Apna Asmaan is a bit like Maggie ketchup. It's different. And makes great show of that fact. Not that this is a put off, but if different isn't what you are looking for, you would do well to stay away.
Debutant Kaushik Roy combines an autobiographical tale with a fable-like medical thriller and produces a movie on, of all subjects, parenting. Elements of science fiction are thrown in for good measure, but it's the allegory of his fable that Roy is most interested in.
Debutant Dhruv P. Panjuani plays an autistic and artistic teenager, a boy who heartily sings "Ham Honge Kamiaab" in top pitch as he draws endlessly. His sketches (made in real life by Roy's son Arko) retain a certain raw allure that stem from the naivety of the artist.
His mother Padmini played by Shobana dreams that he would become a mathematical genius, a goal she never attained after marrying Ravi (Irrfan Khan). Sacrificing her passion for dance and mathematics, she is now almost a single mother with the father largely absent from the business of raising the boy. Irrfan plays Ravi, the father seeking refuge in drink, with charming laziness, for want of a better word, and in moments of outpouring of guilt, a rare intensity.
Enter the "brainbooster" and its shady inventor and "cosmic allopathic" doctor Sathya played by Anupam Kher. Both parents are hooked on the news of the doctor's exploits in distant Mexico, and, so one day, Ravi in drunken stupor procures the medicine and administers it to his son, turning him into a guinea pig.
This is a sequence in which Irrfan stands out. There is scene earlier in which he is drinking straight out of the bottle sitting in his car on an abandoned road. You can almost hear his brain ticking away. "Should I buy the medicine for my son or shouldn't I?"
Later, he begs the doctor for the medicine, but doesn't give it straight away. That day comes when he has another bout of guilt. But nevertheless, he gives his son the medicine knowing fully well that this will likely cause amnesia in him.
His neurons recharged, or whatever it is that happens when you have a brainbooster, the lovable and honest autistic turns overnight into a cruel, sadistic boy-genius with no memory of his parents or their love for him.
This rather neatly sets up the climax, but Roy is least interested in hastily pulling down the curtains. In scenes scripted to make parents having grandly impossible ambitions for their children cringe, Roy sets the Khalil Gibran quoting, conscientious brain doctor Dr Sen (Rajat Kapoor) loose on them.
The acting from the small ensemble is flawless. Dhruv is convincing and in directing him Roy shows a penchant for bringing out the best in his actors. Some of the more dramatic strokes apart, this is engaging cinema from Roy and his team.
(A version of this appeared in Deccan Chronicle on September 9)