I saw ‘Peranbu’ today, persuaded by my friend Priya A.S. who told me it was about a single parent bringing up a child with cerebral palsy. This was on the last day of a short, busy stay at my mother’s house in Trivandrum but I knew once I’d left for Delhi and onwards to London, I would not get the chance to see this film. I also knew Priya would not be insistent without good reason. An extremely sensitive writer, who had many years ago thrown heart and soul into translating my first book ‘Ancient Promises’ into Malayalam, she understood very well the heartache of parenting a child with special needs.
And so, while my mother and aunt distracted my daughter by taking her to visit a cousin, I raced across to one of Trivandrum’s new multiplexes to catch the morning show. Not without trepidation, I have to say, as I am wary of films that purport to carry ‘good’ messages. I recall having gone to see ‘Black’ in London when similarly well-meaning friends told me of how worthy and moving it was. Yes, ‘Black’ had an unusual theme for Bollywood – especially for its time – and certainly one that needed, finally, to be addressed by Indian cinema. But ‘worthy’ isn’t exactly what one needs to shine a light on very personal struggles.
By dragging the issues surrounding disability into the darkest, most tortured realms, what ‘Black’ did was merely reduce disability to a horrifying and pitiable condition (a Chaplinesque dance sequence by Rani Mukherjee didn’t help). This film depicted a condition to be pitied, rather than understood, leave alone embraced. There will not be many parents of people with disabilities who, while acknowledging the difficulties, will not also rush to tell you about some of its peculiar tiny successes and consequent joys. To leave these out so completely revealed a staggering lack of understanding of that complex world.
I have to say, with some relief, that ‘Peranbu’ was no ‘Black’. For one, both Mammootty and Sadhana, the girl who plays his daughter, a teenager with cerebral palsy, have put in astonishing performances. The anguish, fear and occasional resentment of both characters were conveyed (in Sadhana’s case, by necessity) mostly through their eyes and with the minimum of dialogue or drama. For me, however, what most captivated was the portrayal of a parent who is suddenly left to care for a special needs child; one of the most subtle performances I have seen Mammootty deliver. It was almost reminiscent of the father in the stage production of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,’ Mark Haddon’s funny and moving story about a single father trying to manage his autistic son. Watching that play in London nearly reduced me to a sobbing wreck but it was only much later that I realised it was the father I wanted to weep for and not the son. Sure, the boy with autism was contending with his own dragons but it was the brutally honest portrayal of a father struggling to love this unusual and – yes let’s admit it – ‘difficult’ child that had grabbed me by the gut.
Mark Haddon is not himself a special needs parent but he has taught children with autism and hence his insight. Watching ‘Peranbu’, I wondered where the empathy had come from. While I would have wished for a bit more levity, a bit more laughter (yes, believe it or not, there is plenty of comedy in the lives of people with special needs), this film did at least reveal some flashes of happiness. It was both moving and amusing to witness the sheer relief displayed by the father the first time his daughter takes a sanitary pad to the bathroom, insisting on fixing it herself. ‘Such small achievements are like climbing Mount Everest,’ he says.
I was also moved by the manner in which Paapa, the daughter in the film, takes out all the confusion and anger she experiences at her mother’s sudden departure on the person who is now her primary care giver and on whom she relies entirely. This was not filmi but honest and true and so reflective of real life that I felt a moment’s shame for the occasions on which I have severely resented being my daughter’s primary carer and, by default therefore, her natural punching bag every time she feels let down by someone or something that she can neither explain nor understand.
I was also struck by the father’s observation, early in the film, of the devastating effect there is on people with limited understanding when they cannot comprehend why seemingly beloved people suddenly disappear. A kind-hearted stranger sells her lakeside house to the father-daughter pair and briefly amuses the girl by dancing for her. But, when the time comes to leave and she waves goodbye from her boat before disappearing into the mist, the realisation of this new loss proves unbearable for Paapa who, once again, unleashes her grief onto the only person she knows will take it – her father.
Paapa’s mother’s absence presents some narrative problems but one must acknowledge, however reluctantly, that mothers have been known to abandon their children too, sometimes as an act of their own survival as seems to be the case here. In a brief but bold moment, in a film-within-the-film, the idea is mooted that these are perhaps the only parents in the world who wish their children to die before them. I found this too very affecting, having been ghoulishly fascinated by a news story I read a few years after emigrating to England in which a woman took her 12-year-old son with special needs onto the Humber Bridge before persuading him to leap off it with her. Such is the nature of this tormented love that sometimes death together should seem more merciful than life without each other – an idea dallied within ‘Peranbu’ too.
I wished desperately to see the girl in ‘Peranbu’ go to a good special school or a warm, happy residential home so that she could enjoy peer company and her father could return to work without locking her into a room out of fear for her safety. I’m only too painfully aware, though, of how, in India particularly, this is sometimes easier said than done.
Fortunately, a redemptive twist showed that love and support can come in the most unexpected places and from the unlikeliest of people. Given such love, most people with special needs respond like flowers to sunshine. I should not deliver further spoilers for those who have not seen the film but will conclude by saying that my own daughter’s unexpected saviours have been step-parents – both of whom she adores more than her biological parents – a few kindly teachers and carers at the schools and residential units she has been lucky to attend and some friends and family members, unfailingly generous to her with their time and attention.
I became aware a long time ago, when my daughter was growing up in India, that being a special needs parent is sometimes the loneliest place on earth to be. What ‘Peranbu’, made thirty-five years later, told me was that things haven’t changed very much. And that is an almost unbearable thought.
Jaishree Misra is the author of eight novels published by Penguin and Harper Collins in the UK. Her most recent book, ‘A House for Mr Misra’, is a short non-fiction account of building a writers’ studio on a Kerala beach. Along with other special needs parents, she helped set up a residential home for adults with learning difficulties in Dera Mandi on the outskirts of Delhi. Jaishree can be contacted on http://www.jaishreemisra.com or @JaishreeMisra