A feature film dwells on the lesser-known side of US President Barack Obama’s early life
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A feature film dwells on the lesser-known side of US President Barack Obama’s early life

A Netflix original feature film digs into Obama’s past - a strained father-son relationship and an identity crisis

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Dec 02, 2016 18:21 IST
Poorva Joshi
Poorva Joshi
Hindustan Times
Barry,HT48Hours,Barack Obama
A Netflix original feature film digs into Obama’s past - a strained father-son relationship and an identity crisis. (Courtesy: Netflix )

Barry, a 20-year-old student from Columbia University, New York, returns to his apartment to find it’s been broken into – the door is ajar, and he can hear someone fumbling around in the bedroom. He cautiously approaches the intruder, who turns back and shouts, “Where do you keep your ganja (marijuana), man? My head is pounding, and I need some pot,” he says.

The intruder is Barry’s friend Salim. Barry gestures towards the ashtray on the bedside table, where he has saved a half-smoked joint from the night before. They proceed to smoke it together, and discuss Barry’s lack of talent when it comes to wooing women – just two 20-something college dudes going about their lives, you’d think.

But, here’s the twist: Barry is a young Barack Hussein Obama, President of The United States (POTUS). And yes, he is smoking pot. This is a scene from film-maker Vikram Gandhi’s (37) upcoming Netflix feature film, Barry, which looks into Obama’s early life.

“A lot of what we know about Obama is primarily derived from how he is represented in the news. Often people forget that he, too, was a regular teenager, in search of his life’s purpose. I wanted to highlight that aspect of his life through a simple story,” says Gandhi, over a telephonic interview from New York.

Set to release on December 15, Barry comes out at an interesting time. Obama’s near-perfect image has America, and the world, bidding him a teary farewell. Videos of Obama theatrically reading daily news to slow jazz music with TV anchor Jimmy Fallon (12 milion views on YouTube) or images of him sharing a slow dance with his wife, Michelle, have done the rounds of social media with millennial captions. “Such feels” (roughly translates to ‘this is overwhelming’) they read.

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A still from Barry. (Courtesy: Netflix)

In stark contrast, Barry (that’s what his friends from college would call him) takes us back to Obama’s youth. The stress-lines are non-existent, and he hasn’t yet discovered his signature camera-ready smile. In fact, he is camera shy, visibly uncomfortable when a friend asks him to pose for a casual photo in another scene.

Time travel

Gandhi got the idea for the film when he read Dreams from My Father (2004) written by Obama. The book sheds light on Obama’s life, spanning from his birth in 1961, to his enrolment at Harvard Law School in 1988. For Gandhi, however, the most significant part of the story was Obama’s time at Columbia University. “He was a loner, and was unsure of himself. That’s what every student feels at that age. I went to Columbia a decade after Obama did, and I felt the same confusion,” he says.

The memoir had a strong impression on Gandhi. He convincingly separates Obama, the man, from Obama, the public figure. Gandhi’s Obama is just Barry – he drinks, smokes, and parties. He dates a girl too - a Caucasian classmate called Charlotte. He has little similarity to the current-day Obama, except for his signature style of speech – abundant dramatic pauses.

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Actor Devon Terrell plays a twenty-year old Barack Obama with actor Anya Taylor-Joy portraying his college girlfriend. (Courtesy: Netflix )

But the partying and the dating comprise a fraction of Barry’s personality. The core of the film centres on Barry’s identity crisis as a man of mixed race (his father was a Kenyan, his mother American), born in Hawaii, and raised in Indonesia. “To me, the story of Obama’s background is stranger than fiction,” says Gandhi.

There is also racial isolation – Barry is the only black student among all his classmates in college. At the same time, he doesn’t entirely resonate with the black community either. He refuses to join the black students union at Columbia and clashes with black religious extremists at a public demonstration.

In Gandhi’s opinion, Obama’s detachment -- especially from the African-American community -- stems from the fact that he shared no real connection with his Kenyan father. “They met once, and that was it. He had never been to Kenya, and had no idea what people there were like. It was almost as if he had to decide who he wanted to be, with minimal information on any of his cultural roots,” says Gandhi.

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A still from Barry: Obama with his mother. (Courtesy: Netflix )

Reflection of reality

While the narrative gives us a peek into a young Obama, it also shows us how he became the man he is today. For instance, in a scene where Barry learns of his father’s death, we see him simply sink into an armchair – a composed reaction characteristically like POTUS.

Barry is Gandhi’s non-documentary feature film. Gandhi is a well-known name in the documentary film circle in New York. Earlier, he’s worked on HBO’s Vice (2013),which was about suicide bombers, children employed as weapon makers, and the India-Pakistan conflict; and a feature documentary, Kumaré (2012), on the life of a fake yoga guru.

But here’s what makes the difference: Barry is a personal journey for Gandhi. His portrayal of Obama’s initial identity crisis was inspired by Gandhi’s own confused upbringing as an Indian in New York. “My exposure to Indian culture came mostly from religion. Also, films. I grew up watching films by Satyajit Ray and read a lot of mythological comics. But that’s not always enough to know yourself,” he says.

But unlike Obama, who didn’t visit Kenya till as late as 2015, Gandhi visited India for a cross-country tour between 1995 and 1996. “I was 16 or 17, and went from the Himalayas to West Bengal, all the way south to Kerala. This trip helped me find my identity,” he says.

And while he effectively translates Obama’s identity crisis in the film, he also brings it to a poignant closure. “Irrespective of where our cultural roots lie, we are Americans. And that’s something Barry begins to understand in the film,” he says.

A still from Barry (Courtesy: Netflix )

WATCH OUT- Barry releases on December 15. Visit netflix.com

First Published: Dec 02, 2016 18:20 IST