Bollywood and culture in an emerging India
Barfi!: The sweet life
Even before you see a single frame of Anurag Basu’s “Barfi!” you will get a sense of the movie, thanks to a quirky song which calls on you to switch off “both your mobiles and kids”. It also promises that the film will give you no “gyaan” (expressing opinion) and that it will tell you about “saccha pyaar” (true love).
You could either be charmed by this unusual beginning or be put off by it, as I was, especially because it feels like overstating the tone of the movie and making a judgment for you about its content. But you might soon forget that and a lot of other things. The very first scene, a Chaplinesque chase through narrow streets is shot expertly by Ravi Varman, and will give you a sense of the old-world charm that pervades the film.
Basu’s film is set in a fairy-tale world, where people seem to have all the time in the world to stop and stare. Basu certainly seems in no hurry to tell his tale, allowing Varman’s camera to meander through the gorgeous landscape of Darjeeling, taking his own time to set up his characters and their lives.
We meet Murphy (Ranbir Kapoor), a cheerful young man who dances, cycles and charms his way through the village with not a care in the world. That he is hearing and speech impaired is conveyed through a song, without much melodrama. He lives with his father, a chauffer.
When Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz) moves to his town, he instantly falls for her, shamelessly wooing her, taking her on idyllic rides through the forest. But when it comes to committing to marriage, Shruti shies away, on the advice of her mother, who tells her to consider what marriage to Murphy would entail. “He will never be able to say what you want to hear,” she says.
Even in his much maligned “Kites“, Basu managed to handle the moments between the two lovers well and he brings that same skill here. “Barfi!” is full of such moments, whether it is the kiss between Shruti and Murphy or the scene where he leaves her house knowing she won’t marry him. They are all beautifully conceived, shot and enacted.
From here on, the film is a bit of a dampener. When Murphy needs money for a medical emergency, he stages the mock abduction of Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra) a childhood friend who is autistic. Unable to pronounce his name, she calls him Barfi. When the kidnapping plan goes awry, it is up to Shruti to save her former lover and Jhilmil.
One thing you have to say for “Barfi!” — it is the most beautifully shot film in ages. Each frame is picture-perfect and some are bound to induce a sigh or two. Basu complements Varman’s cinematography with some lovely scenes — watch the one where Murphy cuddles up to his dad after being spurned by Shruti, or the one with Murphy, Jhilmil and the lamp post.
The other plus point in “Barfi!” is Pritam’s music — it is lilting, haunting and adds so much to the tone of the film you conjure up images of a quaint town, steaming cups of tea, mist and good times.
Unfortunately, great moments and music do not make a great film and Basu could not make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The script is skeletal and the reasons for Jhilmil’s disappearance are flimsy. Basu uses so many flashbacks that at some point during the second half, you wonder if you are in the past, the present or the future. Don’t be surprised if you don’t find an answer to that question.
Of the cast, Priyanka Chopra is competent, but at times walks the thin line between hamming it up and emoting perfectly. Ileana D’Cruz is fresh, natural and the surprise package of the film. Her scenes with Ranbir are a joy to watch.
Of course, that is in part due to Ranbir Kapoor, who proves all over again — not that he needed to — he is the best young actor Bollywood has right now. Whether it is his penchant for slapstick comedy, or emotions or just riding a bicycle, he outshines everything else in the frame. To take up a Bollywood role where the lead hero doesn’t have a single line of dialogue is a brave, and some would say foolhardy thing to do, but he manages to pull it off, seemingly effortlessly.
To his credit, Basu seems content to let the silences speak for themselves, and doesn’t feel the compulsion to fill every moment with words — a rarity in Hindi cinema.
“Barfi!” is likely to test your patience at some points, but this is a film that deserves a watch, because the good outweighs the bad. Sometimes too much of a sweet thing can be good.