We meet the makers of Isspeshal 6, a group of kids with special needs raising awareness about children with disabilities and breaking down the social barriers they face
The gifted children who make up India's Isspeshal 6
Three to four times a month, music composer Shameer Tandon’s studio, located in a posh Mumbai suburb, comes alive with loud chatter. Half a dozen teenage boys and girls gather to either rehearse, or record a song composed by him. But before they get to work, there is a pizza party. “All kids love to bond over pizzas,” he laughs.
Tandon has been working with the six boys and girls, who make up the band Isspeshal 6, for the past few months. The group is the second version of Six Pack Band, which was created by Y-films, the youth arm of Yash Raj Films – one of India’s top movie production houses – in 2016. Two years later, the studio brought together six children with disabilities and mental health issues to form Isspeshal 6. “The overall theme of the Six Pack Band is to use music and dance to communicate a message about marginalised people who are stigmatised and face social barriers,” says Ashish Patil, the band’s producer.
The idea behind bringing together an ensemble of children with special needs to form Six Pack Band 2.0 has personal roots for Patil. His son, Rishaan, is autistic, and being a parent to a child with special needs, Patil has seen enough ignorance around the issue and its effects.
In 2017, the World Health Organisation estimated that in India, 56 million people suffer from depression and another 38 millioin from anxiety disorders, taking the percentage of the population suffering from mental health problems to 7.5 per cent. Autism alone affects one in 89 children between the ages of 2 and 9 in India and about 2.2m children and 13m people in total live with the condition in the country. A deep-rooted sense of shame and a stigma associated with mental illness runs alongside. Tandon has found that children with mental disorders are introverted, shy and subject to humiliation. “They can’t even think that people will behave nicely with them,” he says. “With Isspeshal 6, Y-Films wants to spread awareness and sensitise people to the needs and talents of children with mental disabilities.”
It took the team six months to find the right group. They scouted special needs and inclusive schools, music academies, counsellors and therapists. “We looked for three things while recruiting the kids,” says Patil. “First, their ability, more than their disability, that is, what they bring to the table musically, in terms of singing, performing or playing an instrument.” Second, the team matched the children who could work together as a unit, so while some were fans of Western music, others were patrons of Indian classical.
But the most important part that Patil and his team kept in mind was that they were not just signing up the kid, but the entire family, for the project. “The family had to be aligned to the fact that we were not here to give short-term fame to their child, but trying to make a bigger impact by using music, the band and the campaign to make the world a better place,” he says. The team further plans to do live shows and also connect the kids with the right people so their talent can be explored in singing jingles and doing playback for actors. But so deep is the social stigma, they were unable to include a few very talented kids in the band, explains Patil, because of their parents’ worry about labelling their children as mentally disabled. On the other hand, some parents of kids with high-functioning autism didn’t want their child to be clubbed together with others who were lower on the spectrum. “After auditioning more than 250 kids, we had six, wonderfully gifted children,” Patil says.
Tandon talks about the oldest participant, Prerna Agarwal, 18, who is autistic and blind. “Prerna dreams of being Shreya Ghoshal, day and night,” he says, referring to the famous Bollywood singer. “But she is equally good, trust me on that,” he adds with pride.
Parth Padhye, 15, has difficulty speaking and processing language, but is a phenomenal singer with a wonderful voice and mature tonality. Anjali Ramesh, 15, who has dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia, has a very modern and charming voice, and so does Ananya Halarnkar, 15, who has autism spectrum disorder. Rishaan Patil, 12, always adds a fun quotient to the songs with his style, while Maitreya Matale, 15, “has an open throat and is extremely meticulous with his singing”, Tandon says.
Isspeshal 6’s first song, Jhakkad Pakkad Dance, was released this year in April, World Autism Awareness Month, and has been viewed more than 1.4m times on YouTube. Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar has endorsed the song and shared nuggets of information about autism and its symptoms, adding that, “autism is not contagious and with the right support, these kids can do anything, better than us.”
In the second track, with more than 2.4 million views, singer and music director Vishal Dadlani joins the band in the cover of the famous Bollywood number Dil To Paagal Hai. The video points out that the ignorant often refer to people with mental health issues and developmental disorders as paagal (Hindi for mad), which could be detrimental to their social development.
Yaariyan, meaning friendship, featuring Bollywood singer Neha Kakkar, is the latest song, released in June, and a favourite with all the kids in the band. It indicates that often the biggest challenges people with special needs face, are making and keeping friends. Halarnkar’s mum, Vinda, agrees. She says that her daughter, who barely had any friends all her life, has made five close pals after joining the band. “She chats with them every single day and her confidence has shot up,” Vinda says. Her schoolteachers, who earlier didn’t notice her talent, are now beginning to appreciate it.
Padhye’s mother, Namita, says that her son has difficulty talking in coherent sentences, therefore she has to be with him everywhere to mediate conversations. But the team at Six Pack Band is able to understand what he says. “Because of his interactions with the band’s team, my son has now started talking to other people on his own,” she enthuses. “If everyone around him is as supportive, it is only a matter of time before Parth is able to get out of his disorder.”
Matale’s mother Asha, remembers a time when she had put her son in dance class and was told that her kid would never learn. But he has been dancing with the band since the very first day. However, she wasn’t too sure she wanted her son to participate when she received a call from Y-Films, as he is in class 10. But she changed her mind on meeting Patil.
“I bonded with him instantly as he’s also a parent of a child with special needs, and I knew my child would be in good hands,” she says. “So wonderful is the entire team’s approach towards the kids that Maitreya now shares his life with them, even before he tells me.”
Talking of approach, Patil explains that he briefed his team to treat the children as any regular kid. He gave a few suggestions, though. “Keep volume levels low, as some of the kids may have auditory challenges; don’t get close immediately to show affection, as some of the children may have sensory issues. Speak slowly, bend down, make eye contact, instruct them slowly and if need be, repeat. Use positive reinforcement and encouragement, because that’s what they seek, and that’s what they understand.”
“Ashish’s pointers worked like magic,” Tandon says. “They were the only things we needed to understand the children.” He says that it got really easy after that to win their trust, make them comfortable and get the best out of them.“It is not rocket science; one doesn’t need to go through a course to understand children with special needs or work with them,” Tandon says. “If we only remember that we are all God’s children, created equal, acceptance would become easy.”