“Bareilly Ki Barfi”… A glibly entertaining rom-com that ignores its pricklier side

Posted on August 23, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

If you think a terrific Rajkummar Rao performance is its own reward, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly Ki Barfi is every bit the sweet treat the title promises. The actor plays Pritam Vidrohi, a mild-mannered salesman whose life is turned inside out by a childhood friend named Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana, another actor whose performance is often its own reward). Chirag loves Bitti Mishra (Kriti Sanon), but she’s in love with a book that carries the name of this film – and by extension, she loves the book’s author, who isn’t Pritam but who is being impersonated by Pritam. But this isn’t your typical love triangle. This isn’t your typical comedy of errors either.

The film begins with a top-angle shot that floats down like Forrest Gump’s feather, taking us from clothes drying on the terrace to Bitti’s mother worshipping the tulsi plant two floors below. I wasn’t convinced this showboating was necessary, but I loved watching it. In just two films (the earlier one was Nil Battey Sannata), Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Gavemic U Ary have become one of the more interesting director-cinematographer unions. Every scene throbs with life, small-town colour – the style fits perfectly with Tiwari’s glib, rat-a-tat, comic-book storytelling, where every panel comes with a punch line. Every frame is a counter punch line. It must be Tiwari’s advertising background, the training to make every second count. We see this in Balki’s films as well.

But the glibness isn’t as much a problem here as it was in Nil Battey Sannata, whose issues were way too… real. It’s not that grim neo-realism is the only way to tackle the story of a domestic help with big dreams for her daughter, but the too-cute banter, the too-pat resolutions came in the way of taking anything seriously.

At least, there’s no danger of that here: the stakes are far lower, just the question of which man Bitti will marry. The too-cute lines are a big help (my favourite is the bit about “Lovela Sweets” and the missing ee ki maatra), especially when tossed off by sublime actors like Seema Bhargava and Pankaj Tripathi, who play Bitti’s parents. We first meet the latter when he’s constipated, and his performance throughout – whether he’s speaking or gesticulating or, heaven help us, dancing – is inflected with this sense of someone who expends great effort to get the smallest things done.

The problem with populating your film with scene stealers is that they shine a spotlight on a weaker actor: Kriti Sanon just isn’t convincing as their daughter. It isn’t that she’s too leggy, too Bollywood-pretty. It’s that she isn’t sincere and authentic enough – she’s like a Barbie doll who wandered into an issue of Champak. The character is a bit anaemic as well, and it takes some buying to accept two far more rooted, lived-in characters fighting over her.

They’re scene stealers as well. Rajkummar Rao has great fun alternating between the Bruce Banner and Hulk aspects of Pritam. It’s a largely comic role, but Rao sneaks in a surprising amount of empathy, like in the scene where he orders a malpua (“No, make that two!”) in the middle of an emotional breakdown. In an instant, he makes you laugh at Pritam, and also feel for him.

Ayushmann Khurrana has the trickier part. He has to make us sympathise with someone who’s, quite frankly, not very nice. (Khurrana is usually better than the roles he’s seen in; this time’s no different.) Chirag is a bully – it’s hard to imagine him being chaddi-buddies with Pritam. He’s a smooth liar. And his character keeps threatening to take the film into dark places that the director isn’t willing to explore. It’s the same problem, though to a lesser extent, as in Nil Battey Sannata. The material suggests a serious romantic drama about a man who’ll go to any extent to not be dumped again by a woman. We get a comedy with a cop-out of an ending that whitewashes a lot of bad behaviour.

But this much we have to give Tiwari: within the mainstream, her films give us women who are different, who are interesting. She gives us stories about a domestic help, about a government employee (Bitti) who works in the complaints department of the Electricity Board – women who fight back against their circumstances (Bitti’s mother is obsessed about getting her married). Bareilly Ki Barfi is the rare instance of a love triangle where the men don’t get to decide who wins. Bitti does. She isn’t just guided by her heart. She uses her head. She knows it’s not enough if she loves the guy; the guy has to love her back. A lot of this is undermined by the easy laughs, but it’s there. Tiwari’s films may be superficial, but at least, they aren’t hollow.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi