Director Anurag Basu’s “Barfi!” (2012) is the latest Bollywood blockbuster that has got everyone talking. The hype is immense, and the film is already generating an Oscar buzz as one of the films in the foreign film category; the film is the official Indian entry for the Oscars. With cheering word-of-mouth, the film has managed to draw record audiences to theaters, a popularity also driven by positive critical reviews. In addition, moviegoers are not divided about the film’s entertainment value, which is in fact evident by a solid 8.9/10 rating given by the users at IMDB.com. Irrespective of a person’s reaction to the film, one thing for certain is that “Barfi!” offers spectacular images, absorbing camerawork, and a pair of two dazzling performances from its two leads, Ranbhir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra. Indeed, the images are so empowering that it makes one forget the film’s flaws.
The story of that of a deaf-mute person, Barfi (Ranbhir Kapoor), and his relationship to two women, Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra) and Shruti (Ileana D'Cruz). We get a rundown on Barfi’s life at the start through an aging police inspector, ACP Kishan (Saurabh Shukla), who is now retired, but in his working years was always chasing Barfi for his crimes. Initially, the narrative structure seems nonlinear when the narrator tries to present Barfi’s life over the years. But once we get to the crux of the storyline, the plot remains fairly straightforward, with a key subplot holding the entire film together. The subplot leads to a romantic relationship between Barfi and an autistic person, Jhilmil, while the main plot involves Barfi and Shruti, and Barfi’s initial attraction to Shruti, even when she is engaged. Over the course of several years, these three characters develop a bond in their own ways, finding attachment and solace with the longing for a loving end.
Even though the plot feels totally familiar, the scriptwriters have tried hard to build a layered story, at least on the surface. Things are revealed slowly, always bringing new elements to the plot, but the elements are predictable and lack seriousness. One might get misty eyed for the ailing souls in the movie, but when everything is over, the story never leaves any permanent impression. As such, “Barfi!” weaves a surreal world for its characters that is devoid of any practicality. Barfi and Jhilmil create their own world of love, reciprocating in varying ways that develop their relationship in a caring way. But the problem lies in the manner these two characters are represented on the screen.
Barfi is always shown as a happy, carefree person who only remains in our memory because of his infectious smile and cartoonish acts. Jhimil, on the other hand, is dislocated in her setting as any autistic person would be. Nonetheless, the characterizations are overly simple and weak, and after a while the entire setup feels predictable. For their physical and mental impediments, these two characters, at some level, should be embodied as emotionally wrought characters, overwhelmed with their lifelong infirmities. But we never see their day-to-day hardships in communicating with the outside world; we never understand their internal conflicts; and we never fully appreciate the scope of their pain that they had to endure in their lives because of their incapacities. In this aspect, the film misses the mark by not tackling the realistic issues, and, instead, the “fairy-tale” characters make the film excessively sugarcoated.
If the script stumbles, then “Barfi!” peddles its own style, offering a somewhat fresh take on the Bollywood love-story genre. The freshness factor is achieved by employing strong technical filmmaking skills, along with magnificent performances. First, on the technical front, the filmmakers use several techniques with the camera, especially in the manner of how close-ups are composed. Considering the picturesque location of green Darjeeling, the characters are shot with closeness and warmth, and they never appear lost in the backdrop of Darjeeling’s wondrous landscape. In simple terms, the filmmakers exercise restraint in not making nature too important and giving adequate attention to capturing the true emotions of the characters. Of course, none of this would be possible without Ravi Varman’s superb cinematography, and he composes every shot with precise attention to details around the subject, with hardly any clutter in the shots. No wonder we are blown away by the film’s polished pictures from the very first scene.
The film’s strength is depicted by two very convincing performances from its leads, and without their performances this film would have been a forgettable affair. Basu has openly said that the film pays homage to the heyday movies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Kapoor’s character captures the essence of Chaplin’s and Keaton’s styles with well-done comedy scenes that are surely going to put smiles on audiences’ faces. Kapoor’s mannerisms--although nowhere close to the two showmen from the early silent era--are delicate and sincere and generate enough dynamism and energy to keep us entertained. I would, however, say this: that the filmmakers went overboard with the comedy sequences, which seem to last forever and come up when not needed. Setting this aside, Kapoor, even with no spoken words, ably expresses the film’s emotions and is lucid most of the time, although a majority of the time we see him as a very joyful person. There is no doubt that Kapoor delivers an enthusiastic and passionate performance, his best so far.
Equally supporting Kapoor, Chopra’s performance is simply breathtaking, and I felt it was even better than Kapoor’s performance. Even with stammering dialogue that is expected from her character, Chopra genuinely characterizes an autistic condition in which she is unaware of her surroundings and constantly battling to communicate with people around her. Jhilmil is living in her own world, reacting slowly to things. Jhilmil’s face depicts the childhood innocence that is lost as a result of her condition. In Barfi’s presence, she feels secure, and when both are together there is an emotional bliss in their relationship. They both interact with their hands, facial expressions, and eyes, and their silence becomes the common language of their daily communication. Indeed, in Basu’s screenplay there is tenderness in scenes involving Jhilmil and Barfi, as he never hurries the scenes and draws ample emotional power to touch us.
In the end, “Barfi!” is at times overly melodramatic. The drama is one-dimensional, and the characters feel forced and hollow, with the story too sugarcoated and familiar. The material offers some poignancy, but it lacks the depth to deliver a final emotional punch. Surely, the film warrants patience, but the payoff in the end is underwhelming, considering the film’s long running time of two-and-half hours. It's a fairy tale trying to be realistic, which is its main problem. “Barfi!” will mainly be remembered by performances from Ranbhir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra that will rank as some of the best of the last decade. One thing that is positive for the Bollywood industry is that a film like “Barfi!” with very little dialogue, no dancing numbers, and a touching drama at the heart, can pull audiences in the same way as a conventional Bollywood actioner. It surely says a lot about the changing taste of Bollywood audiences.
Note: “Barfi!” is playing at AMC theaters in English subtitles