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Sixth Happiness

U.K.-residing author and disabled activist Firdaus Kanga stars in "Sixth Happiness," an adaptation of his autobiographical novel. Taking protagonist from birth to the brink of leaving native India, pic has idiosyncratic characters and situations that never come to life thanks to flat-footed execution. Some offshore tube sales might beckon. Brit Kotwal (Kanga) is born in 1962 with brittle-bone disease, which encourages injury while stunting normal growth. His parents whimsically name him after both that misfortune and Britannia itself (Mom is militantly nostalgic for colonial rule). The middle-class Bombay family is Parsee, descended from Persian immigrants who fled Muslim invasion a millennium before.

With:
Brit Kotwal ..... Firdaus Kanga Sera Kotwal ..... Souad Faress Sam Kotwal ..... Khodus Wadia Dolly Kotwal ..... Ahsen Bhatti Jeroo ..... Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal Tina ..... Nisha K. Nayar Amy ..... Indira Varma Father Ferre ..... Roger Hammond Mme. Manekshaw ..... Sabira Merchant

Otherwise high-strung mother Sera (Souad Faress) is oddly serene about Brit’s condition from the start; elder sis Dolly (Ahsen Bhatti) is likewise supportive. But dad Sam (Khodus Wadia) loves his son without ever losing a sense of parental shame. Western medicine providing no hope, Brit is regularly trundled off to faith healers. Still, adulthood’s onset finds him wheelchair-bound, child-size and overprotected by all.

Various crises small and large beset the family: Brit’s wealthy female mentor commits suicide (as does, later, his father); a beloved deaf cousin is seduced and abducted; a strapping young boarder expands Brit’s horizons (including the romantic one), then disappoints. When an accident claims his mother, Brit/Firdaus is left to put his saga on paper and depart for “a new land.”

Though story sports plenty of complications, script and direction downplay melodramatic potential and pathos in favor of a quirky, humorously anecdotal approach. Unfortunately, they seldom carry it off. Kanga’s adaptation remains literary in feel, saddling cast with stilted dialogue. Helmer Waris Hussein, vet of telepics and features (“The Possession of Joel Delaney,” “The Summer House”), exhibits only a tentative grasp of the required complexity of tone. Pic is adequately paced but never more than indifferently staged.

Thirtysomething Kanga plays this fictionalized self from age 8 onward, a decision that demands suspension of disbelief right away. As with most dramatic features starring “real” personages, the ongoing disjunction between lead and professional support players (though latter aren’t very good here, either) never stops being awkward.

Tech aspects are routine. Interiors were shot in London, exteriors on location in India.

Sixth Happiness

BRITISH

Production: A BBC Films presentation, in association with the British Film Institute and Arts Council of England, of a Kennedy Maylor production. Produced by Tatiana Kennedy. Executive producers, Frances-Ann Solomon, Ben Gibson. Directed by Waris Hussein. Screenplay, Firdaus Kanga, based on his novel "Trying to Grow.

Crew: Camera (color), James Welland; editor, Laurence Mery-Clark; production design, Lynne Whiteread; costumes, Amal Allana; sound, John Marchbank; associate producer, Eliza Mellor; casting, Emma Style. Reviewed at the Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, Sept. 24, 1997. (In Mill Valley, London film festivals.) Running time: 98 MIN.

With: Brit Kotwal ..... Firdaus Kanga Sera Kotwal ..... Souad Faress Sam Kotwal ..... Khodus Wadia Dolly Kotwal ..... Ahsen Bhatti Jeroo ..... Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal Tina ..... Nisha K. Nayar Amy ..... Indira Varma Father Ferre ..... Roger Hammond Mme. Manekshaw ..... Sabira Merchant

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