It is rare for a Bollywood studio to have review screenings in the UK where it is almost a given that mainstream film critics whose idea of Bollywood is still stuck firmly in the days before Shah Rukh Khan began having Botox injections with his morning tea – will methodically slate the film whilst the British Asian media is considered, well, largely insignificant.
The latter perception is justified, to an extent.
When studios do have review screenings – as Disney UTV did this week with ‘Barfi!’ – the producers have doubtless prayed really, really hard to myriad deities for the movie to be well-received.
The bigwigs at UTV need not fret however, for ‘Barfi!’ is a rare gem, about the complexities of love and resplendent with beautifully conceived moments of sheer, cinematic delight.
Told in a series of flashbacks, the film tells the story of deaf, mute, impoverished and mischievous, Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor). He cycles by day, sells hooch by night and uses an endless supply of charm to beguile everyone from the local girls to the exasperated police inspector in 1970’s Darjeeling; a time and place where life floats gently along as people take in the breath-taking views.
Into Barfi’s idyllic existence enters the beautiful and rich – not to mention very engaged – Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz).
At first she punts away Barfi’s heart only to end up falling hopelessly in love with the boy whose beautiful soul is reflected in the staggering beauty of their surrounds.
Shruti’s mother however, convinces her to take the well-trodden path and settle down with the token practical and boring fiancé.
At this point, the film settles into one of two periods of hibernation before springing back to life when Barfi – needing money for a medical emergency – stages the kidnapping of a wealthy childhood friend, Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra) who is autistic.
With the police inspector (played by the talented Saurabh Shukla) battling massive coronary failure in pursuit, Barfi and Jhilmil embark on a peculiar, cross-country adventure; one which begins to drag as the film once again decides to take an extended siesta.
They eventually wind up in Kolkata – by way of Ooty – where it’s up to Barfi’s former flame Shruti to help the runaways.
If there’s one thing that stands out about ‘Barfi!’, it is arguably the most visually stunning movie to come out of Bollywood in recent years. It is essentially a two-and-a-half hour long series of beautiful photographs, each one imaginatively conceived by director Anurag Basu and beautifully presented by cinematographer Ravi Varman.
In an age when the Bollywood mainstream is obsessed with Ikea-esque sterility and order, ‘Barfi!’s old-fashioned visual chaos and absence of symmetry is refreshing.
The stunning visuals are enhanced by a wonderful soundtrack; the dearth of dialogue is generously compensated by Pritam’s music which capture moments of grief and euphoria pitch-perfectly.
Director Basu has drawn inspiration from an array of movies; from Chaplin and Keaton’s entire back-catalogues to The Artist and Rango, but infuses them all with a uniquely Indian flavour. The opening scene is vintage Chaplin, set against the chaos and colour of an Indian market.
The film is pregnant with similar scenes.
Two in particular stand out; the first involving a police officer and a chloroform-daubed handkerchief and the second when Barfi becomes fixated on the nether regions of a Hindu Holy Man, are pure movie magic. And authentic to boot: Basu going to extreme lengths to ensure that everything from the Rupee notes to billboards stay true to the time period.
The acting is uniformly good, although Priyanka Chopra overeggs the twitches a little bit, perhaps owing to the fact that she’s called on to do very little. Ileana D’Cruz, making her Bollywood debut, is excellent, her melancholic eyes beautifully capturing Shruti’s heartache.
Saurabh Shukla is commanding in all of his scenes as ever.
The real star though is Ranbir Kapoor; hat at a rakish angle, he once again proves he is the finest young actor in Bollywood today. He oozes charm and brings a lovely lightness to his character. Despite not having a word of dialogue to express himself, he is wonderfully disarming, tugging at your heartstrings, winning you over instantly and never overdoes the sketches or the physical comedy. The role is a bold choice for a young actor but it is a triumph.
The film is not without its flaws.
For one thing, it is unnecessarily long, the second half in particular dragging on for at least half an hour more than required. And the flashbacks become slightly confusing as the film goes on, jumping from the early 70’s to the present day and returning the late 70’s.
But all is forgiven, for ‘Barfi!’ is a triumph: beautiful to behold, nostalgic and deeply evocative; an immensely enjoyable romp about the complexities of love, the choices we make and the ease with which happiness can be attained. And, thankfully, it all culminates in a very un-Bollywood ending.
It’s a shame that the mainstream media weren’t invited for the press screening as they would have left dabbing at their eyes or with a knowing smile, finally enlightened.
– Viji Alles