Deafness, Kinship, and Formal Possibility in Bollywood

This article focuses on two films in popular Hindi cinema (Bollywood) – Koshish and Barfi! – that put Deaf protagonists at the center of romantic comedies. It moves beyond typical studies of disability as a device of characterization and locates meaning instead in under-analyzed elements of filmic production. These include sound production, plot structure, and their unique entanglement in Bollywood through the picturized song-sequence. Songs pose a special challenge for stories about Deaf protagonists, one which Koshish treats as a problem requiring "accommodation," and Barfi addresses as an opportunity for "Deaf gain." At a deeper level, Bollywood "provincializes" some key assumptions within the primarily Eurocentric field of disability studies and its frequent association with another Eurocentric field, queer theory. While crip theory follows queer theory's opposition to the "reproductive" time of conjugality, this stance flattens differences between the two communities, and depends on a misunderstanding of what "reproduction" entails. Bollywood romantic comedies, by contrast, create a space to rethink disabled kinmaking. Here the films are reversed: Koshish, though older, offers a more radical negotiation of social reproduction, while Barfi! is somewhat more conventional in its imagined future for disabled families.

This constraint, Anjana thinks, this constraint of not being able to give sound and words to what is being conveyed, must have made silent movie writers creative

(Solanki 2018, 149, emphasis in original).

Michel Chion infamously used "deaf" as an ableist moniker for film before the advent of synched sound (Chion 2009). "There were words and noises," emanating from the mise-en-scene, but because of limitations in earlier technology "they could not be heard" (Chion 2009, 3). This framing poses Deafness 1 as a mechanical limit, a "constraint" to invoke the term that Anjana repeats above. As she goes on to describe in Tanuj Solanki's story "The Mechanics of Silence" (2018), this "constraint" impacts everything from the writing of dialogue, to the manner of acting, to even the type of story that can be portrayed. But there is also an essential difference between Chion and his fictional counterpart. Anjana can see that the apparent limit of silence actually contains an invitation to be "creative." I propose that the way filmmakers respond to the presence of Deaf characters at the level of film structure can indicate a particular orientation to disability: one that willfully ignores it (an ableist position), one that approaches it as an interesting formal "problem" (an accommodationist position), or one that treats it as an inspiration for innovation—what I call a "Deaf gain" position, following Bauman and Murray (2014).

Scholarship about disability in literature and media has tended overwhelmingly to address "disability as a device of narrative characterization" (Mitchell and Snyder 2001, 55; Ellcessor and Kirkpatrick 2017; Dorwart 2018). Such a focus on characterization artificially narrows the scope of analysis for media about disability. Characterization does little to register the affordances of genre, whether by this term we mean media type (film, television, radio), or story type (comedy, tragedy, action). In other words, what difference does it make that a disabled character appears in a film versus a book, or in a comedy versus a tragedy? By the same token, characterization is a rather weak way to assess the salient differences in regional or national media industries, whether these appear as effects of culture, language, or production standards. My question, then, is how do we move beyond characterization to read for disability in the structures of specific media forms?

I address these questions through the analysis of two films from popular Hindi cinema (colloquially known as Bollywood) that center Deaf characters: Koshish [Attempt] (Gulzar 1972) and Barfi! (Basu 2012). Koshish follows Hari and Aarthi, a lower-class Deaf couple in urban India. Their romance blooms when Hari invites Aarthi to attend a school for the Deaf, and the narrative follows them as they raise a family despite their relative poverty and the disadvantages they face in a hearing world. Barfi! is the eponymous story of a working-class Deaf youth in 1970s Darjeeling, where he splits his time between honest odd jobs and low-level criminal activity. The plot ultimately centers on Barfi's romantic life as he chooses between two love interests: the non-disabled Shruti and the neuro-atypical Jhilmil.

These films provide several points of entry, beyond characterization, to address the role of disability in cinema. These films are undeniably problematic from both a representational and a production standpoint. These problems include certain character and plot beats that are audistic (Humphries 1977) in addition to more generally being ableist; the failure to consistently communicate through Indian Sign Language (ISL) or Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL) for signed dialogue; the use of hearing actors to play Deaf characters; etc. (cf. Pal 2013). But to dismiss these films wholesale as unworthy of critical inquiry would mean ignoring the single largest film industry in the world, and thereby refusing to examine the only representations of Deafness that reach the majority of Indian viewers.

By focusing on commercial Hindi cinema, I "provincialize" some key assumptions within the primarily Eurocentric field of disability studies (Chakrabarty 2008; Friedner and Zoanni 2018). Practically speaking, this means addressing the specific constraints and affordances of Bollywood, as an industry with different audiences, conventions, and production standards than its Western counterparts. Moreover, the focus on popular cinema, despite its undeniably problematic character representations, challenges critical tendencies to point our approving gaze only toward independent media with an openly activist bent.

At a deeper level, this provincializing gesture unsettles disability studies' easy association with another Eurocentric field, queer theory (Gopinath 2005; Cohen 2006; Pierce et al. 2021). In what follows, I show that the overreliance on queer theory has diminished the ability to attend to caregiving and "kinship as a source of material support, [and] a meaningful source of personhood" in disabled people's lives (Kowalski 2016, 65). Kinship is much more ideologically prominent in Indian culture and, thus, in Bollywood cinema. But the same shortcoming also limits what disability studies can analyze and value in a Euro-American context. Over the course of this introduction, I will show this first by characterizing the plot structures of the typical Hollywood disability plot and its Bollywood counterpart. I then demonstrate the association between these plot structures and the "temporal turn" in queer and crip theories, respectively. Finally, I use Anca Parvulescu's feminist challenge to queer temporality to reintroduce "social reproduction" and kinship into the analysis of plots about disability (Parvulescu 2017).

Having established the stakes of my analysis for disability studies, I turn to a close reading of formal features in the two core films. In the line with scholars like Dwai Bannerjee in medical humanities and Gayatri Gopinath in queer of color critique, I locate socially progressive meaning in precisely those aspects through which Bollywood is stereotyped as different, immature, and fantastical in the Western imagination (Gopinath 2005; Bannerjee 2020). These include the historical preference for "clean" sound – whose consequences include dubbing and increased reliance on Foley effects – as well as complicated, melodramatic plots that almost always resolve into romantic comedies. Both features reach their apex in the picturized "playback" song sequence, a key location of narrative fantasy and the core focus of my analysis of both films (Gopal 2011).

Rather intuitively, the presence of a Deaf main character tends to impact the typical soundscape of a film in terms of its use of dialogue as well as more subtle sound editing choices. At a basic level, mainstream filmmakers must decide how to portray Deaf lifeworlds and main characters who sign in a context where hearing audiences expect orally spoken dialogue. While films about Deafness in the Western context rely heavily on subtitles to make signed language comprehensible to hearing audiences, this would present a problem for the Indian public. Especially in earlier periods, that public includes many viewers with inadequate literacy for reading copious subtitles (Dass 2016).

A prominent Deaf character also invites changes to sound production. Again, here, Hollywood and Bollywood operate under different constraints. Unlike most American films, in popular Hindi cinema, there is an expectation that films be punctuated by song sequences, picturized by lip-syncing lead characters. This expectation provides a roadblock for films about Deaf protagonists who do not communicate through oral language, for whom the idea of lip-syncing to unheard music is somewhat ludicrous. Now, popular Hindi cinema does not tend to adhere to realist conventions, and the song sequence, especially, is understood as a space of fantasy that need not fit in logically with the rest of the plot (Thomas 1995). Even so, Bollywood films do have a consistent internal logic in which certain types of fantasy or hyperbole are perfectly acceptable, while others are considered to break inappropriately with the film's reality effects. Even in a fantasy sequence, suspending the reality of Deafness does not usually "make sense" for Bollywood audiences. Koshish and Barfi! show contrasting approaches to sound editing and the song sequences that reflect larger shifts in the way disability is handled in Bollywood film.

Hollywood vs. Bollywood Story Forms

It seems obvious that a story about Deafness would have impacts on sound production. But there are other formal levels at which disability makes a difference. Building out of the long tradition of scholarship that emerges from Hayden White's The Content of the Form, I look to plot structures to indicate what a particular culture seems to believe is possible for disabled people in a given moment (White 1987). Many of the stereotypes that inhere in the representation of Deaf characters occur across a broad spectrum of representations of disability. Thus it is useful to look at general trends in disability representation before narrowing down to focus on representations of Deafness. If we follow the further claim that story structures reflect or even prescribe normative life structures, then we can suggest that the prevalence of a certain structure in a particular film industry reflects, at least in part, ideological values of that society. In general, then, Hollywood disability plots share an overwhelming focus on Bildung, or self-development, while Bollywood favors the marriage plot.

Hollywood disability stories tend to focus on the development of autonomy for subjects who are born disabled, and its recovery for subjects who are disabled later in life by accident or illness. This seems coherent with the American emphasis on the rights-bearing individual, and the way disability is "framed against the backdrop of American campaigns for civil rights and the independent living movement" (Staples and Mehrotra, in Friedner and Zoanni 2018).

On the other hand, when romance blooms at the center of an American disability plot, it is usually from professionalized caretaking relationships, often wealthy disabled men cared for by poorer, non-disabled women. Such story structures further patriarchal expectations that care flows unidirectionally from women to men, as well as ableist expectations that it flows unidirectionally from non-disabled to disabled. This is what Robert McRuer essentially illustrates in his analysis of As Good as it Gets, which he takes as representative of disabled romantic comedy as a genre (McRuer 2006). When, on the other hand, relations are more egalitarian, they appear almost uniformly in the guise of romantic tragedies. Thus, the onscreen or imminent deaths of disabled protagonists solves the "problem" of social reproduction: who does what to care for the family in a "happily ever after."

Disability films in Hindi, on the other hand, shift focus away from evanescent, self-expressive feelings of romance onto the construction of a durable conjugal unit. Most plots are romantic comedies, where the central point is not the autonomous development of the individual, but the mutual shaping of a conjugal pair (Gopal 2011). At a very basic level, this demonstrates the more central role of an interdependent family unit in Indian social life. Moreover, as Sangeeta Gopal has argued, popular Hindi cinema has always telescoped concerns about class, nationalism, gender relations, and so on, into the married pair (Gopal 2011). Thus, when Bollywood screenwriters and directors adapt stories from elsewhere, they often "Indianize" them in part by adding "emotions," usually through a romantic plotline (Ganti 2013). Disability fits into this mold by offering a "feel good" form of social difference that creates a potential obstacle to wedded bliss. Disability's inclusion within this plot structure can suggest Indian society as pluralistic without challenging entrenched, "feel bad" social distinctions like caste and religion (Friedner 2017). In the case of Namonaku mazushiku utsukushiku [The Happiness of Us Alone] (1961), the Japanese source for Koshish, disability was already the center of the marriage plot. But for Barfi!, adapted in part from the American romantic film The Notebook (2004), disability supplements, and to an extent even supplants, class difference as the point of conflict in an existing romance narrative.

For all the problems with characterization in a typical Bollywood disability film – and they are truly myriad (Pal 2013) – the fact that it is so often structured as a romantic comedy means that it tends to embed disabled characters in webs of real or fictive kinship. Indian disability activist Anita Ghai argues that this tendency reinforces "a status quo where the 'disabled' body incorporates with the existing social patterns" (Ghai 2017, 95). These "social patterns" include the way that women in Bollywood's North Indian milieu are constantly asked to diminish their own life horizons in order to "accommodate" family (Singh and Uberoi 1994; Kowalski 2016; Lemons 2016; Bannerjee 2020). For Ghai, women's individual Bildung is the only appropriate narrative for disability stories – in essence making them more like Hollywood disability narratives. I do not agree. Instead, I follow Gopal's interest in the politics of "conjugality" in Bollywood film, tracking how in films about disability the central couple's long-term relationship mandates an inquiry into how families "work" (Gopal 2011).

When Crip Time is Not Queer Time

As we saw above, the "marriage plot" or "romantic comedy" is a normative plot structure born out of a normative social structure. That is, most people are expected to get married and have biological children. Prominent theorists in both queer theory and disability studies have made a "temporal turn" that problematizes this structure for life's unfolding (Wendell 2001; Edelman 2004; Muñoz 2009; Freeman 2010; Kafer 2013). Collectively, these studies polemicize against what Elizabeth Freeman calls "chrononormativity," including "teleological schemes of events or strategies for living such as marriage,…reproduction, [and] child rearing." (Freeman 2010, 4). These gestures define queer time as that which is not the "reproductive time" of family life (Parvulescu 2017).

Disability studies, somewhat independently, had developed similar critiques of normative temporality (Wendell 2001). As Ellen Samuels beautifully articulates, "disability and illness have the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings" (Samuels 2017, emphasis added). Much recent disability scholarship brings these parallel lines of thought into association to argue for non-normative crip temporality and its attendant modes of social relations (McRuer 2006; Kafer 2013).

But such a focus potentially misrecognizes what may be radical about disability narratives that concern notionally normative family structures and plotlines. It thus does not offer tools to attend to their politics. This misrecognition occurs at two levels.

At the level of the aesthetic, scholars tend to locate Samuels's "jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings" of crip time within the "strategies of "impeded form," including "dislocated chronology" that typify avant-garde writing (McHale 1987, 10). For instance, Michael Davidson posits this association in his article about disability in modernism, as well as in his book-length association of disability aesthetics with defamiliarization, whose core operative principle is artificially slowing down the reader and forcing them to look again (Davidson 2008; Davidson 2017). Freeman likewise admits that her examples of "the chronic" as a crip-queer aesthetic potentially fall into the same trap of "turning every time to avant-garde art" (Lorenz, Freeman, and Danbolt 2014, 5). The assumption that crip plot structures are innately difficult risks ignoring the types of films that are "zippy," "action-packed," or even just "typical." It transforms disability into yet another code through which scholarship defines "good" media products as those which require a particular cultural capital to unlock (Emre 2017).

At a deeper level, the association of crip and queer time hides an important way in which oppression differs between queer and disabled people when it comes to marriage, reproduction, and kinship. Queer theory tends to read the durable, state- and church-sanctioned romantic pair as a normative structure of exclusion and oppression. Queer sexuality threatens conjugality because the queer pair cannot sexually reproduce; queer sexuality is solely, threateneningly focused on pleasure. For scholars building on the work of Lee Edelman, sexual reproduction implies an attachment to endurance into the future, and it is this attachment that is legally and socially safeguarded by conjugality and other forms of kinship. According to Edelman, queer temporality rejects this "reproductive futurity" – indeed, futurity as such (Edelman 2004). Even the forms of futurity that queer scholarship defends, contra Edelman, are precisely not durable, but imminent, ephemeral, and evanescent (Muñoz 2009; Gopinath 2018). And these rejections of duration as a normative value get imported into crip theory, too. Take, for example, McRuer's queer-crip disavowal of cultural narratives about "heterosexuality's permanence," or Alison Kafer's more nuanced ambivalence about "longevity," which she adapts from the anti-reproductive argument of Jack Halberstam (McRuer 2006, emphasis added, 15; Kafer 2013, 40).

But for most disabled people, oppression around love and sexuality do not work this way. A disabled conjugal pair threatens normativity not by being sterile and anti-future, but precisely because it might be sexually generative. We must recall that all over the world disabled people face discrimination about their suitability for marriage based on several interrelated stereotypes. First, they are desexualized, assumed not to need sexual relationships because they neither desire nor are desirable to others. Second, they are discouraged or outright prevented from having biological children, because those children may be disabled. Third, they are assumed to be incapable of the various labors of caring for a family (Wilkerson 2002). In this context, the desire to abstract disabled people from "normative" networks of kinship and its temporalities looks less like the radical future of queer utopia, and more like the dystopian past of institutionalization. Instead, claiming the right to sexual reproduction is tremendously political for disabled people. But so, too, is recognizing the value of non-sexual types of social reproduction. Both are most evident in long-term conjugality and kinmaking.

It is striking that even when Kafer polemicizes with Edelman around crip futurity, she does so only within the scene of sexual reproduction: the rights of disabled people to control their own fertility against eugenicist paradigms, the right of a potentially disabled fetus to be born, etc. In doing so, Kafer imports unquestioned Edelman's foundational error about what constitutes reproduction in the first place. As Parvulescu argues in her own debate with Edelman, reproduction is not only the momentary, spectacular collision of gametes in the sexual act; it is, more pertinently, social reproduction, the enduring re-creation of the conditions of everyday life (Parvulescu 2017).

The labor of bringing these conditions into being is colloquially referred to as "care," a word with a troubled history in disability studies and activism (Keyes et al. 2015). In the orthodox social model, the "care-work" of accommodation for social reproduction – assistance with bathing, toileting, food preparation, and so on – would be completely commodified and professionalized. This would allow the disabled person to ask for the full range of accommodation to which they are entitled without the encumbrances of mutual obligation implied by "care" in its more quotidian sense. Various streams of labor, feminist, and crip of color critique have troubled this view. First, it erases the labor politics of care-work, relying on and even endorsing the feminized, often South-to-North flow of care labor (Garland-Thomson 2002; Parvulescu 2017). Second, it disavows the "ethics of care" that distinguish such work from other types of labor (Keyes et al. 2015). It misses the way that both dependence (the need for care) and caregiving are central to the human experience (Kittay 1999; Garland-Thomson 2002). Third, it reifies the rights-bearing individual and their autonomy as the target of disability interventions (Mingus 2011).

Disabled people are not only recipients of care. They also provide care to others. While that care may take place in the larger public sphere of chosen communities, for most people, most of the time, it circulates through webs of kinship. Much ableist oppression is rooted in the specific belief that that disabled people cannot do this work for their kin: everything from the punitive legislation meant to prevent disabled people from "draining" social welfare programs; to the limits placed on disabled people's ability to marry; to the disproportionate rates at which children of disabled people are removed from their custody (Mingus 2011; Kafer 2013; Sharp 2021). As part of this reevaluation of caregiving, Mia Mingus rightly demands that we "re-imagine relationships that center interdependence" (Mingus 2011). Yet her turn to the public "community" of overt political action risks reinforcing the very American assumption that "rights based claims can only be made by individuals who stand outside kinship" (Kowalski 2016, 64).

Now we can see why making a disabled character the center of a romantic comedy is in and of itself a radical gesture. Its starting premise is that disabled people can be both sexually and socially reproductive, in a world that assumes the opposite. Moreover, my analysis highlights the way disability plots often crip seemingly normative family structures by opening a space where care-work is not unilateral and taken for granted, but rather mutual and negotiated. It is this negotiation, rather than the rejection of the conjugal structure itself, that I find productively antinormative.

This is especially true of Bollywood, because for the most part disabled people in India care and are cared for within kinship networks (Cohen 2006; Lamb 2009). Rather than abandoning family in favor of independence, Bollywood disability plots often open up the family space, adding unrelated, disabled, adults beyond the conjugal pair and the patrilocal "joint" family. These variously disabled members of cripped families then supplement each other's abilities. In an interview, Ghai herself approvingly lists a dozen mainstream Hindi films that fit this mold (Bookman 2020). Take Dosti [Friendship] (1964), which concerns a relationship between Raju, who is physically disabled, and Meena, a non-disabled nurse. Their romance is only made possible through their independent relationships with Mohan, Meena's blind brother, and their collective care for Manjula, an unrelated chronically ill child. This is true even in independent Indian films about disability like Margarita with a Straw (2014), which tend to hew closer to the Bildung model of their Western counterparts. The film focuses on the educational trajectory of a queer woman named Layla with cerebral palsy and ends without securing her romantic attachments into a durable marriage. Still, the film emphasizes exchanges of care between the protagonist and her lover, who is blind. It also considers the relationship between Layla and her mother, whom we learn in the third act is dying of cancer. While the mother has been Layla's primary caregiver in the film, toward the end we see this relationship reversed as Layla bathes her increasingly frail parent. All of these narratives derive their ethical force from the development of crip kinship: the mutuality of care outside of its normalized flows.

Under these frameworks, the two films about Deafness at the heart of this essay offer interesting engagements with disability. The contrast between them is also illuminating, since Barfi! is more sonically innovative, but in some ways Koshish is more socially daring. The following sections show how the thematic presence of Deaf characters crips elements of sound production and the "conjugation" plotline (Gopal 2011). In both sections, I first attend to how producers have addressed questions of dialogue – how much to employ "sign" (sometimes merely pantomime in lieu of ISL or IPSL) versus orally spoken dialogue or subtitles – and other aspects of the soundscape. I then turn to the representation of kinship ties in relation to the romantic resolution of each film – how the couple meets and decides to marry, how and with whom they live, and whether they have children. While the two categories, sound and story, may seem discrete from the perspective of Hollywood, they come together in spectacular fashion within the Bollywood "picturized" song sequence. Because the song sequence has long been the essential location of romantic fantasy, I read it as the place where Bollywood filmmakers most clearly "imagine" futures for their disabled protagonists. Both sections thus cap off with a discussion of a single song sequence that epitomizes the analysis of the film.


While the soundscape of Koshish is impacted by the disabled status of its main characters, it remains, fundamentally, in the mode of "accommodation." That is, Deafness in the plot does not necessarily interrupt the governing conventions of Hindi cinema sound in this era. Instead, the presence of Deaf main characters unintentionally makes overt how these production conventions shape Hindi cinema generally and pushes against usually unstated boundaries of reality and fantasy for the film.

The film works to make those conventions invisible again by cutting both dialogue and song to a minimum. When it can cut no further, it accommodates the perceived challenge of making Deaf characters "speak" in ways recognizable to hearing audiences—taking advantage, quite problematically, of audience expectations about the transparency of melodramatic acting. At the same time, however, at the level of plot, Koshish has something surprisingly radical to say about who is worthy of love and marriage, and how the work of making a family gets cripped off its normal axis.

At heart, romantic comedies are about overcoming obstacles to form an enduring romantic pair. As Michele Friedner has suggested, narratives with disabled protagonists usually present disability and society's ableism as those obstacles (Friedner 2017). In her analysis of the film, Joyojeet Pal notes only the presentation of structural and internalized ableism in Koshish, assuming this is the stance of the film itself (Pal 2013, 115). In doing so, she misses the way that these same plot structures around disability present moments of potential identification and empowerment. We see both of these narratives at play in the "meet–cute" for Aarthi and Hari.

Early in the film, Aarthi tries and fails to get a shopkeeper's attention in a crowded market. Her future love interest approaches the same vendor and uses his fingers to produce a sharp wolf whistle, after which both of them are served. This scene revives a set of problematic audistic tropes common to filmic portrayals of Deaf people (Bauman 2004). First, it assumes that the natural order of society is one in which Deaf people must conform to the expectations and beliefs about communication that center hearing people. Second, it evokes a trope of "Deaf danger" in which Deaf characters are disproportionately vulnerable to threats in the environment that, it is implied, a hearing person would sense. When Aarthi sees Hari's whistle, she is intrigued by the power it might give her in a hearing world and tries to imitate Hari's gesture. After several false attempts, she produces the sound. 2 But because she does not hear, the scene's rhetoric emphasizes, she does not realize how much noise she is making. Nor has she been socialized to know that whistling is a censured activity for a woman and thus has drawn the wrong sort of attention. After mastering the whistle, she is followed by two unsavory looking men. Aarthi is saved only by the timely intervention of the hero.

Figure 1. More description below.

Figure 1. Aarthi stands in the left foreground of a local market, right hand in mouth attempting a wolf whistle. Unseen behind her, two men stand to the right, ogling. One smokes while the other leans on his shoulder, smirking.

These "dangers" of Deafness are reproduced in later conflicts in the film. First, they shape Aarthi's reluctance to marry Hari because he is also Deaf. The repetition of later scenes where both parents test the hearing of their sons suggest that Aarthi felt the threat of their generativity, the potential that their sexual union can reproduce Deafness in a child. Koshish presents this possibility as not only a threat of sexual reproduction, but also the social reproduction of a Deaf family. Their first son dies tragically because he wanders away and they cannot hear him crying, potentially reinforcing the idea that disabled people cannot act as the providers of care. Again, Pal uses these plot points to claim that Koshish unambiguously endorses an ableist position. But the analyses that follow show that the film raises these issues, instead, to resolve them through a deeper identification with disability.

This is because at the same time it raises the specter of Deaf danger, the meet–cute also sets up a core theme of identification among disabled people which equally structures the film. When Hari and Aarthi come face to face, Hari communicates that he understands that Aarthi is also Deaf. A series of crosscuts dramatizes the emotional impact of their mutual recognition as disabled. Friedner calls this recognition and will to solidarity in Indian Deaf communities "Deaf same-same" (Friedner 2015, 4). Ultimately, Koshish will further this mutual recognition as a way of solving both plot and sonic "problems" of its main characters' Deafness. It makes them part of a larger cripped kinship structure.

Eventually, after processing the trauma of losing their first child, Aarthi and Hari decide to start again. This time they invite their friend Narayan, who is blind, to live with them and help them care for their new son. Even after their second son, Amit, grows up and Aarthi passes away, Narayan continues to cohabitate with Hari and inhabit a cripped parental role for Amit. His special companionship with Hari is prefigured in Hari and Aarthi's wedding scene, where the camera pans from a closeup on Hari's face to a shot of him reaching back toward Narayan for encouragement, and finally to a shot of the married couple which frame Narayan behind and between them.

Figure 2. More description below.

Figure 2. Left: Hari, dressed in beige sherwani and cap, reaches his left arm backward toward Narayan, who places his right hand on Hari's shoulder. Right: Hari and Aarthi sit in the foreground in their wedding finery. Narayan sits behind, framed between their shoulders.

Narayan's inclusion in the cripped family structure is all the more startling when we consider how this adaptation innovates on the source text for Koshish, Namonaku mazushiku utsukushiku. While most of the story beats are extremely similar, the Japanese film solves the problem of social reproduction by bringing in the wife's mother to live with the Deaf couple (Mondal 2017). Akiko's mother is non-disabled, implying, ultimately, that disabled people remain dependent on the care of non-disabled people. Moreover, the mother's care labor is more or less expected within standard patriarchal arrangements in both Japan and India. It forces no negotiation of expected family structures. In this way, the simple substitution of the mother with Narayan, a disabled character who is unrelated by blood, has a significant impact on the social meaning of the film.

A series of scenes both introduces Narayan's role in the family, and also lets us assess the accommodationist mode through which Koshish approaches the "problems" of Deaf dialogue and the picturized song sequence. The first of these scenes repeats the same situation of Deaf danger in which a baby cries and its parents cannot hear. But it renarrates the meaning of that scene by bringing it safely into a cripped family structure. It begins with a night shot of a dark house and a baby crying. The camera pans from the room where his parents sleep next to their crying child, unhearing, to an adjoining room where his blind "uncle" has awakened. Narayan pulls a rope which we realize, as we follow the camera back toward the first bedroom, is attached to Hari's leg, jerking it up and down until the latter wakes up. He then wakes his wife and together they tend to the baby's needs. In a normatively structured patriarchal family, night feeding is a type of care labor that falls under the exclusive purview of the mother. Interestingly, it would be read as socially inappropriate for Narayan to touch (even through the medium of the rope) the leg of a woman to whom he is not married. In the Japanese original, Akiko's mother takes on this role and thus rechannels care labor into the "appropriate" feminized, familial axis (Mondal 2017). Because Narayan must wake Hari as an intermediary, the same scene and character role here renegotiates night feeding as non-gendered, whole-family labor.

The second scene in this series shows us how a cripped family structure enables the film to work around its major problems of "dialogue." Koshish tends to supplement dialogue with the main characters primarily through diegetic inclusions of what we might call "dubbing" and "subbing." In many parts of the film, non-disabled characters respond to or interpret aloud for the protagonists – in effect, dubbing their dialogue into modern standard Hindi. In this sense, they recapitulate the way that all dialogues in popular Hindi cinema are over-dubbed after the fact (Ganti 2013). The preference for "clean" sound means that almost no sound in the film was actually captured from the mise-en-scene. When characters like Narayan rearticulate or supplement what Hari and Aarthi sign, they offer a potential meta-commentary on the filmmaking process. Because Koshish takes an accommodationist mode, however, the film does not draw any such attention to its production process. This is a core difference from the "Deaf gain" position that sound editors undertook with Barfi!

At other times, the lovers correspond between themselves in letters written in Hindi. The exchange of letters plays a large role in their courtship and in the film as a whole, since the first half of the film concerns Aarthi's education and literacy. These letters play the role of diegetic subtitles in several key parts of the film.

But the film also requires dialogue as part of a more active plot, in which letters are not an adequate formal solution to the thematic "problem" of Deafness. Often, the film uses short signed dialogues between the protagonists that can be read as "transparent" – meaning that they can be understood as pantomime either because of an adequate overlap between ISL and the standard gestural repertoire of Hindi speakers, or because pantomime is actually being employed in lieu of ISL. In Koshish, signed dialogue falls into this latter category. This is tremendously problematic for the way that it reinforces the assumption (in India and elsewhere) that sign language is not language, i.e., that it is not as complex or expressive as orally spoken language (Friedner 2018).

At the same time, these elements of gestural "transparency" are qualities more prominently employed in all popular Hindi cinema through the codes of melodrama. Following Peter Brooks, Dwai Bannerjee describes how Bollywood illness narratives use melodrama to express "in gesture, music, or pantomime what cannot be put forward in words" (Bannerjee 2020, 159). The sense of "cannot" here is multivalent. For Brooks, it means those sentiments which are not socially or personally acceptable to express verbally – romantic passion, deep despair, and so on. But for Bannerjee this is also a literal injunction, as when the effects of cancer render characters in various films physically unable to use oral language. In the same way, gesture, music, and pantomime have allowed Bollywood films to circulate widely in both national and transnational spheres where Hindi is not spoken, or not spoken fluently. Among its other appeals – and its roots in distinct dramaturgical traditions – a melodramatic style allows these diverse audiences to better enjoy dialogue they may not fully understand (Gupta and Hansen 2005). At the same time, dance repertoires in Bollywood often draw on mudra forms that use gestures to convey specific semantic content. Indeed, one poster for Koshish underscores this overlap. It illustrates a close up on a woman's hands posed in a gesture that may either be read as a linguistic sign or as a mudra.

Figure 3. More description below.

Figure 3. Left: A close-up illustrated shot of a woman's hands in red on a blue background, the right forefinger and thumb joined while the other fingers splay upward. Fingers from the left hand touch the right forefinger and thumb, partly obscured by the film's title in yellow. Right: A black and white still from the song "Ghar aaya mera pardesi" ["My Wanderer Has Returned Home"] from the film Awaara [Vagabond] (1951). Actress Nargis dances in a gray choli blouse and white skirt in front of a background of starbursts. She displays a similar gesture with her left hand as part of the scene's choreography.

One unintended byproduct of this enduring preference for overt and gestural acting has been an increased ability to accommodate performance without dialogue, or where the dialogue will not be understood by all viewers. This includes signed dialogue.

We can see these uses of dubbing and melodrama in the second two scenes introducing the familial role of "Narayan Uncle." In the first of these, Narayan, Aarthi, and Hari are gathered together on the couple's bed to pick a name for the baby. Narayan holds the baby and narrates the scene for the audience, while we watch as the couple fights over how many names each may submit to a lottery. There is signing in this dialogue between them, but it is minimal, and the gestural repertoire is more or less transparent. They then guide Narayan's hand to the pile to pick the name, here reasserting his centrality in a cripped family capable of social reproduction. The audience is shown the winning name on paper – functionally a subtitle. Aarthi is elated to find that she has won, and she runs off to play with her newly named child. The hero at first attempts to argue with her, and then gives up and watches her, bemused. Because he cannot see the result of their lottery, Narayan asks them aloud, "What name have you picked, tell me." He is ignored in the midst of the couple's own drama and remains forgotten until he manages to attract Hari's attention, at which point the latter traces the name in Devanagari script on Narayan's arm. "Ah," Narayan says, "Amit? A good name, it's a very good name" – thus "dubbing" the subtitled dialogue for the non-literate portion of the audience (Gulzar 1972).

Figure 4. More description below.

Figure 4. Above: From left to right, Narayan sits in a chair holding baby Amit in his right hand and passing a piece of paper to Aarthi with his left. She sits on the bed in the middle facing front, while Hari sits on the bed to the right in profile. All wear coordinating shades of umber, visually suggesting their coherence as a family unit. Lower Left: A close up of Aarthi's hands holding the winning slip with the name "Amit" written in Devanagari script. Lower Right: Hari uses his forefinger to trace "Amit" onto Narayan's forearm.

This, then, is the basic solution to the problem of dialogue. Signed dialogue is alternately rendered "transparent" through melodrama, "subtitled" by written letters, or "dubbed" by various hearing characters. What, then, of song? We see it in the scene that follows. Here, Aarthi makes food while Hari sits on the ground in front of his young son, repeating a now familiar gesture of banging pots by his ears to test whether he is hearing or Deaf. Narayan appears and demands that Hari cease – "What are you doing? Throw this away" (Gulzar 1972). Unlike the non-disabled doctors and nurses who smilingly reassure Hari and Aarthi that their sons can hear, Narayan forcefully rejects the premise, and with it Hari's internalized ableism. With guidance from Hari (again emphasizing the cripped family's mutual interdependence), Narayan picks up the child, and gazes, unseeing, into the distance as a non-diegetic musical cue starts up for "So Ja Baba Mere" ["Go to Sleep My Child"]. This musical cue somehow also grabs the attention of both protagonists who stop and turn to watch him. Tight close-ups on Hari and Aarthi suggest that they are emotionally impacted by the content of the song, though they cannot hear it, nor are they well positioned to see Narayan's face as he sings. As his wife interrogates him with a gesture, Hari pantomimes that Narayan will now sing – one hand by the ear and the other in front of the mouth in the style of a classical singer, followed by a pantomime of flute playing by the corner of his mouth. This is repeated at the end of the sequence when the protagonists ask each other whether Narayan has finished his lullaby for the evening.

The lyrics of "So Ja Baba Mere" articulate the way these characters find value in their disabled experiences and supplement each other's abilities, as we saw in the preceding scenes. Yet the song also illuminates the tensions between the socially positive "cripping" of the family and the structure of ablest stereotypes through which their difference is being valued. Speaking of Aarthi, Narayan sings, "Your mother is mum. But her eyes are full of words [that she cannot speak to you]" (Gulzar 1972). As a specific, audistic stereotype, this statement suggests that Aarthi is incapable of the full range of communication because she does not use oral speech. Yet it is also coherent with a much larger melodramatic trope of Bollywood filmmaking, especially Bollywood song. Quite literally, Narayan takes up the role of melodrama as the element which expresses emotions that are socially unacceptable for Aarthi to express directly, and which the hearing audience also cannot directly "hear" from her. He continues, "Take the sleep from my eyes, my eyes are full of darkness," suggesting a scenario in which "dark" eyes are a benefit, rather than a detraction (Gulzar 1972). The song also performs that classic filmic task of a montage which advances the narrative several years, bringing Amit from babyhood into boyhood.

Figure 5. More description below.

Figure 5. Left: Narayan crouches above Hari, supporting himself with his right hand on a red and white cane that identifies him as blind. With his left hand, he grabs a stick with which Hari was banging a pot as he is seated on the ground in front of baby Amit (located out of frame). The subtitle reads "Throw this away." Right: Narayan stands downstage holding baby Amit in his left arm. Aarthi, standing slightly behind, gazes up and to the right at them. The subtitle reads "Your mother is mum."

Here the film seems to wrestle with realist conventions around both disability and the notional location of music in a formal sense. This, of course, is a more general question for Hindi popular cinema – the precise location and reality effect of song sequences in which the actors dance and lip-sync to (usually) non-diegetic music, often transported to fanciful locations with multiple costume changes that suggest a fantasy space, but just as often seeming to occur more or less in the scope of everyday life (Thomas 1995). While the presence of disabled characters threatens to pull the curtain back on these contradictions, the filmmakers seem eager to contain disability only at the level of plot and character. They show no interest in thinking about how Deafness might crip film production itself.

At the end of the film, the "baba" of the lullaby has grown into an accomplished, hearing man. Amit speaks with pride to a friend about what he has learned about, love, life, and family from his Deaf parents, and especially his "Narayan Uncle." Hari's employer now offers his daughter Padma in marriage to Amit. In another film, the difference between Amit and Padma's social class would be the conflict standing in the way of their conjugality. But the daughter, it is revealed, is also Deaf – "she can neither speak nor hear" (Gulzar 1972). This line is reinforced with close ups on her ears and mouth, and then with a flashback in which Hari looks at Padma and recalls the joys of his early life with Aarthi, who has since passed away. Coming over to embrace his friend's daughter and express his agreement to the match, Hari again enacts the willed kinship of "Deaf same-same."

But it is a solidarity that Amit initially rejects, which Hari reads as a rejection of the family he has created with Aarthi and Narayan. Hari berates his son in front of the garlanded photo of Aarthi. But Amit only agrees to the match after Narayan, awakened by their commotion, succors him while also cajoling him to honor his parents by agreeing to marry Padma. Narayan's dialogue again "dubs" Hari's gestures into spoken language. Echoing Hari's address to Aarthi's photo, he emphasizes the duality of the conjugal pair and their sacrifices raising Amit. Yet the scene's blocking and camera-work instead reinforce Narayan's central parental role – it is Narayan who embraces a sobbing Amit, and it is to Narayan that Amit ultimately apologizes for his lapse in filial devotion. The film's final shot shows two pairs of signing hands, Padma and Amit's, overdubbed by Amit's request for her forgiveness and his acceptance of their marriage. In addition to emphasizing Amit's social reproduction of Deaf family life, this conclusion echoes Aarthi's prior rejection and ultimate acceptance of marriage with Hari because of his Deafness. The irony of these scenes is that, in order to honor his disabled caregivers and the cripped family in which he was raised, Amit is pressured into a much more normative structure of patrilocal, arranged marriage.

When Aarthi initially rejects a marriage to Hari – replayed in her son's later rejection of Padma – she echoes the common ableist anxieties about sexual and social reproduction discussed in the introduction. Will their union produce a disabled child? Will their disabilities inhibit their capacity to care for children, or even for each other? Rather than articulate these anxieties only as stereotypes held by non-disabled characters, romantic comedies frequently use the choice of partner to dramatize a disabled protagonist's negotiation with their own internalized ableism. This concern moves from the margins of the story in Koshish to the center of the plot in Barfi!


Barfi! concerns a love triangle between the protagonist and two women: Jhilmil, who is disabled, and Shruti, who is not. His choice between them can be read as a proxy for his own identification with disability as a social category. Yet in some ways, discussed below, Barfi's journey to "claiming crip" results in a less daringly imagined future for disabled people (Schalk 2013).

At the same time, Barfi! is much more creative than Koshish in addressing the apparent aural constraint of having a Deaf protagonist. It uses them to instigate a series of innovations away from the expected soundscape of Hindi cinema, and toward metafictional engagements with the history and mechanics of filmmaking. The scenes analyzed below demonstrate a range of formal possibilities that open up when thematic Deafness is considered an asset rather than a deficit. I call this position a "Deaf gain" (Bauman and Murray 2014) approach to film production. This is apparent first in the way that Barfi! draws attention to those mechanics to emphasize the differences between Barfi and Shruti, and later how it transforms the picturized song sequence to project a conjugal future with Jhilmil.

Just as Koshish was adapted from an earlier film from Japan, the narrative frame and first act of Barfi! were adapted from The Notebook. The hazily established and infrequently recalled framing conceit of the film is a documentary retrospective of Barfi's life, one narrated through interviews with Shruti and other non-disabled secondary characters. Like the notebook at the center of The Notebook, this retrospective device helps narrate recollections about the beginning of a life-changing romance from a position at the end of life. This conceit originally makes it seem that Barfi's story will operate prosthetically as an opportunity for Shruti's character development. But the documentary format languishes all but forgotten for large portions of the film, especially as Shruti herself disappears from the narrative in the second act. Its real purpose seems purely formal, offering a rationale for another form of "dubbing:" the occasional voice-over narration of the action in a context where orally spoken dialogue is otherwise constrained.

Outside of these scenes of "dubbing," there is marked absence of orally voiced dialogue, and a concomitant reliance on melodramatic pantomime. In this case, the actor who plays Barfi, Ranbir Kapoor, communicates through actual ISL, signaling an important shift in attitude among Bollywood producers. Yet his dialogue is punctuated with facial and bodily gestures that are (typically for signed languages) vividly expressive, even by the standards of Bollywood melodrama. Clearly the filmmakers still imagined a very limited tolerance for signed dialogue among their core audience. Instead, Barfi! moves these existing conventions toward a position of "Deaf gain" by associating melodrama explicitly with a nostalgic attachment to film history.

Barfi's physical appearance – cap, loose pants, shoes with holes, and later, a thin, stylized mustache – offer an obvious redeployment of Charlie Chaplin's early twentieth century tramp archetype. If the embodied citation were not sufficiently clear, Ranbir Kapoor also restages several of Chaplin's most famous pantomime set pieces, one of which includes a split-second appearance of Chaplin himself. In this way, filmmakers prompt the audience to recall the specific pleasures of a cinema before the advent of orally spoken dialogue, one in which actors' facial and embodied gestures were more or less transparent, and in which the actor's physical charisma outshines his line delivery (Chion 2009). Rather than a problem, then, Barfi's exclusive communication in ISL is presented as a formal opportunity to indulge the pleasures of nostalgia.

For the Hindi cinema audience, these citations also recall an earlier redeployment of Chaplin's image in the awaara [vagabond] archetype made famous by Raj Kapoor in the 1950s. Recent Hindi cinema is replete with nostalgic invocations of Raj Kapoor, especially his relationship with frequent co-star Nargis and their most iconic song appearance "Pyar Hua, Ikraar Hua" ["There Is Love and It Has Been Accepted"] from Shree 420 [Mr. 420] (1955) (Gopal 2011). As Neepa Majumdar has argued, audiences of popular Hindi cinema supplement the characterization intrinsic to the film with their own knowledge about the personal lives of film stars, especially Nargis and Raj Kapoor (Majumdar 2003). Barfi! adds a further layer to these nostalgic references to star power, since the audience would recognize Ranbir as Raj's grandson, and thus a natural inheritor of his legacy. Barfi! cites Nargis and Raj Kapoor's encounter under an umbrella from the picturization of "Pyar Hua, Ikraar Hua" – one of the most iconic and oft-reproduced images in Bollywood history – to lead into a series of short scenes that closes out Barfi and Shruti's courtship, and thus the first act of the film.

Figure 6. More description below.

Figure 6. Left: Nargis and Raj Kapoor stand together under a single umbrella while rain pours. Lit apartment blocks and a long line of streetlights recede into the distance. Right: A fence and decorative ferns obscure the foreground, meeting a stone wall on the left. Behind them, Shruti and Barfi face each other, standing under a black umbrella, misted by light rain.

Although they love each other, her family ultimately convinces Shruti that Barfi's class position and disability will be a barrier to their happiness. Shruti's mother shows her the working-class man she, herself, was in love with before marrying Shruti's father— exactly reproducing a scene from The Notebook. What the scene from Barfi! adds to its American intertext is a suggestion of how Barfi's Deafness operates as part of this barrier to appropriate social reproduction. First, Shruti's mother suggests that being Deaf will limit Barfi's employability and hamper his class ascension. But she claims it will also inhibit the lines of communication that sustain a "normal" marriage. "What you wish to hear, he cannot say. And what you will say, he cannot hear. […] That silence, bit by bit, one day it will silence your love" (Basu 2012). Through this trope, Barfi! seems to follow several more problematic Bollywood films about Deafness in suggesting that silence [khamoshi] is a threat to conjugal harmony.

In the scenes that follow, the sound editing of Shruti and Barfi's breakup suggests just the opposite. It asserts that love needs no vocal affirmation to flourish, and that sign language is a real language capable of communicating all that is necessary to sustain a family. The series begins as Barfi leaves Shruti's house, having been rebuffed by Shruti's parents after attempting to ask for permission to marry her. Shruti catches him as he descends the stairs, opening an umbrella to shelter both of them in the rain. For a moment her demure, downcast response to their enforced proximity perfectly recalls Nargis in the Shree 420 scene. This framing suggests Barfi and Shruti as a destined romantic pair.

Just as suddenly the spell is broken, as Barfi breaks away to confront her. The resulting scene is one of the longest speeches in the whole film, though none of it is orally spoken. Indeed, as we watch Barfi's dramatic monologue, our attention is drawn to a palpable absence of expected sound. It's not that sound is actually absent in this or almost any other part of the film. There is very little actual silence. It's rather that the soundscape is muted, here consisting only of apparently diegetic sound, very light rain and traffic noise in the background, in the foreground Barfi's hard breathing and the rustle of his clothing. These noises are always present in a filmic soundscape, but as viewers we are trained not to attend to them. They are the sounds on the unthought side of the boundary between what we merely hear and what we actually listen to in film. In a more technical sense, these are Foley effects, the kind of sound which we perceive as diegetic but are actually reincorporated in the editing stage. In popular Hindi cinema, it is likely that all of these sounds were created in postproduction in the studio. As we saw, Koshish tries to limit audience attention to sound production by minimizing the contexts of dialogue and song in which sound must "accommodate" Deaf characters. In opposite fashion, the editing here draws attention to the boundary between what we perceive as inherent to the scene itself as part of the narrative, what might have been audible to the actors themselves, and what sounds are actually produced organically in the filming process.

This effect is reversed in the scenes that follow. These scenes are marked by the almost total absence of diegetic sound. This trope, in which diegetic sound is muted, is used repeatedly in Barfi! to help the audience relate to the protagonist's non-hearing interiority. In these scenes, we, like him, do not perceive diegetic sounds originating from the mise-en-scene. Even so, their absence does not necessarily produce a deficit. Instead, they open a space for a different kind of (pleasantly soundtracked) perception. While these musical "silences" usually focalize through Barfi, in this series of scenes the same editing gesture cues Shruti's empathetic engagement with Deafness. Just after their breakup, we see a breakfast scene at Shruti's house opening on a shot of her face, followed by shots of clinking glasses and close ups of her fiancé and parents' mouths as they speak. This draws attention, again, to the failure of the soundscape to conform to audience expectations. No audible dialogue, no Foley effects accompany the scene, challenging its realism. Instead, implicitly, this is a filmic reproduction of Deafness.

In the final scene in this series, Barfi cycles alongside the Darjeeling train on which Shruti is departing. The two of them gaze longingly into each other's eyes in what they imagine is a final goodbye. There are diegetic sound effects in the scene, but they are deemphasized in favor of the musical soundtrack. We seem to hover somewhere between Barfi's Deaf interiority and Shruti's hearing one. Their sweet final encounter is suddenly, violently interrupted by a sharp cut in which Barfi is taken unaware and crashes into a pole as the train thunders on. This visual interruption is mirrored by a dramatic change in the sound mixing – the music abruptly ends as the volume of diegetic sound rises. Here we see one of the film's many recapitulations of Deaf danger, in which the sound-heavy world sneaks up on an unsuspecting Barfi, suggesting he is disproportionately vulnerable to the surprises of a hostile landscape.

The film and its innovative soundscape are punctuated by the recurrence of an audiovisual sight gag. As the camera closes in for a reaction shot of Barfi's startled, lovelorn face, a new, more forlorn musical cue starts up. As film viewers, we are trained to expect that this is an extradiegetic sound (the soundtrack), but as the camera pans past Barfi's face, it reveals that the music is actually produced on screen by a three-piece band. At each appearance, the band reminds us of the constructedness of all filmic sound – especially film music. It enjoins audiences to remember they are watching a film, to recall that all filmic sound is equally "real," or, in other words, equally fake.

Figure 7. More description below.

Figure 7. A tearful Barfi appears in the right foreground wearing a blue patterned sweater vest and white t-shirt. Behind him are trees on the left, a wall on the right interrupted by a staircase, and another wall topped by a billboard. The billboard shows an ad for Barfi's namesake, Murphy radio, a picture of a young boy holding his right forefinger to his mouth. Slowly coming into focus seated on the wall below are three musicians, from left to right, an accordionist, a violinist, and a guitar player.

This visual joke leads us to consider one of the most commercially and critically salient aspects of Barfi!'s reception: its soundtrack. Whatever other genre Bollywood films participate in – the social, the masala, spaghetti Western, or now increasingly, horror, sci-fi, or other genres – they are always also musicals. Koshish approached the thematic presence of Deaf characters as a "problem" for film music. It "accommodated" this "problem" by reducing the number of songs and arranging for secondary characters like Narayan to lip-sync them. Barfi! goes another way, one that both undercuts audience expectations but also, interestingly, finds thematic cover for a broader formal shift in Bollywood film.

Indeed, the felt impossibility of a lip-synced performance was a major advantage to the film, justifying its iconic role in an ongoing paradigm shift away from song sequence and toward an American-style soundtrack model (Gopal 2011). Gopal argues that since the turn of the century, Bollywood films have markedly reduced the production of traditional picturized song sequences. Barfi! uses thematically relevant songs at regular intervals over montage scenes that suggest Barfi's developing relationships with various other characters in the film. And yet, despite the apparent "constraint" of a Deaf protagonist and the still somewhat atypical model of a fully sound-tracked Hindi film, the Barfi! soundtrack was a major critical and commercial success. The timing of this success – at a key hinge point for this kind of production choice – means that Barfi! was more than on trend. It helped set the trend.

Even if the performance of the song sequence has changed, its core narrative purpose has not. Just as in Koshish, the song sequences in Barfi! melodramatically express dreams of a conjugal future for the protagonist who cannot directly articulate them himself. This is clearest in the song sequence "Aashiyan" ["Nest"] in the middle of the film, and its reprise at the end. Together, these scenes articulate what the film believes to be the possibilities and limits of a romantic future for disabled people.

Once Shruti leaves Darjeeling, Barfi intensifies his existing friendship with Jhilmil. The film introduces Jhilmil as "autistic," using the English word. She exhibits stereotyped autistic characteristics such as limited verbal communication, stimming, and discomfort with direct eye contact and certain kinds of physical touch. Jhilmil is also the sole heir of a wealthy, dysfunctional family and is a trustee of a large fortune, one which comes to animate much of the plot in the second half of the film. In the midst of a separate criminal scheme meant to raise money to care for his ailing father, Barfi accidentally foils a plot to kidnap Jhilmil for ransom, ends up abducting her himself, and then eventually moves clandestinely with her to Calcutta.

In Calcutta, they cohabitate in a way that is obviously caring but whose precise social nature remains ambiguous. Their relationship hovers between platonic friendship, parental caretaking, and conjugal domesticity. Jhilmil's dress and behavior are consistently portrayed as innocent and childlike, and Barfi's care work often mirrors that of a parent. Even so, their living situation obviously suggests marriage.

The song "Aashiyan" emphasizes this ambivalence, showing us Barfi and Jhilmil's everyday life in Calcutta, a combination of childlike play and quotidian household tasks. The latter includes Barfi bathing on the rooftop, demurely asking Jhilmil to turn around while he soaps under his underwear; the two of them attempting to cook roti together, which she replaces with dough animals she forbids him to eat; Jhilmil's failed attempts to fan Barfi while he eats in the way she has seen a wife do in their neighborhood; and finally a reversal of the fanning scene in which Barfi fans Jhilmil to sleep as the pair lie in bed together after a long day. These scenes create a mix of humor and tenderness based on a cripped gender reversal in which acts of household social reproduction – shopping, cooking, feeding, fanning – flow ironically from husband to wife.

Figure 8. More description below.

Figure 8. Left: Jhilmil lies on her side in bed, while Barfi reclines behind her yawning and fanning her. Right: An aged-up Jhilmil wearing glasses and a grey wig eats from small china bowls while an aged-up Barfi in white hair, a neck brace, and sweater vest, fans her.

The lyrics, like those of "So Ja Baba Mere," suggest how the characters' disability may add to, rather than detract from, some aspect of family life. "With muted steps/ life comes in slowly,/ putting a kiss on the lips,/ and locking them, come,/ let's sing the silent songs in a low voice" (Basu 2012). The images of "muted" steps, "light/slow" approaches, "silent" songs, and "locked lips" – here meaning shut silently (literally with a lock) – all reference the two main characters' different types of nonverbal expressiveness as peaceful "quietness." Now, on the one hand, this representation of sign language as "quiet" does not do justice to its full emotional repertoire in the way that Barfi's earlier breakup speech does. But it does offer a direct counter to the concept of oppressive, noncommunicative silence that Shruti's mother projects as the death of her daughter's love for Barfi. Instead, the song lyrics here suggest quiet as the ideal sonic landscape in which a shy love might flourish.

When Shruti, now married, reappears in Calcutta, she briefly throws this domestic arrangement into chaos. Barfi is forced to confront the choice between a torrid romance with Shruti, typical of Hindi popular cinema, or the uxorial (but apparently celibate) relationship with Jhilmil. The film makes clear that Jhilmil senses Barfi's attraction to Shruti and is jealous of it – this helps set off the film's climactic action – but not whether a sexual relationship with Barfi is one she wants or could consent to (Gill 2015).

The film never satisfactorily answers these questions, even though Barfi ultimately decides to give up his interest in Shruti in favor of a life with Jhilmil. Instead, we rush from Barfi's declaration of love to Jhilmil to the triad's old age in the present day. Shruti's story has interestingly reversed the common prosthetic encounter between disabled and non-disabled characters. Rather than a momentary disorientation, Shruti's encounter with Barfi permanently crips her conjugal future, prompting her exit from the normative structure of her arranged marriage, and guiding her to become a teacher of Deaf children. Barfi and Jhilmil are equally invested in the social reproduction of a disabled community. They co-run the residential institution where Jhilmil grew up, Muskaan, where they care for and educate disabled children.

The closing credits offer a reprise of "Aashiyan" in which an aged-up Barfi and Jhilmil putter around Muskaan doing typically gendered forms of domestic care work: Jhilmil, now dressed in an age-appropriate salwar kameez and wearing bangles, bindi, and sindoor to indicate her married state, knits Barfi a sweater vest; they alternate fanning each other over dinner; Barfi tries to sneak a bidi cigarette and Jhilmil catches and scolds him, in response to which he playfully threatens her with a backhand slap. In this way, even the specter of gendered violence is played out as a part of typical domestic harmony in an aged couple.

The humor of these scenes comes not from Jhilmil's ironic failures at domesticity, as it did in the original version of "Aashiyan." Instead, the scenes underscore the fact that what were seen as deficiencies in an earlier stage of life are now more or less normal aspects of old age. The plot-animating questions about Barfi's economic viability posed by Shruti's mother are here solved by Jhilmil's fortune. Similarly, concerns about Jhilmil's capacity for domestic labor, the focus of the first "Aashiyan," are resolved by the ability to employ servants. Questions of sexual compatibility, of the possibility of sexual reproduction, are sidestepped by jumping ahead to a period in which sexuality is understood to no longer play a significant role in a couple's life.

This is at best an ambiguous presentation of cripped conjugal futures. On the one hand, Barfi! follows Koshish and other films in suggesting that Barfi's choice of love object reinforces his own capacity to love his disabled self. But the visual crosscuts that emphasize mutual recognition between Barfi and Jhilmil (akin to the experience of "Deaf same-same" in Koshish) do not seem to convey mutual attraction and desire. The absence of children seems to suggest an absence of sexual intimacy. Daily life is, moreover, circumscribed within institutional settings—whether Shruti's day school in Calcutta or the residential school in Darjeeling. These are substantially less disorienting to the ableist status quo than the arrangement in Koshish, a film produced forty years earlier. Still, the film does ask productive questions like "what is the true purpose of marriage?" or "how should care circulate in a family?" – questions that a cripped kinship structure can answer against the grain.


In this essay, I have suggested a greater role for formal analysis in the assessment of films about disability. I have likewise underscored tendencies in a nonwestern media industry that do not align with an American model of disability scholarship. By focusing on sound editing, plot structure, and the meeting of these two features in the Bollywood song sequence, I have suggested a few avenues along which these readings might proceed. There are many other properties that might be ripe for similar treatments as we expand our analysis beyond the traditional readings of disability in characterization.

Sitting right at the juncture of characterization and film production, for example, are makeup and prosthetics. Mitchell and Snyder have made "prosthesis" part of the metaphorical core of the analysis of disability representation. In her writing on the "faking" disability in film, Samuels (2014) has done work to take this concept back to the realm of the literal. This means entering into a discussion of the frequent recourse to makeup to "produce" disabled characters on-screen: changes to the shape of a face to suggest injury or congenital difference, contacts that blur the cornea, green screens that delete limbs, and so on. Yet among all the prosthetics that often show up in films about disability, one is common to both Koshish and Barfi!, and quite uncommon anywhere else: grey hair.

Grey hair, and the larger prosthetic process of aging up, implies survival. As Kafer (2013) argues, when so many ideal futures imply the eradication of disability, to imagine the survival of disability (and disabled people) is itself a radical act. Yet these films celebrate not only the biological survival of the individual, but also the social longevity of a cripped family. The image of two (or even three or more) heads of wavy grey hair, inclined towards each other, visually cues the years of mutual, negotiated care that, cumulatively, fulfills the plot promise of "happily ever after."


I thank Sonja Sharp for our discussions about disability and culture, my students in classes on disability at Brandeis University, Harvard University, and Stanford University, Anaar Desai Stephens, the editorial team at DSQ, and Hayden Kantor, my most careful and constant reader.


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  1. In this article, I capitalize Deaf in accordance with an understanding of Deaf people as a distinct identity group. (See Lane 2005; Lane, Pillard & Hedberg 2011; Ladd & Lane 2013.)
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  2. This incorrectly reinforces audistic notions that Deaf people can easily learn to reproduce oral speech and sounds.
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