Anurag Basu’s new movie, Barfi, has been getting some buoyant reviews and I can see why — an unusual premise, endearing characters, and delicious cinematography. But through the movie, I felt a niggling irritation. Like a sock worn wrong or icecream stickiness on the fingers.
|Priyanka Chopra plays the role of an
autistic person in Barfi
The source of this was Priyanka Chopra and her rendition of the autistic Jhilmil Chatterjee who is in her midtwenties with short hair and baby frocks, has a huge aversion to dirt and touch, shows a propensity for dance and can’t really speak.
One review said that the actor played it “retarded” rather than autistic. I’ve never met an autistic person; I had no reference point other than Rain Man. Through the movie, this bothered me — that I didn’t know. At a poetry festival in Durban a few years ago, I met some truly lovely people.
One of them — let’s call her J — is a musician-poet from Sweden and was there with her daughter who has Down syndrome. Her mother was there too to take care of the daughter while J was performing or reading. Meals were communal affairs and we all met the daughter over breakfast and dinner, at the performances, at the group picnic.
There was no attempt to hide her away, a healthy absence of embarrassment. I noticed this because I’m accustomed to people hiding, burying, closeting, or otherwise denying intellectual disability. I don’t remember the last time I had met someone with Down syndrome in India.
I can think of few times when someone I know has admitted to autism, learning disability or any other type of mental disability in the family. The taboo of mental disability, or intellectual disability as it is called, is so harsh, so severe and so punishing that we feel the need to do this.
There is the problem of social and professional rejection. There is also the problem of misdiagnosis and inadequate understanding. The nuances are many; the types of conditions complex.
But most of us have little understanding of the differences between Down syndrome and autism. There is a tendency to cast all intellectually disabled people in the same mould. When we’re not busy hiding, we make a spectacle of it.
As with Chhaidy, the woman in Mizoram who went missing as a child and was found after 36 years. She is surmised to have spent a large part of her life in the jungle. A news report tells me she is developmentally delayed in the way that other children discovered in forests have been.
She speaks no language that we can understand. What are the chances of her living happily with her family again? What kind of work can she do? These questions are largely unanswered. I do know, however, the myriad ways in which she is ‘wild’. She snaps her jaws when angered. She holds flowers in her mouth.
In Barfi, there is an entire section in which Barfi and Jhilmil stay in Kolkata. They’re dirt poor in one of the poorest cities in the world and still manage to make it look like a fairy tale. It’s all soft-hued, diffused lighting, warm tones.
She wears clothes that look like ethnic chic. In any other movie, we might have wondered at this treatment. But this is different. Clearly, there’s only so much realism we can take. If we watch a movie about deaf-mute and autistic people, the happiness quotient should be uber-high.
When it comes to the intellectually disabled, we’re a bit confused about how to approach the matter, how to accept it into our lives, how to write about it or shoot it. We’re uncomfortable. And our discomfort makes us cloying or sentimental, ostrich or nightingale. We deal in sympathy and lies.
We deal in rose-tinted rubbish. The truth lies somewhere beyond and behind all of this. The truth is many of us will watch the movie and walk out and never know whether she played autism right or not. Because we’ve never met an autistic person in our lives.
On a related note, a friend and I talk about options for the mentally disabled. “Wouldn’t they be better off in a home?” she asks. “More accepted? Better able to cope because they’re among their own?” Perhaps.
On the other hand, what if they could feel those things while living in mainstream? What if we could redefine what we understand as regular?