THERE ARE MANY, MANY SPOILERS AHEAD.
You have been warned.
In the early 1970s, there was a man and there were two women. Let’s call them Man, Woman and Girl. The three did not know each other. Then one day, Man saw Woman and fell in love with her. He offered her his heart, but she could only offer regret in exchange because she was engaged to be married to…er, Another Man. No matter, said Man, and suggested that Man and Woman be friends. Woman was agreeable to this, so they did what friends do: cycled all over the place. Sometimes they raced each other. A few times, they were on the same bicycle. Those were wild times. One day, possibly because of the adrenalin rush that comes from all this aerobic exercise, Man and Woman kissed. Man figured this meant he should go and ask for Woman’s hand in marriage. But although Woman had enjoyed the kiss, she chose to remain Another Man’s fiancée.
Then, circumstances did circumstantial things and Man was faced with a situation in which he needed money to save his father’s life. Nothing honest was working out so he decided to kidnap Girl, whose family happens to be very rich. He got the ransom but his father died anyway. Man then made multiple attempts to return Girl to secure circumstances. First, he dropped her off at home. But she came back to him. Then he left her in the care of her nanny. Girl still returned to Man. So Man and Girl started living together. At which point, by chance, Man bumped into Woman, who was now unhappily married. When Woman started hanging out with Girl and Man, Girl got insecure. She left Man.
Next thing you know, Man has been arrested for murdering Girl, because it seems Girl was kidnapped (again) and then killed. Woman helps make sure Man is not falsely framed for Girl’s murder. She also leaves her husband. Woman and Man now start living together. Then Man comes to the conclusion Girl is not dead and he knows where she might be. With help from Woman, Man finds Girl. Girl and Man live happily ever after and die in each other’s arms decades later. Woman is resigned to solitude. Because really, how many times can a woman shack up with a guy?
Now, you tell me, is this chap Man a man or a pendulum? First Woman, then Girl, then Woman, then Girl. If someone behaved like this in real life, he’d be considered a bit of a bastard. Or a Lothario, as my grand-uncle puts it. In Barfi!, he’s the hero.
Add another kidnapping, a bank robbery, a few tubby policemen and a seriously strange founder of a school for children with special needs, and you have the plot Barfi!, India’s latest blockbuster. Ranbir Kapoor plays Barfi, a young man who was born deaf and mute. His two love interests are Shruti (Woman), played by debutante Ileana D’Cruz, and Jhilmil (Girl), played by Priyanka Chopra. Jhilmil is severely autistic and, much to her parents’ dismay, inherits her grandfather’s fortune when the old man dies. (This is why she’s kidnapped left right and centre.) Barfi! has been drowned in praise by most people and most critics have loved it. A few film buffs noted major similarities with a number of old films, which raised the question of whether Barfi! is inspired by these films or copying them. This conversation got particularly buzzy when Barfi! was picked to be India’s entry to the Oscars for the Best Foreign Film.
None of this really bothered me. Director Anurag Basu wasn’t particularly original with a lot of Barfi!, but I think he can totally get away with using the “inspired by” argument. The people who come across as illiterate are those who think it’s a good idea to put up a film that is so obviously derivative of Hollywood classics before Hollywood. Which is not really Basu’s problem. His aim was, presumably, to make a feelgood film that would help the salve the horrible wound that was Kites, which was a whole new level of ghastly. Give the man a pat on his back for having the courage to give this comeback film a title that could so easily have led to a slew of barf puns. Well before the film was released, it was clear that he didn’t need to worry on that account. Everyone said that this was a heartwarming film, great acting, gorgeous cinematography, spectacular box office performance. The more I heard, the more sure I was that I’d dislike Barfi! when I eventually saw it. I decided that I’d watch the film when my expectations were absolutely rock bottom. That day was today.
Here’s the good news. I didn’t think the film should have been titled “Barfy”. I’ve seen much, much worse. But instead of coming out of the film feeling happy, which is what I imagine feelgood films are supposed to do, I was relieved when Barfi! finally ended. Not because the story is more shredded than cheese on a pizza — which it is — but because I’m reasonably certain I aged visibly in the time that Barfi! took from start to finish. Cinematography Ravi Varman knows how to make a place and people look pretty, but neither he nor Basu have the faintest idea of how to use images. Barfi! is filled with shots that look picturesque and have absolutely zero bearing on the movie. Now, if these were images that were somehow radical in the way they were shot or something like that, I’d understand force-feeding them to an audience. But there’s nothing novel about that imagery and the prettiness ends up being a drag because there’s no sense of perspective. Take Amelie, for instance, which had fantastic cinematography. It wasn’t just the technicality that made Amelie‘s visuals breathtaking but the fact that we were seeing the world through Amelie’s eyes. That’s what made it magical. If Amelie had been a bored housewife, then showing her world with that style of cinematography would have made no sense. Is Barfi! showing me how Barfi sees the world? Or is it someone else’s worldview? Who is fascinated by puffs of steam slow-mo-ing their way around the old-fashioned wheels of a little train in Darjeeling?
And on behalf of Rupa Ganguly, I am outraged that they got that podgy lumberjack who looks like he was literally picked up off a Darjeeling kerb to play the love of her life. Surely someone at least vaguely good-looking could have been rustled up for her, given how attractive Ganguly is. Terribly shoddy. Hmph.
There’s a lot that’s ragged in Barfi!, particularly when it comes to plot and characterisation, but I was pleasantly surprised by most of Priyanka Chopra’s performance. She didn’t walk like a drunk penguin, which is how we usually depict the differently abled. The voice was a bit weird, but I’ll let that go because Chopra was almost unaffected in parts. Chopra’s Jhilmil, in fact, was the only person that I felt for, even though I did lose track of how many times she was kidnapped (3? 4? 2? It’s like doing SAT maths). But minus that detail, you could empathise with her. She loses the one family member who made her feel loved and just when she’s dealing with this loss, Barfi, who was a childhood friend, reappears and treats her with kindness. I can believe she’d fall in love with Barfi. It adds up. There’s a scene later, in which Jhilmil watches Barfi with Shruti, who is beautiful and womanly and graceful and the precise opposite of Jhilmil. You see Jhilmil’s eyes, her jealousy, her temptation to throw a tantrum and then her heartbroken resignation — she’s never going to be Shruti, so she surrenders and retreats.
Ironically, Jhilmil should be the most difficult to understand, fortressed as she is within her autism. However, the more ‘normal’ Barfi and Shruti were the ones I found completely unfathomable. All they did was ride bicycles and poof! love happened. No, wait. He also did a stupid dance and crashed into a streetlamp twice. That’s grand romance? I’d have understood Shruti wanting a fling with Barfi before she gets married, because she thinks he’s cute (which was what happened, sort of, in Rockstar). But there’s really no sexual chemistry between the two of them, which seems to be a constant problem for Ranbir Kapoor. He’s a decent actor, but I can’t remember a single film of his where he’s had any chemistry with his heroines. On screen, at least.
Anyway, back to Barfi!, according to which love is a rather asexual affair. Shruti and Barfi have one kiss, and but for that one lacklustre liplock, the two are perfectly happy keeping their distance. Barfi and Jhilmil don’t seem to have any intimacy either. He’s satisfied with tooting one of those party horns at her and, at best, pressing his forehead against hers. Shruti leaves her husband and starts living with Barfi, which means she cooks for him and fans him while he eats. You’d think that her moving in with him would be a pretty big deal for both her and Barfi. But we don’t even see how that happens or how the two get used to one another. Suddenly, there she is, in complete housewife mode. Yet a little later, it takes literally a few seconds for Barfi to leave Shruti and press his forehead against Jhilmil’s. Is this love? This is the stuff that warms the hearts of the nation? This weak flip-flopping between available options? What do any one of these characters know about one another? What does love mean to them? There were no moments: realising how the other person sees the world, agreeing or disagreeing with it; hating them for certain things and realising it doesn’t matter. Shruti didn’t know about Barfi and his father, his work or in fact, anything other than the fact that he can cycle and he’s deaf and mute. Barfi didn’t know about Jhilmil’s home, her relationship with her parents. How did these guys develop their personal languages? Forget all this high-falutin’ stuff. At a very basic level, where’s the urge to touch the person to whom you’re attracted? The curiosity about how they feel, what you’ll feel when they touch you? Just because Jhilmil is autistic, Barfi is deaf and mute, and Shruti is engaged/married, they won’t feel these things? A friend of mine said that the real love story is between the policeman (Saurabh Shukla) who spends months just chasing Barfi. He complains at one point that his waist has gone from 52 inches to 42 inches, all because of Barfi. He also says that he could have retired as a senior cop, but instead, he makes ends meet as a homeopathic doctor because he chose to save Barfi’s life even though he has “no soft spots”. That certainly does sound more like a romantic relationship than what Barfi shares with the ladies in the film.
Of course, it has also been pointed out to me that I’m perhaps not quite an expert in matters of love. I do, after all, read Mills & Boons. However, if I took Barfi!‘s word for it, I’d have to learn cycling and carry a little fan with me on dates so that the moment the food comes out, I can pull it out and start fanning my date. Also, instead of phone calls or letters, I should chuck my shoe in the air to let the other person know I’m thinking of them. Not sure how effective this would be.
It really is a wonder we have the population that we do.