How the magic of movies has shaped the emotional growth of my differently-abled sister.

(This story was originally published on on August 16th 2016)

It’s 2:30 pm on a Saturday and our family is about to eat a leisurely weekend lunch at our dining table in New Delhi. The weather is swell, the potatoes are well. Everyone seems chirpy. Bhujia is flowing freely. The topic of music comes up. My mother, on cue, begins to recite the first verse of Orsino’s speech from the 12th night: “If music be the food of love, blah blah”. It’s an involuntary reaction, owing to her one and only stage performance as a girl. But this is no surprise to anyone at the table. We continue, crunching. My mother’s pitched soliloquy is soon disturbed by the crushing sound of Anu Malik crooning Jaanam Samjha Karo from, you know this, Jaanam Samjha Karo. The resultant combination – Shri Shri Shakespeare Malik, is toxic to say the least. “I don’t want excess of it.”

The music, (if we can call it that), is coming from my sister’s room, who, as per cue, has decided to skip our family lunch for her preferred weekend routine: Bollywood dancing. Behind that closed, yet far too thin, wooden door is my sister Varuni Agrawal – 29 years old, assistant teacher, music connoisseur, Shiamak graduate, just your regular adult with down syndrome. (If you’d like you can read more about down syndrome here ( but please do it after.)

You see, this story isn’t about the fact that Varuni is differently-abled, but more so about her absolute, unflinching devotion to cinema and all its strains – music, dance, actors, lyrics, everything. If there’s a film on, any film, she’s watching it – on the TV, on the phone, in the cinema with her friends and a caretaker.

I’ve always been fascinated by her innate ability to memorize songs and remember dialogues and re-enact dance steps with precise perfection, despite all the limitations she might have in learning a language or a complex action. When it comes to movies, Varuni just “gets it”. Almost as if, these stories are able to break a certain invisible barrier of comprehension. That ‘extra’ chromosome, it seems, doesn’t stand a chance in front of the sheer appeal of Shah Rukh Khan.

Now obviously, this is a silly and superficial description of my sister’s special relationship with the movies. So naturally, I looked at my mother for deeper insight. And you know mothers; they never fail to surprise you (even if you occasionally ignore their attempts at Shakespearean diction).

Methinks, she grumbled, thy point is baseless! Varuni isn’t just a fan of the movies; ‘the movies’ have in fact contributed to her emotional development over the years. Tush upon ye.

Emotional development? Movies? Karan Johar? Puhlease! I said, rejecting another piece of cucumber in favor of some Haldiram namkeen. The crunch cannot be compared.

You see, she said, over the years, movies have been able to express themes and emotions that may not have been easy to explain to ‘her’ in simple conversation. Pictures and music have their own unique way of translation. And this effect only gets heightened when the viewer isn’t just getting entertained, but is also, in many ways, getting educated.

Profound, I said.
Eat thine cucumbers, she replied.

I began to think back to our days as children and how this would have manifested in Varuni’s life.

For starters, we were fascinated with Mary Poppins – the ‘original’ British flick combining magic, fantasy and children. And even though we were young and impressionable then, for Varuni, this was in fact, her first repeated interaction with the English language and all its vocal variations (Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of Dick Van Dyke was simply quite atrocious). We must have seen the movie a 100 times, every weekend, and on most afternoons. And it’s strange to think that our own “Poppin Mary”, as Varuni still stubbornly calls her, might have set the foundation for the language she now speaks and writes with confidence at work and on our family WhatsApp group. Who knew, that a spoonful of sugar could actually help a language go down? (The same can’t be said about the mangodi aloo we were eating for lunch. Belch.)

Another really important movie for us as children was Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke. It was again, the only cassette at home and we played it on the VCR relentlessly. And yes, one did have reservations about the story, but it touched upon themes like sibling rivalry and sibling love that were re-enacted at our house everyday. On Holi, we aimed to throw eggs much like that scene between Dalip Tahil and the kids, and we sang the theme song together on our picnic rides every summer.

The point is: these movies had their own special way of communicating a message to Varuni that sometimes was difficult for us as siblings, guardians and parents. It would be unfair of me to not mention the role of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in actually relaying themes like love, marriage, and friendship that were initially complex concepts for her to understand. It’s always nice when today, I hear her address a minor spat between friends with the same sage advice: Relax, she’s your best friend ya!

This unique relationship even extends to more heavy themes like death, fear, and separation that we would typically shield her from, for obvious reasons. But the movies, the movies found their unique way of passing on this message, without the intimidation or parental baggage. So for example, the funeral scene in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham or the pain of an orphan in Baghban, or even the sudden demise of Mihir from Kyunki Saas, might not have meant much to us as viewers, but for Varuni, they were essential inductions into life, reality and mortality.

Today, I see her as a proud and empathetic adult, and I know, that a lot of her value system has been influenced by her favourites like Munna Bhai MBBS, that have glorified difference, debate and the idea of accepting everyone the way they are. And conversely, even your typically ‘masala movies’ have allowed her the freedom to escape into a world that she may or may not get to practically experience – romance, marriage, even adulation from chanting crowds. These are all distant realities, but for those 3 minutes of Chittiyan Kalaiyan, it all seems to make sense. I can see the entire range of emotions on her face, as if she is truly living the moment, the beat and the lyrics. This interplay is priceless.

And somewhere this does get me thinking. Isn’t it strange how we, as a community, still restrict the idea of the movies (and the Arts) to just Entertainment, but never Education? A second fiddle to more respectable fields but never really a source of serious value, intellectually and emotionally? But moving pictures have serious power. I don’t need to tell you that. They can transcend barriers of place, caste, language, but most importantly, people, despite their differing intellectual levels. It’s just unfortunate that we don’t capitalize on this ‘soft power’ for purposes that are larger and more meaningful. For I can see the valuable influence it has had on the emotional growth of Varuni.

With all this in mind, I finally decided to hop across and request my sister to join us for lunch. Three knocks and I was glaring at her, with admittedly a dash of elder-brotherly anger. “Varu, come to table. Now!”

Her response? Smooth as the cucumber I had just refused to eat.

“Bhaiya! I’m busy okay.”

She then curled her right index finger imitating Sridevi from the movie Laadla.

“Understand? (snap) You better understand!”


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