Film: Call him the maharaja, not the super-cripple

Firdaus Kanga is disabled, gay and a devotee of the `wrong' religion in Bombay. But on the set of `Sixth Happiness', the film about his upbringing in which he was persuaded to star as himself, he is getting the full celebrity treatment. James Rampton finds him making a nuisance of himself.

Firdaus Kanga is a man from Bombay who is just four feet tall. He has brittle bone disease, a condition which means that he cannot walk and that if he so much as sneezes he is in danger of breaking a rib. He is also a Parsee, a religious minority often ostracised in the city. To complete the full house, he is gay, which is illegal and competely unacceptable in Indian society.

Sixth Happiness, a fictionalised film about his upbringing, looks suspiciously like what is known in the trade as a "wheelchair movie" with an upbeat "triumph-over-adversity" message.

That's exactly what it isn't. It is in fact a bitter-sweet, witty, romantic, sometimes sexy account of the difficulties of growing up. It is a coming- of-age rather than a plucky-disabled movie. The classic one-line Hollywood pitch would be: "My Left Foot meets My Beautiful Laundrette meets The Tin Drum."

Kanga adapted his own novel, Trying to Grow, into this defiantly unsentimental screenplay. As if that wasn't enough, he also makes his acting debut as the lead, Brit Kotwal. It has to be said, the 38-year-old rises wonderfully to the steep challenge of playing an imaginary version of himself from the age of eight to 18.

Kanga was initially reluctant to play the part, but he was won over by the need for believability. It just proved impossible to find an experienced- enough actor who matched the specifications of Brit's character.

Tatiana Kennedy, the producer, "was very against having an able-bodied actor play someone disabled," she recalls. "I wouldn't have felt easy with that. There was simply no way of creating this disability, apart from binding someone's legs or using effects in post-production."

So Kanga was persuaded to do the job, and he is now getting the star treatment for his troubles. He is affectionately dubbed "the maharaja" on set. Minions dash around obeying his every command.

When we talk, Kanga is chewing a chocolate bar while perched on his bed in the air-conditioned Winnebago in central Bombay. He has just completed a scene in which a kindly librarian has carried him downstairs to the loo.

He is a magnetic man with an imperial Roman nose and lantern jaw. Irrepressibly twinkly and flirtatious, he revels in gossiping wickedly about, say, the dress sense of people on set. "I can be very exhausting," he admits with a cheeky smile. "I make a nuisance of myself, playing up, demanding two people to fan me so I don't faint. It's an excuse if you're an artist. I do need more concessions than others, but it's quite tempting to take advantage." He is clearly loving the attention.

All this has in no way distracted him from his film's aim. "What I find intensely annoying about the arts world is that disabled people are supposed to be `positive' - that's the key word stamped on everyone's forehead," he complains. "The able-bodied are allowed to express all their emotions - jealousy, passion, and the rest. Why can't we do that? Why do we have to be decent and victorious?

"I am interested in the process of growing up," he continues. "All children have their share of pain - whether it's from an alcoholic father or a divorce. This is a story about growing up, not triumph over disability. Yes, it's about being gay and disabled, but it's not about the horror of being those things. There is pain, but it's the pain of being a human being rather than a disabled person. If just one disabled person sees it and thinks, `someone has told my story and it's not false,' that would bring me great joy."

Kanga is not afraid to castigate the able-bodied for their often patronising view of the disabled. "The image of the super-crip is depressing and quite easy to play up to. Disabled people have to resist the idea that we have to be either the victim or the master. There is an endless need to simplify the fact of being disabled. People who get to know me see me as myself. Those who don't, see me as someone to be pitied."

Echoing the dictum "beware of pity", Kennedy chimes in: "What I most admire about Firdaus is that he deals with his own disability with a total lack of sentimentality. There is never a moment in the script when there is any self-pity. There is a restraint to the emotional pain in the piece."

The whole film is certainly underpinned by a keen sense of irony. Kanga's writing cleverly intermingles light and shade. When his Anglophile mother loses his father, for instance, Brit comments that she "took the blow like the British. She withstood the Blitz, but after that she was no longer glorious." Later on, a lover assures Brit he will one day be able to see how beautiful he is; to which Brit replies acerbically: "Sure ... in a fairground mirror."

Despite the laughs, Kanga has found acting a draining experience. "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones," he says ruefully. "As a writer, you get so used to having things your own way. Acting is emotionally less lonely, but it's much more hassle."

Kanga doesn't envisage a long-term future in acting - although he jokes that he'd like to play either Lady Macbeth or Lady Bracknell. "I can't see that many roles for someone with brittle bone disease," he sighs. "I'm not interested in fringe theatre, which would only take me on as a token or as something exotic."

Still, he now has Sixth Happiness on his CV - no mean achievement.

"In the West, people have never seen India portrayed in this fashion before," says Hussein, himself from Lucknow. ""Films set here have either been about colonialism or maharajas and the Taj Mahal. There are hundreds of other stories to be told, and they're not all about British women being raped in Indian caves.

"There'll be a backlash in India. If you're disabled, you're supposed to be a good boy. If you're gay, you're supposed to shut up and hide under the pillow."

`Sixth Happiness' has its UK premiere in the London Film Festival next Friday at the National Film Theatre (0171-420 1122) at 4.15pm and 9pm.

London Film Festival preview: see page 12

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

    £60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

    Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

    £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

    AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

    £600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

    E-Commerce Developer

    £45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice