Why Barfi made me barfy
They could have made it a realistic picture of a deaf man's life, but instead they decided to go for the clown act.
Last week I watched India's foreign film Oscar contender, “Barfi”. This is the story of a young man who is deaf. He lives in Darjeeling and falls in love with a girl who he can't have. He gives up on her and falls in love with another girl who he can have, but not without the requisite twists and turns, including a murder investigation, a kidnapping, poverty, and a lot of singing and dancing.
Oh yes; the young man is deaf, the first young woman is able to hear, and the second young woman is autistic.
While the movie was beautifully shot, the cinematography is crisp and clean, the music pleasant, the acting fairly good, there have been contentions that the work was plagiarised. The director claims that he copied scenes out of quite a few movies not as plagiarism but as homage or inspiration. The music has been similarly criticised for being a copy of the Yann Tiersen soundtrack to “Amelie”. But as someone who knows that soundtrack inside out - I've played it on the piano and own the sheet music - I can attest to the fact that the music is not copied from “Amelie”, but also inspired by its soundtrack.
No, that's not where the problem lies.
I've been doing some volunteer work with the excellent Deaf Reach School in Karachi this last summer. What I've learned about the deaf during this time made me realise that the portrayal of Barfi would be supremely insulting to any deaf person's dignity, self-respect, and self-esteem.
The Deaf world (capital D, not small d, to signify the culture as opposed to the condition of being deaf) is not a world of disability, but a culture of differently abled people. Yes, they cannot hear, and many cannot speak. But they are normal in every other way, as long as there is no concurrent disability. There is no reason they can't learn to read and write.
I've observed classrooms of deaf people, both teachers and students, where everyone was highly literate; students at the Deaf Reach School were actually preparing for their government exams and in the previous year had done very well for themselves, their disability notwithstanding. Second, the deaf can communicate easily and fluently with anyone who learns sign language, if they learn it themselves, and there are many places all over the subcontinent where sign language is taught, including schools for the deaf and also privately.
But Barfi is portrayed as illiterate, both in terms of reading and writing, and in sign language. Furthermore, he is unemployed and drunk, wanting to do nothing more in life than chase after girls and destroy public property.
This is very unfair to the Deaf, who fight hard against the stereotype, that deafness is the equivalent of mental illness or physical or mental handicap.
It is not.
Deaf people are some of the most constructive, responsible, and intelligent people in our society, forced to develop their other senses and their abilities and faculties to a degree far more advanced than hearing people. The way Barfi has been portrayed in the movie is not only ignorant, but irresponsible on the part of the filmmakers.
Worse still is the portrayal of Jhilmil, the autistic girl.
Autism is something not well understood in our part of the world, but in short it is a developmental disorder which affects a person's ability to process social and communicative information. It's a wide spectrum of disorder, and can range from the highly functioning person in society to the severely affected. While the most severely affected may seem as if they are highly disabled, the truth is that all children can be helped with treatment and rehabilitation. But none of this was portrayed accurately in the movie; most people came out of the film thinking that she was physically and mentally ‘retarded’.
This shows that the filmmaker did not do his job in educating the audience about the true nature of autism, unlike in Aamir Khan's excellent “Taare Zameen Par”, where the condition of dyslexia was explained thoroughly; stereotypes and myths busted, and portrayed the treatment the child received in order to improve in all areas of his life.
In “Barfi”, the deaf man and the autistic girl marry each other, because society dictates that people with disabilities are only meant for each other; they cannot enter mainstream life; they must live apart from the rest of society, in their own little world where only they can understand each other.
Never mind that deafness and autism are two completely different health conditions; or that deaf people have been marrying and parenting hearing people throughout the course of humanity. No, in our narrow understanding of the world as seen in “Barfi”, differently abled people should never attempt to integrate into normal society, but live eccentric lives that we can laugh at and be amused by, as if they were circus freaks created just to make us ‘normal’ people feel good that they too can be happy in their own limited way.
It's a deeply condescending attitude and one that makes me sad because the filmmakers missed such a great opportunity to show a side of life that isn't often seen on film but is just as real as more frivolous sides of life they're so fond of portraying.
They could have made the movie a realistic picture of a deaf man's life, but instead they decided to go for the clown act.
What does this say about our own fears and prejudices regarding deaf, autistic, and other differently-abled people, and even those who are physically or mentally disabled?
Nothing worth winning an Oscar, I'm afraid.
Read more by Bina here or follow her on Twitter @BinaShah
Join us on Facebook and Twitter for blog updates and more!