“Dancing with Friends”
We spend every day being our special needs kids’ best friends, or we try to be. I hope we serve that purpose well. Sometimes it seems like they have so little community to draw on. The least we can do is give up some of our outside world connections to be the constant in their lives. But what happens when they get older? Surely having your mom or dad as your BFF isn’t the pinnacle of your hopes anymore? Surely you want some other young people to call friends? Or maybe I am just projecting…
Several years ago, when A was still in pre-K, we were thrilled to find a birthday party invitation in his school cubby. He had never been invited to a peer birthday party before, and we were afraid to hope. But it was a legitimate, real deal invitation, with the host’s name, and the party details. Yay.
The next day, the daycare center owner admitted that the invitation was for another child, and had been placed in A’s cubby by mistake.
I shall spare you all the details of my grief stricken reaction. Fortunately, A was not aware of parties back then, and had no personal stake in whether he attended one or not.
Will our special needs children have real friends? I think we all ponder that question at some point. Do they care as much as we do? I guess that answer has to unfold as they enter their teenage years, when most people want desperately to have some group identity.
Reflecting on this topic brought to my mind my first reactions to the movie “Barfi.” Released in 2012, it stars Ranbir Kapoor as a guy who neither speaks nor hears, Priyanka Chopra as an autistic woman, and Ileana D’Cruz as the woman who briefly comes between them. To me, this movie seemed perfect. It was perfect because it handled very affectionately the subject of what happens to adults with special needs. It showed special needs people being treated as real human beings by everyone who was close to them, and it seemed to reach out to my always-wondering mom heart and show me that in the end, everyone wants to be happy, and they will find their own ways to get there. Just people going off and finding their futures, special needs style. Yes please. Even if it’s a fantasy, it makes me feel optimistic, and that’s not awful.
The plot moves between the past and the present. In the present, Barfi (Ranbir) is on his deathbed as an old man, and Shruti (Ileana) travels to be by his side. Her reminiscences form the main plot of the movie.
Shruti’s character annoys me somewhat. After initially rejecting Barfi’s love struck advances because he is too different, too odd, too poor, too not-good-husband-material, she then leaves her boringly handsome, typically patriarchal husband, and messes up Barfi’s life in Kolkata, where he is content with Jhilmil (Priyanka). She unwittingly brings the police back into his life and he gets accused of bank robbery (true), kidnapping (somewhat true), and murder (untrue). At least she has the gumption to admit that her clumsy efforts to help caused more trouble than not. I really needed some closure on that score! And she redeems herself by stepping aside once she realizes that Barfi no longer seeks her sacrifices and loyalty.
By far the most grating thing about Shruti is how much of Barfi’s identity she appears to appropriate. First, she’s the story’s narrator, so there’s the fact of everything being from her perspective, almost as if we are meant to concede that it is rarely authentic when mainstream storytellers narrate the tales of special needs people’s lives. Considering that I write about autism and am not autistic myself, I do know how ironic my impatience with Shruti is. 😉
And then there’s the fact that after her marriage ends, she becomes a sign language teacher. I mean, I’m happy for her, but come on. It reeks a little too much of using Barfi’s condition as a crutch upon which to build her own life, plus, since she didn’t marry him in the end, it’s like she’s living this strange shadow life as the deaf-whisperer.
As an old woman, Shruti reflects that she has always wanted to fall deeply in love like her grandparents did, and die together with her love after many years of togetherness. As she travels to see Barfi before he dies, she selfishly hopes for that end with Barfi, even as his not-wife. Her honesty is very poignant, I will give her that. She knows she threw away a good man because she couldn’t get past what she saw as disabilities. We see her looking at all the framed pictures she has on her desk, which are all of her and Barfi. And she is quietly happy yet envious that Barfi and Jhilmil got to fade away together, while grieving that she is left alone with regrets and memories. She reflects self critically on how Jhilmil loved without thought to creature comforts and practicalities, while she herself leapt too warily and too late.
Even while the cynic in me eye rolls at Shruti’s continued longing for a married guy, the special needs mom in me is jumping and cheering because YES! Barfi is a prize. Jhilmil is a worthy rival. They are just like other people, to be reacted to as one would anyone else. They are annoying, difficult, hopeful, loving, and loved. Not saints, not villains, and not doomed.
The relationships that Barfi and Jhilmil have with other people are so beautifully developed. Barfi’s childhood friend, who helps him write the ransom note, shows up at his police interrogation to interpret for him, and grows old being his best guy friend forever. Barfi’s father, who never gives up on him. Malti Maasi, the ayah who cares for Jhilmil so tenderly. Her grandfather, who sends her to live in Muskaan, a home for special needs kids, so she can be safe from her alcoholic mother. Daju, the emotionally weak but Jhilmil-adoring head of Muskaan. Even Dutta, the cop who has spent his career chasing Barfi.
Dutta is my favorite. He bashes up Barfi with a nauseatingly gleeful rage that has accumulated over years, after he finally tracks him down in Kolkata, thanks to the over eager, blundering Shruti. But he is the one who saves him from being framed for murder. I love the way he tries to stop the inspector from this corrupt step. He says, “Fundamentally this is wrong.” The inspector says heartlessly that “no one will care about a deaf, mute guy,” and Dutta does what is morally right, even if it’s not satisfying from a petty vengeance point of view. He tells Shruti to help Barfi escape. It would be difficult to create this character any better; he is no fan of Barfi, but pinpoints exactly why we must get over ourselves and make no excuses when it comes to treating special needs people with dignity.
To me, Dutta is all of us, trying to react appropriately to special needs behaviors, failing often, and sighing at how his life has become about chasing shadows. In the chase scene early in the movie, Dutta is briefly fooled when he lunges to grab Barfi, but it turns out to be his reflection in a mirror. Such a moment of sympathy between audience and cop, as we admit how our reactions to special needs behaviors are often so lacking in imagination and nuance. When he is woken up to news of Jhilmil’s kidnapping, he says “Are you sure?” with such incredulity that I cannot help laughing guiltily. I also crack up every time I watch the scene when Ranjit, Shruti’s boring husband comes to demand his wife back at the police station. Dutta watches the wordless drama of looks exchanged between husband and wife, and rolls his eyes, unable to bear anymore angst.
And what shall I say about Jhilmil-Barfi? Jhilmil is a character designed to make us uneasy about humanity. The whole manner in which Barfi stages her kidnapping (because he needs money for his father’s surgery) is so manipulative, so cognizant of her autism tics, that it fills the viewer with fear for how easy she is to lure in. He uses reverse psychology and every stimming trick in the book to put her at ease, allows her to entwine her pinky finger with his so she can have some safe touch to fall asleep with, plays with food to make her laugh, and generally makes us think that our autistic kids will not be fine, and everyone will exploit them.
And yet–how not to get enmeshed with Jhilmil? Barfi is forced to engage honestly with her despite everything. And that is what rings true in this movie. To truly become friends with an autistic person, it can’t be an act of greed or charity, and it can’t be because you want to be a better person. It has to come from a more genuine place, and you have to make yourself trustworthy, predictable, and not all about yourself. This, this is why the movie is my favorite, and also why I watch it very sparingly, because I need to take breaks from the truths I live with every day.
Jhilmil makes eye contact with very few people, and Barfi is one of them. He has an innate sense of how to reach her. He throws his shoe in the air outside her window in Darjeeling, so she will come to the window and laugh. He performs endless antics to make her feel safe. In a way, Barfi’s comic mimes make me sad because I don’t enjoy the conflation of silence with jokestering. It bothers me that we are meant to laugh at a guy who has to leap around being funny and embodying joie de vivre so that people will like him and look past their prejudices about disability. Even the comic portrayal of his mother’s death, while no doubt meant as an homage to old silent films, made me cringe. But there I go, projecting again.
Compared to Barfi’s social awareness of what it takes for him to live in the world, Jhilmil’s genuine rage at being laughed at makes me gape in awe at how well the movie doesn’t fall for the temptation to lump all special needs people together. When she dances and sings with joy at a family party, and other girls laugh openly at her, she screams at them to stop laughing, and I love her for it. Call people out, good for you, girl. There is too much in this movie. My heart cannot always bear it.
I love how Jhilmil latches onto Barfi even after he returns her home after the kidnapping (because his father died before the surgery could be performed), how she follows him around the countryside, overcoming her dread of sensory violations, how she is the only one who passes Barfi’s ludicrously terrifying friendship test (standing by him while a sawed off lamp post comes crashing down a hair’s breadth away), how she tries to be wifely with Barfi when they are living together in Kolkata, fanning him while he eats, but unable to resist stimming on the moving fan, how she grows jealous when Shruti comes back into Barfi’s life, how she retreats to Muskaan (the special needs home) so that Barfi can marry Shruti if he wants, and not feel obligated to stay with Jhilmil. And most of all, I love how she finally, finally reaches out and initiates touch with him in a declaration of love, when he finds her at Muskaan. How she stands in front of him, blocking him from Shruti, staking her claim. And at the end, when Barfi is on his deathbed, how she pats him on the chest, links pinkies with him, and takes the final leap with him, leaving the world behind.
There follows a flashback of their wedding, when Barfi surprises Jhilmil by hiring a troupe of traveling performers that she loves, and they both dance with abandon, both aware that there is no one else for them, no one else who gets it, and no one else they have to impress with antics or by trying to act ‘normal.’ No more need to scream at people to stop laughing either.
Barfi finally drops the comedy act when he is searching frantically for Jhilmil after she leaves him to return to Muskaan. Everything he normally does to entertain her, he does in earnest, and this is when we see him as a true and devoted lover. When he throws his shoe in the air at Muskaan, it is no longer in jest, but in urgency and fear. When he finds her, he quickly turns away to comb his hair, a man wanting to look good for a woman he loves. When he reunites with her, touching his head to hers is no longer just because of her sensory wariness but because he needs her to know that she is his love. Shruti says at the end, after their deaths, that she could have been Barfi’s wife, but she made the wrong choice. I feel such a pang of vindicated irritation at that line. It’s very clever, that constant insertion of Shruti’s voice into the love story. It slyly manipulates us into saying ‘neener’ to the woman who underestimated a special needs person. And that is what ultimately makes me, as an autism mom, feel the beauty of a movie that unapologetically places special needs characters as the heroes, with the rest of us as bystanders, spectators and hopefully, true friends who do right by them, even when it’s hard.
I’m proud and honored to be counted as A’s friend, and I hope that when he grows up, he will still be surrounded by people who choose him–as a birthday party guest, a friend, and maybe, someday, a spouse. I hope people see in him what we see. And I hope that people listen to their consciences when he is vulnerable to them. Maybe a movie like “Barfi” just preaches to the converted, and probably there will always be people who dismiss and exploit the disabled. But I still think it brilliantly takes all our deepest fears for our special children and smiles gently at the possibility of something better. Happiness that they choose freely. What more can a parent ask for?
Barfi. Dir. Anurag Basu. Perf. Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Ileana D’Cruz. UTV Motion Pictures, 2012. DVD.