KHAN VS. KHAN
Shah Rukh Khan shines in a tailor-made role, but wasn’t this barely engaging drama supposed to be Irrfan Khan’s story?
FEB 15, 2009 – PRIYADARSHAN’S BILLU IS AN UPDATE OF THE LEGEND of Krishna and the self-effacing Sudama. It reshapes the story of God and His long-ago friend into one about a movie god and his long-ago friend. I just wished that, along the way, it had taken a few pointers from that story about a movie goddess and her long-ago friend from the same village. I refer to Anil Mehta’s inexplicably underrated Aaja Nachle, where the dazzling Madhuri Dixit returned to her hometown after years, and the timorous local played by Ranvir Shorey stayed away from her because they no longer had anything in common. This was simply a subplot, but it was so poignant, so resonant, that it cast a shadow over the rest of the film, like a drop of dye that insistently percolated through to the rest of the fabric.
I admit that poignancy and resonance aren’t characteristics you’d usually look for in a Priyadarshan film. The utterly unexpected riches of Kanchivaram notwithstanding, this is a director whose default mode, at least in Hindi cinema, is to play his stories at a pitch that can be heard on the far side of the moon. (I haven’t seen his Malayalam movies, where I’ve heard he can be quite different. And while in confession mode, I haven’t watched either Kadha Parayumbol or Kuselan, the Malayalam original and the Tamil remake of this story. Billu, therefore, comes to me with no previous memories or associations.) But everything in this film is so aggressively in-your-face, I found myself missing the sensibilities of someone more sensitive – someone like Anil Mehta, or going back further, Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Basu Chatterji.
Those older masters of middle-of-the-road cinema would have teased characters out of the stiff caricatures we have here. Those directors would have trained a keen, empathetic eye on the milieu that’s mere art decoration here. (Only once does the set acquire some semblance of lived-in personality, in the opening credits, when we see Wilkinson stainless steel blades neatly snapped in half at a barber shop.) And even if they recognised the necessity, in the present day, for star-studded item numbers, they would have put a finer spin on the emotional aspects involving the non-stars – for instance, the effects on Billu (Irrfan Khan) of the clannishness of small-town folks when they first ignore this barber, then put him on a pedestal because of his assumed proximity to megastar Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), and finally vilify him when they suspect he’s no closer to the star than they are.
All of this should be ripe material for heartrending drama, but there’s very little in Billu that makes you feel anything. All Priyadarshan uses his (typically overflowing) cast for is to set up the most obvious situations this story demands. Billu lives in the sort of heartland where phrases like “apne munh miya mithoo” are freely flung about – when was the last time you heard this in a Hindi film? – and the name of his competitor’s establishment (“Modern Madan saloon”) is the very definition of small-town hucksterism. So when a film unit arrives to shoot a Sahir Khan starrer, and a flunkey marches up to the local grocer and asks if he stocks asparagus and jalapenos and red peppers, the stage seems set for charming culture-clash shenanigans, revolving around Bollywood and the parts of India that no longer find representation in Bollywood films.
But Priyadarshan isn’t interested in any of this – and this wouldn’t be such a problem if what he’s interested in was interesting to us, or if he’d at least made us invest in the characters. Lara Dutta, who plays Billu’s wife, is so glamorously presented, it’s hard to feel sorry for what is supposedly her advanced state of deprivation. (Can’t we find better use for this vibrantly sexy actress than these parts where, draped in dull saris, she enquires of her husband, “Gehun nahin laye?”) There are a few amusing stretches, like the one where an untalented local is presented a role in the film that’s being shot, but the generally dull Billu is primarily an opportunity to observe, up close, two vastly different styles of performers and performances.
On one side, there’s the quietly spectacular Irrfan Khan, who internalises everything. When the local school board insists that he fetch his buddy, Sahir Khan, for a jubilee celebration, he doesn’t say a word; the beads of sweat trickling down his forehead tell us all we need to know. And later, when even his wife questions his affiliation with Sahir Khan, his understated reaction is a beauty to behold. He recedes so far into his reticent character, he all but disappears in front of the camera – unlike the charismatic Shah Rukh, who inhabits the space in front of the camera with the casual entitlement of royalty. He appears to be playing himself, and he’s so effectively larger-than-life, especially towards the closing portions, you forget you’re watching a drama about the travails of a bashful barber. As you exit the theatre, you feel you’ve witnessed an exposé on what it entails to be a smashing superstar.
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