequently in boys than girls.

Q. WHAT CAUSES THE SYMPTOMS?

A. The cause has not been established, although current research presents considerable evidence that the disorder stems from the abnormal activity of at least one brain chemical (neurotransmitter), called dopamine. There may be abnormal activity of the receptor for this chemical as well. Undoubtedly, other neurotransmitters, e.g., serotonin, may be involved.

Q. WHAT ASSOCIATED BEHAVIOURS ARE THERE IN ADDITION TO TICS?

A. They include obsessions and compulsions and ritualistic behaviours (OCD), attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADD or ADHD), learning disabilities, difficulties with impulse control, and sleep disorders.

Q. IS TS INHERITED?

A. Genetic studies indicate that TS is inherited as a dominant gene (or genes), causing different symptoms in different family members.

Q. IS THERE ANY TREATMENT FOR TS?

A. There are medications that can be given to help calm down the tics. Those who take medication must be aware of the side effects. The importance of an early diagnosis is crucial in helping children and adults cope with TS.

Q. WHAT ARE THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF TS?

A. While there is no cure for TS, the symptoms often become less severe as individuals grow older. TS is not a degenerative condition and is not life-threatening. TS does not impair intelligence. Individuals with TS live normal, healthy lives. People with TS are in every profession and enjoy all kinds of recreational activities.

(Inputs culled from Brad Cohen’s website, with thanks).

Trailer, Hichki: https://youtu.be/nLSaCFlXn-g

Trailer, In Front of the Class: https://youtu.be/hJDidwZ2_Wo

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

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