The most heartwarming ‘Jungle Book’ yet: Play by autistic kids shines in Bengaluru
On Sunday evening, Bengaluru’s Chowdiah Memorial Hall was bustling. Despite the chill in the air, people were eagerly waiting to go into this theatre in Malleswaram to watch a rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s classic, The Jungle Book… and a very special one at that.
Inside, the stage was set. The curtains were drawn, giving away nothing as the introductory and welcome addresses were made. And finally, when the curtains were thrown open, a feeling of awe descended upon the audience which broke into applause as a grand, vibrant, 3-D jungle with neon hues came into focus.
Soon enough, the cast of the play appeared, making the applause grow louder. All of the 50 actors – between the ages of five and 32 – are on the autism spectrum. And their rendition of The Jungle Book was special not only because of the challenges they overcame to put up an excellent show, but also because, on stage, they were not kids or adults with autism -- they were simply actors playing their parts.
The play, which was a year and two months in the making, was directed by Diana Tholoor and presented by Bubbles Centre for Autism and Pragati Towards Livelihood (units of Biswa Gouri Charitable Trust). Their CSR partner was IDBI First Bank, whose MD and CEO, V Vaidyanathan, was the chief guest for the program.
Roughly 90 minutes long, the play saw the actors giving heart-warming performances, unperturbed by falling wigs or technical glitches. Among the highlights of the show were Baloo, Bagheera and Mowgli breaking into ‘Bare Necessities,’ King Louie directing his bandar-log (monkeys) into coordinated screeches, and the actors breaking into song and dance to a Punjabi song when Colonel Hathi commanded them to be at ease.
King Louie and the bandar-log capture Mowgli
It is worth noting that those on the autism spectrum have several challenges when it comes to a medium like theatre – loud sounds, bright lights, colours and textures can be triggering to them; many of them can also feel extremely anxious in social situations and find it difficult to maintain eye contact.
How far these children had come was clearly visible – not only were they owning their characters and the stage, but they were following the cues of sounds, music and lights, to near perfection, and with no visible discomfort or dissent. To this end, theatre as a medium of therapy has had a huge role to play, say those who have been working with these children.
Theatre as therapy
Sarbani Mallick, the founder director and managing trustee of Biswa Gouri Charitable Trust, of which both Bubbles and Pragati are a part, has been in working with children with autism for over two decades. She believes that the definition of “able” changes with context.
Giving the example of the child actor who played Bagheera in the play, she says, “He is on the autism spectrum. But he could climb a rope on stage. Put me there, and I would not be able to, and probably won’t be able to learn it in a year also. So, who’s able in this context?” Sarbani questions.
Sarbani says they started exploring the area of performing arts when she and Diana, who is a theatre person and movement therapist, came together. The women have been friends for almost two decades. “Theatre is a fantastic medium for awareness building also, because when the children are able to showcase what they can do on stage, we no longer have to give out awareness pamphlets. Once you see, you start believing,” she smiles.
She explains that theatre also helps the children navigate and manage their triggers. “It's a way to work on the core deficits in the least threatening way. We sensitise the children to the lights, sounds, and other triggers they face in theatre very gradually. Social anxiety also gets addressed… There are situations that can make them anxious in theatre but we teach them how to ease into it. They also learn emotional regulation. Earlier, they would have loud and disruptive reactions to anything that affects them negatively,” Sarbani says.
The cast of The Jungle Book - A Special Edition
The Jungle Book was Diana’s sixth play with Bubbles. Having earlier done renditions of Aladdin and The Lion King, Diana told the audience after the show, “People kept asking me, what were the challenges I faced with these children. I don't understand; if I were to take 40 of you in a production, the challenges would be the same.”
“In the phrase ‘differently abled’ I tend to focus on the word ‘able,’” she added. “From being able to sit quietly onstage in the dark as the show got delayed into 1000-watt lights here - look at how amazingly gifted they are! We don't have to touch, pull them, or lift their chins, we just have to tell them to look up to the audience, and they will.”
Diana also emphasised instead of defining children by their autism, it is more important to remember that they are children first, and must be treated so.
The full effect of their work came across best when Diana sat down for a brief chat with TNM after the play. In between talking about her experience working with the disabled and the actors' steady growth, she was repeatedly interrupted by parents and children alike.
Some thanked her, others congratulated her. Among them was a man who Diana has known for almost two decades. He took a seat beside her, and his eyes welled up with tears, still overwhelmed. At one point, the grandmother of the child who played Bagheera came up to Diana and Sarbani, who sat close by, and expressed her gratitude. There were also a few children who came up to her, and hugged her, as she praised them for their performance in the play.
In the background, the child who played Sher Khan found a few fans, who asked him to re-enact his majestic roar and clawing. The child who played Mowgli meanwhile was enjoying herself as people took selfies with her. She finally came up to Diana, and said that she had done a good job before turning to this reporter. She confidently offered me her hand to receive my congratulations even before the word was out of my mouth. She then sauntered away to her proud parents, but not before pulling Diana, and then me, into a hug.