Anurag Basu’s film, Barfi, has been praised for its sensitive depiction of disability. It is true that two of the main characters in the film — Barfi and Jhilmil — are differently abled people. But Barfi’s superficial engagement with the challenges faced by the community and with the politics of disability confirms the fear that it risks making disability appear incidental to the film’s central plot.
A World Bank report commissioned by the Central government some years ago had found that among India’s 40 million people with disabilities — 90 million according to unofficial estimates — the employment rate had plummeted from 42.7 per cent to 37 per cent. In the private sector, 0.3 per cent of the workforce was disabled. And all this was in 2002. Basu perhaps did not want the audience to mull on such grim statistics. Thus, Jhilmil is conveniently born into wealth and Barfi, instead of reflecting on the economic discrimination, seems quite happy to toil in a Calcutta sweatshop.
The threat of sexual exploitation of disabled women is also something that Barfi refuses to highlight. Jhilmil gets lost on the streets of the capital city of a state that now has the dubious distinction of witnessing the highest crime rate against women but, thankfully, remains unmolested. But in real life, deteriorating safety standards have forced even an apathetic Central government to clear a bill which, for the first time, underlines specific legal provisions to fight sexual exploitation of disabled people.
What is equally perturbing is the film’s ambivalence regarding sexual desire between Barfi and Jhilmil. The two adults remain curiously desexualized, reflecting our discomfort with the sexuality of the differently abled. Significantly, the hesitant kiss that Barfi shares with Shruti, who is not physically challenged, shows that he is not really the infantilized creature that he is made out to be when he is with Jhilmil.
Given Basu’s intelligence — his suggestion that cinematic tradition often blurs the lines between the disabled and the comic is a case in point — his failure to portray the not-so-subtle forms of exclusion suffered by the disabled community came as a surprise. Public spaces as well as public utility services remain ill-equipped to cater to the specific needs of the community. Even polling booths, in violation of a Supreme Court order, are yet to increase the number of ramps and Braille-enabled EVMs. In a society obsessed with notions of beauty that are shaped by the forces of commerce, not a single model or actor is differently abled.
But Barfi’s greatest disservice to the disability cause remains its unwillingness to explore the possibility of an equal and fulfilling relationship between a woman and her lover, who is physically challenged. Thus, Shruti, despite her love for Barfi, weds another man while Barfi finds love with Jhilmil. The two separate worlds, one meant for people like Shruti and her family, and the other to which the disabled are condemned, are kept carefully apart. This distancing is of critical importance because while it is acceptable — and profitable — to sympathize with the disabled community, integrating it with society and securing the rights of the disabled remain truly formidable challenges.
Barfi is also a testimony of the shrinking space of realism in popular culture. Public entertainment — now synonymous with Hindi cinema — has immense reach and influence. But shorn of meaningful engagement, it would further distort ideas about marginalized communities.