Anthony Nield has reviewed the BFI’s Region 2 release of Sixth Happiness. Little seen since its limited theatrical release in 1997, the film is loosely based Firdaus Kanga’s autobiographical novel Trying to Grow and takes a witty and intelligent look at both disability and bisexuality.
Sixth Happiness is a loose adaptation of Firdaus Kang’s 1990 novel Trying to Grow, itself a loose adaptation of the author’s life. Twice removed the autobiographical elements are understandably diluted, but as Kanga reveals in his commentary, the film is not so much a record of the facts of his childhood and adolescence, but rather the emotions. That said, the essentials remain the same as Brit, Kanga’s big screen alter ego, is born with osteogenesis imperfecta (or brittle bones), a Parsee and, as he later discovers, bisexual (though Kanga himself is gay).
Yet whilst many of the facts may have changed, this is no way demonstrative of the filmmakers being evasive about their subject. Sixth Happiness opens with Brit talking directly to camera, a ploy that is repeated throughout, and one that never shies away from the truth as he sees it. Of course, what makes this all the more forceful is that fact that it is Kanga himself, despite having had no previous experience as an actor, playing the lead (as opposed to an able bodied actor), meaning that within minutes of the opening credits we are confronted with a physical presence that is not only rare in cinematic terms, but also in many of our lives. Moreover, his voice is similarly unique as his narration is not marked by the bitterness towards his past experiences that we might expect, but rather a fierce wit and intelligence. Throughout the film his is patronised by those around him, but each is met by a suitably sardonic reply.
With Kanga serving as not only screenwriter and inspiration, but also the leading man, Sixth Happiness is an understandably personal work. Indeed, such a story could be easily be seen as almost a gimmick owing to it being so seldom seen, yet any such issues skirted as film remains, essentially, a coming of age tale. Rather than focus of Brit’s obvious difficulties and setbacks, it instead views them through his struggle to find both his own identity (on trying to do so through novels: “sometimes I’m a cripple called Tiny Tim, other times I’m supposed to extraordinary like Helen Keller”) and his sexuality. However, with such an identity involves being, as said, disabled, a Parsee and bisexual, then the film finds itself in the unfortunate position where it risks being stuck with the rather dry label of “worthy”.
At first glance it’s a matter not helped by Waris Hussein’s direction. A prolific journeyman, Hussein has always been a filmmaker without a distinctive style and one who has worked almost exclusively in television. It’s this televisual element that sneaks through (Sixth Happiness was initiated as a TV project and is partly funded by the BBC) which in combination with the subject matter does raise the spectre of “worthiness”. However, such a tag was never Kanga’s intention and it is through his particular stance – especially during the aforementioned direct-to-camera – on his own defining characteristics, if you will, that any such pitfalls are sidestepped.
That said, in avoiding these problems some others have been inadvertently created. The direct-to-camera device, by constantly interrupting the narrative, effectively short circuits any dramatic weight. Indeed, whilst there may be a distinctly non-evasive approach to both Brit’s disability and bisexuality, there is also this sense of stepping back from the goings on. It’s an unfortunate bi-product and one that Sixth Happiness from being a great work. Instead, it remains an admirable piece – not “worthy”, but admirable.
Sixth Happiness has been presented in its original ratio of 1.66:1 non-anamorphically using a print that is essentially fine – and always watchable – but by no means flawless. The problem would appear to be one of age as the colours don’t appear to be quite as bright as they could be, especially the darker shades which are quite visibly beginning to lose their definition. Less important, but still worth notable, is the infrequent sign of dirt and the occasional tiny scratch. That said, the crispness of the image is as should be expected and, as said, the print is never less than watchable. The original stereo soundtrack is also in place and poses no overt problems, ably coping with what is, after all, a dialogue heavy piece.
As for special features, Sixth Happiness comes with the usual BFI extra of sleeve notes plus the disc itself houses a commentary by Kanga as well as an interview between Kanga and Hussein. The former is the major piece and proves valuable for allowing to see just where the facts and the fiction lie (though Kanga is also informative when discussing the context of his Parsee upbringing – barely touched on in the film – and the current “Asian invasion” on Western culture). However, a slight misgiving is that he is – in stark contrast to his on-screen character – a little too polite and as such we never truly get the story behind the film’s production. There’s also a slight disappointment with regards to the interview as it spends much of its time covering the same ground as the commentary. Moreover, Hussein serves more as interviewer than interviewee meaning that we never get any real input from his perspective. That said, it remains a likeable piece and justifies its inclusion here.
As with the main feature, both interview and commentary come with optional English subtitles.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum