“Barfi!”… Sweet memories

Posted on September 16, 2012


Even before the first frame comes up in Barfi!, the director Anurag Basu sets up the mood of what’s to follow. A cheerful song – very much in the style of Pritam’s superb soundtrack, whose accordion-backed tunes and lazy-Sunday vocals suggest French provincial music as performed by Cliff Richards – informs us the film is about to begin, and can we please not put up our feet on the seats in front, and that we please keep our mobiles and kids in the “off” mode. Stentorian warnings – Don’t disturb your neighbours! Don’t ruin their movie experience! – are dusted with sugar and delivered with a wink and a smile, and that is how the movie works too, packaging its profound sentimentality in a boxful of good cheer. Barfi! unfolds as a rollicking ride, and it’s only when we pause to reflect on what we’ve just seen that we realise what a sad little story this is, and yet, how we haven’t been held at gunpoint and asked to shed bucketfuls of tears.

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Another director would’ve been tempted to pick up that gun. Just look at the juicy melodramatic contrivances in this story we’re smiling through. There’s Murphy, aka Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor), who cannot hear and speak; his mother died when he was a child. There’s Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra), with her own set of developmental problems; and she’s saddled with a gambling-prone father and a perpetually soused mother (it sounds worse in Hindi, “sharaaabi maa, juaari baap”). Then, completing the loose love triangle that forms the basis of the plot, there’s Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz), who’s engaged to Ranjeet (Jishu Sengupta) while fighting a sweet tooth for Barfi. (And later, when Barfi falls for Jhilmil, Shruti is forced to cheer from the sidelines. She’s now excluded from their love, just like she’s excluded poor Ranjeet from hers.) Did I mention that Barfi’s father (a wonderful Akash Khurana, looking like Parikshit Sahni’s younger sibling), a chauffeur, suffers kidney failure after being discharged from service, and to pay for these expenses, Barfi is forced to consider  kidnapping and bank robbery? (Of course he will not hear the bank’s alarm going off.)

Basu doesn’t entirely do away with melodrama. The moment where Barfi goes after Shruti and stumbles and falls is reminiscent of the climax of Moondram Pirai/Sadma. And before this, when he comes to her house to ask for her hand, her father thinks he’s after a measly donation – that’s when Barfi sees Shruti with Ranjeet. Outside, the traditional manifestations of melodrama make their appearance – faint peals of thunder; incessant rain; the unspooled chain on Barfi’s cycle. (He cannot even speed away from his humiliation) He’s stuck, and she’s behind him, and so he begins to scream at her, whimpering like a tightly squeezed rubber duck. But before things get too serious, he composes himself, asks her to smile, and leaves. Barfi’s relationship with his father – his sole surviving relative – is sentimentalised when we see him sleeping on his father’s paunch, which rises and falls. But once again, before things get too serious, we’re encouraged to smile when Barfi asks his father if he has passed gas, and doesn’t leave until he has. (The sweetness of the scene reminds us of unembarrassed flatulent elders in our own families.)

Barfi! plays like Koshish crossed with Charlie Chaplin’s silent features, whose heartbreaking moments were leavened by comedy. When Barfi sees Shruti, he reaches into his shirt and extracts his heart, which he proceeds to place at her feet. After a second’s pause, she kicks it back towards him. She points to her ring, and then he disappears, only to reappear atop a clock tower. Our immediate thought is that he’s going to jump – or at least threaten to do so, like Dharmendra in Sholay – but what follows is a warm illustration of his determination to look at the bright side. Ranbir Kapoor brings Barfi to life with an astonishingly modulated performance that’s as much about physicality as physiognomy. He reminds us, inevitably, of his grandfather’s version of the little tramp, but also of the other stars in his family. We see in  him Shammi Kapoor’s Tourette’s-inspired vitality, Shashi Kapoor’s shy and quietly civilised wooing routines, and  Rishi’s Kapoor’s livewire spontaneity, where the scene is juiced by a couple of kilovolts just by his showing up. (There may be a tangential nod to Bobby in a moment that involves sunlight reflected by mirror shards.)

Ranbir Kapoor is in practically every scene, and had this performance not clicked, the film would have turned into a laughingstock. And there was reason to believe that this performance wasn’t a given – in films like Rockstar, when asked to play a wide-eyed innocent, Kapoor came off like a village idiot. That’s not something you want to sit through for two-and-a-half hours. And it helps that Barfi has his dark sides too. He’s not just someone who’ll take a sneaky bite from a chocolate bar in a kid’s hand, but also a child-man who drinks and smokes. Basu is right not to linger on these vices – they are just shadowy complements to an otherwise sunny disposition. The character is identified through a recurring tic of combing his hair carefully, just like Jhilmil’s tendency to loop her pinkie around the fingers of those she trusts. In the battle of the handicaps, Priyanka Chopra has the more difficult role. The character stays largely in the background, and we need to register a strong enough presence to compete with Shruti for Barfi’s love. Chopra manages this beautifully.

Barfi! looks like it was written after a marathon session of viewing the great silent films, both comedy and drama, after which Basu chain-linked the bits he liked and wove a sketchy story around them. (Sometimes, the inspirations are overtly showcased, like Ranbir Kapoor’s routine with a dummy that recalls Donald O’Connor’s Make ‘em laugh number from Singin’ in the Rain.) And in assembling these bits, Basu has constructed a remarkably faithful – one might even say pure – tribute to the silent era. The gags flow smoothly, organically – like the one where we think Barfi is painting a picture while it’s actually someone else, or the one where we see Barfi eyeing a sadhu’s paunch and think he’s reminded of his father when the reality is something different. Nothing is overdone, and nothing is enclosed in quotation marks. The film is somewhat overlong, and there were times I was a little bored and wished they’d get on with it – but the picture is one of a kind, and with no jarring shifts in tone, it’s also one of a piece.

And it’s all glued together by the score. The chases in Barfi! are fuelled by Mickey-Mousing music, reminiscent of the fast-and-furious silent shorts. (When Barfi runs from his pursuers, the score is appropriately antic, and when he finds himself on one end of a ladder balanced on a parapet wall and it begins to seesaw, the music transforms into a waltz.) When Barfi’s father staggers about his home while beset by that kidney ailment, a solo violin ratchets up the pathos. And when Barfi and others search for Jhilmil, the music turns conventionally dramatic, punctuated by his whistles. Basu tells his story through a combination of dialogues, voiceovers and music – but the music is enough. The score spills onto the screen literally when the predominant instruments – accordion, guitar, violin – are thrust into the hands of a trio that functions as… it’s hard to say. (A Greek chorus? A gimmick?) And in my favourite touch, that accordion functions as a wipe, ushering us to the next scene.

The few false notes are struck in the subplot that revolves around Ashish Vidyarthi, as Jhilmil’s father (whom we never actually see gambling). The story suddenly becomes some sort of whodunit, with revelations that are meant to make us gasp (Saurabh Shukla is delightful in these portions as a cop on Barfi’s tail; partly solemn, partly silly, he comes off as a combination of Javert and Wile E. Coyote) – these weak infusions of drama feel like something that Basu wove in halfheartedly after he showed the producers the film and they had a panic attack. And I wondered, at times, if the back-and-forth structure was really necessary. (The film keeps cutting between 1972 and 1978, between Calcutta and Darjeeling.) There are times the magic is organic – in the instance of the leaping shoe, or during a quiet horseback ride at night. But when fireflies are encased in soap bubbles or when a letter is written through film-song lyrics (zindagi ek safar hai suhana; jhilmil sitaron ka aangan hoga), we are yanked out of the whimsy. These touches are too forced, too literal.

But we overlook these lapses because of the level of achievement in the rest of the film, where Basu demonstrates a surefooted feel for whimsical tragicomedy that we never dreamt he possessed. (A ransom note cobbled together from alphabets cut out from newspapers ends with a salutary “Jai Hind!”) What we know he’s good at, despite the ill-fated Kites, is in detailing the darker desires of the heart – and he doesn’t disappoint there either. Barfi! is not just a feel-good story about the differently abled; it’s also a feel-bad story about the mistakes we make while trying to reconcile the head and the heart. As much as awards-talk is going to centre on Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, it would be a mistake to overlook Ileana D’Cruz, who plays Shruti like a deer caught in life’s headlights. (The only small issue is that she looks so young; when forced to endure a frightful grey wig, she resembles a little girl playing a grandmother in a school play.)

If Barfi keeps returning to his father, Shruti’s crutch is her mother (Rupa Ganguly). She’s the kind of guileless girl who tells her mother that Ranjeet has been eyeing her in school, and the first thing her mother wants to know is: “Uske papa kya karte hain?” The young seek passion, but with age comes practicality. Shruti’s mother convinces her daughter to marry someone who’s right for her, and then watches helplessly as this man turns out all wrong (and this mother may still be in love with the man she convinced herself was wrong for her). And this dilemma crescendos to the exquisite torment of the scene where Shruti has to decide whether to leave with Barfi or leave him to Jhilmil. But as with the rest of the film, a melodramatic moment worthy of an aria is deflated with a wink and an injunction to smile. Leaving the bittersweet Barfi!, I was trying to think of another film that’s so sad that made me feel so happy watching it. I still haven’t come up with a name.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi