Gauri Gadgil steps into the drawing room of her house in Bibwewadi, Pune, a broad, welcoming smile on her face. The 23-year-old woman’s astonishing performance in the Marathi film Yellow, where she plays herself — an athlete with Down’s Syndrome (DS) — has left many in the audience in tears. At home, she is a picture of confidence, as she speaks about facing the camera: “Faar chan hote, khoop maza kela (It was awesome; I had a lot of fun).”
Released on April 4, Yellow was produced by actor Riteish Deshmukh and Balak Palak producer Uttung Hitendra Thakur. The directorial debut of cinematographer Mahesh Limaye, its moving portrayal of a child’s struggle in overcoming her disabilities has won a Special Jury National Award this year — and is further proof of Marathi cinema’s continuing excellence. The film’s protagonist is Gauri, a child with Down’s Syndrome, a disorder that leads to delay in physical growth, characteristic facial features and learning disability.
When Thakur and Limaye were thinking about making a film on special children, they found a newspaper article about a swimmer with Down’s Syndrome. A woman, who had won around 55 competitions, including a gold medal at the National Paralympics 2003, a silver medal at the Special Olympics Summer Games held in Beijing in 2008, and a silver and two bronze medals at the recently-held Asia Pacific Games – Special Olympics 2013 in Australia. They had chanced upon the story of Gauri Gadgil.
For three months, Limaye and his crew scoured acting and theatre schools in search of an actor to play the part. But it was during a meeting with her swimming coach, Hrushikesh Tatuskar, that Limaye’s search ended. “The film’s writer Ambar Hadap and I had many questions on how he trained her. He suggested that we meet Gauri,” he says. When he finally met her, Limaye was taken aback by the self-assurance of the young swimmer, her complete lack of diffidence. “When Ambar, who had already met her before, introduced me to her, she gave me a tight hug and said hello. I asked her in Marathi, ‘Picture madhe kaam karnaar ka? (Do you want to work in a film?)’ She replied, ‘Ho karnaar (Yes)’. I told Ambar, ‘I have found Gauri’,” he says. For the role of little Gauri, Limaye chose six-year-old Mumbai girl Sanjana Rai, who too suffers from DS.
Her mother Sneha, 46, though, was worried her daughter might not be able to cope with the demands of a film. Gauri was quite the professional. As soon as she would arrive on the sets, she would ask the crew to brief her about her work, says Limaye. Sneha accompanied Gauri on all the shoots, in Pune, Mumbai and Bangkok, where the film was shot over a month. Barring the protagonist’s feats, the rest of the film is fictional. “In the film, the girl is the only child of the couple, but our Gauri has a younger sister. Also, unlike the father in the film, who has negative shades, my husband has been very supportive and caring,” says Sneha.
The film draws its charge from Gauri and her mother’s struggle to let hard work and courage determine her life, and not the constraints of DS. The credit goes to Sneha, who never treated her like a special child. “It all begins with acceptance on the parents’ part. I would be lying if I say that I accepted Gauri and her illness from day one. Initially, my husband Shekhar (a businessman) and I were shattered. It took over a month to accept this fact. Together, we decided to give our best to her,” she says.
When Gauri was born, the family was in Jalgaon, where she was enrolled in a pre-school for special children. When the couple learnt that Pune had better schools for differently-abled children, they shifted to the city in 1996. “Physically, there was not much of a problem. She was able to stand on her own when she was one. However, as she grew up and reached the learning age, she couldn’t concentrate and coordinate at the same time, which reflected in her studies. For instance, though she could say the numbers from 1 to 30, when it came to writing, she could barely go beyond 2,” she says. Once, they also experimented with a ‘regular’ school, but “the students troubled her a lot and teased her all the time; some of them would even bite her”. So, after Class II, she was enrolled in Sevasadan Dilasa Kendra for special children, where she studied for 18 years. In 2009, Gauri appeared for her Class X board exams through the National Institute of Open Schooling.
Did Gauri always aim to be a swimmer? “When she was around 10, her doctor suggested that she learn dance or swimming to improve her motor skills. She started Bharatanatyam classes and for swimming, we took her to the swimming pool at Ghorpadi Peth,” she says.
But Tatuskar, the coach at the pool, had no experience of teaching swimming to a differently-abled child. He asked for a week’s time to observe Gauri. “Kids like Gauri do not have a strong build and hence they need to apply more strength. But even in her first week at the pool, she was quite comfortable being in the water, and I felt that she could pull it off. I trained her with the other kids, using the regular techniques. Of course, I had to put in extra time and effort and, today, I can proudly say that Gauri was my student,” says Tatuskar. Although Gauri was trained by other coaches for various competitions, the initial impetus and faith came from Tatuskar. “If it was not for him, Gauri wouldn’t have come so far,” says Sneha.
The young swimmer is now the toast of Pune’s cultural circuit, being invited often to ceremonies and functions. But she leads a disciplined life otherwise. “Her day starts at 5.30 am. At 6 am, I take her for running and other physical exercises. Once she is back, she does speech improvement exercises. Then she studies, followed by classes in computer and spoken English. At 7 pm, she is off to the swimming pool, where she practices till 10 pm,” says Sneha. She continues to learn Bharatanatyam and is doing her BA from SP College, Pune. Her favourite subject is history because, “Aai (mother) explains everything in simple language”.
When she is not swimming or dancing, she watches TV, especially CID. Her favourite film stars are Kareena Kapoor Khan and Salman Khan, who she met during the screening of Yellow and who said he would like to remake the film in Hindi, with Gauri in the lead.
In the film, the question – Will my daughter ever be independent?– constantly haunts the mother. It is something that troubled Sneha too — till a decade ago. “But the day Gauri won the National Paralympics, I was relieved of all my worries,” says the proud mother. In between our conversations, mother and daughter chat about what to wear to a function in the evening. “Which kurta should I wear?” asks Gauri. “The yellow one,” her mother replies.
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