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Before Barack Obama, there was ‘Barry’, basketball and romance

Vikram Gandhi’s biopic for Netflix focuses on Obama’s formative years at Columbia University in the early 1980s.

Barry is at a party, and his youth, intelligence and charm are not going unnoticed. A trans-sexual comes up to him and says, “Hey baby, you’re adorable. Do you like to party?” Barry pauses, neither accepting nor rejecting the overture. “Define party,” he says.

Vikram Gandhi’s biopic Barry is about the thoughtful young man who came before Barack Obama. The Netflix production, which will air from December 16, is filled with seemingly fleeting but eventually significant actions and encounters that shape the future President of the United States of America. Barry traces the period between 1981 and ’83 when Obama was studying political science at Columbia University in New York City. The mixed-race student (beautifully played by Devon Terrell) must have been beset by several doubts and internal debates, but one thought dominates Adam Mansbach’s absorbing screenplay: am I black or am I white?

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‘Barry’.

The race question hangs over Barry’s affair with Charlotte (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a wealthy white classmate. Barry is the second Obama biopic in a year to focus on the Democrat leader’s love life after Southside With You. Richad Tanne’s Southside With You, which was released in American cinemas in August, focussed on Obama’s first date with Michelle, his future wife, in 1989.

Charlotte is a composite of some of Obama’s white girlfriends during college. Barry slips easily into several diverse social circles, and has easygoing friendships with his Pakistani joint-living buddy Saleem (Avi Nash) and his black basketball playing friend (Jason Mitchell), but the relationship with Charlotte becomes a source of personal conflict.

Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Barry’.
Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Barry’.

Gandhi has previously directed the documentary Kumaré (2011), in which he impersonates a Hindu guru and sets up a cult in Arizona, as well as produced documentaries for the HBO series Vice. Born in America to Indian parents, the 38-year-old filmmaker was particularly interested in Obama’s college years in NYC. “I was just trying to find out who was this kid who went on to become the president later,” Gandhi said in a telephone interview. “You see the kid in this phase of his life where he is trying to figure out who he is.”

Since Gandhi was born and raised in NYC, the story had added resonance for the filmmaker. “New York for any young man is a place to open your eyes and see what the possibilities are and where you belong,” Gandhi said. “So many moments in the film have also come from my memories of myself when I was that age.”

Research for the 104-minute film involved revisiting information on Obama in the public domain, his own writings, news articles and tapes of his early book tours, and interviews with people who knew him during the his NYC period. “We got details down to the fact that he ate raisins, liked peanut sauce a lot, and played basketball,” Gandhi said. The life-altering experiences in the film include basketball games, Barry’s purchase of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, about an African-American man’s experiences with racism, and a party in Harlem that is meant to introduce him to a different kind of black experience.

Devon Terrell in ‘Barry’.
Devon Terrell in ‘Barry’.

Devon Terrell has Obama’s deliberate air, perfectly formed sentences, keen gaze and broad smile down pat. The performance is not mere impersonation, however. “I didn’t want an impersonator, and though Devon did look enough like Obama to be eligible, I wanted him to sound like Barack Obama,” Gandhi said. It helped that Terrell’s own background is a lot like Obama’s, which includes stretches in America, Hawaii and Indonesia. “Devon was born to an African-American father and an Anglo-Indian mother and grew up in Perth in Australia,” Gandhi said. “He too has a mixed race background and he didn’t fit in with white people, black people or Indians. I drew a lot from who Devon was for the film.” Gandhi created a “territory for Devon to stay within for 24 hours”, he said. The actor wore a Columbia University sweatshirt and lived in NYC, like the character.

Apart from being shown all over the world on Netflix, Barry will have a limited theatrical run in NYC and Los Angeles. It will be released on the same day as Rogue One, the Star Wars spin-off movie. “The film has the potential to be seen in 80 million homes, and it hard to speculate what a foreign audience will find in it,” Gandhi said. “It will be out on the same day as Rogue One, and it can be the film that people will watch if they don’t get to watch the Star Wars movie.”

Vikram Gandhi.
Vikram Gandhi.
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.