Anurag Basu’s Barfi! is like the gently flavoured, comforting sweet cake—one bite, and it reminds you of your grandmother’s baking. To some of us, with a low tolerance for sugar, the right flavours and textures, when blended in perfect proportions, often do the trick.
So Barfi! goes down as a familiar, beautiful story, although there is plenty that is unpalatable in this universe Basu creates. A girl with mental disability is mocked and abused at home although we never get to actually see it. A mute and deaf boy’s love is cruelly thwarted. A happy marriage is the glorious exception, not the rule. But Basu shows all this in a style that never allows disability and ugliness worthy of remorse. We are never laughing at it, but with it, along with those who are disabled, while embracing them wholeheartedly. To portray disability with fuss-free humour and without overt sympathy is a tall order, and Basu manages the job well.
Murphy, or Barfi, is played by Ranbir Kapoor, a man we see while he is young and on the run (in every possible way), as well as when he is wrinkly and bald, and winsome always. The film opens when he is old and feeble, and his friend Shruti, who teaches disabled children in Kolkata, gets the news that his end might be near. In flashback, Barfi lives in Darjeeling with his father, a driver with a dysfunctional couple whose daughter Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra) has autism. He is smitten by Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz), who often visits Darjeeling from Kolkata with her family, and who is engaged to a man suitably matched to her in social status. The romance between Barfi and Shruti is fickle, but the stuff of fairy tale—but unlike the classic fairy tale, it ends abruptly. A series of events take Barfi close to Jhilmil, and their difficult but triumphant journey together spans many years, in Kolkata and Darjeeling. All the ingredients for a foolproof, old-world romance—incidentally a rarity in Bollywood these days—are here. It is the details that Basu etches differently.
Barfi! is a film about limitations. Both Barfi and Jhilmil, and even Shruti, who the world may consider normal, are in a mental twilight that never ends. There is no miracle, neat conclusion or cure to the story which irrevocably ties them together. Basu, who has also written the film, accommodates quirkiness in charming ways. Barfi is not that cute, or really lovable, or pathetic. But as the film progresses, you love him for what he is, and not what he could not be, and that is the film-maker’s biggest achievement. He hits the emotional note just about right—with astute and subtle performances by the lead and supporting cast, extremely competent sound design by Shajith Koyeri and music by Pritam, and cinematography by Ravi Varman, who lends the film an inviting, often exaggerated, bucolic glow.
Darjeeling has got to be far more mundane than what we see. Kolkata is selectively framed. Barfi sitting by the window of a crummy apartment, with the Hooghly in the background, a warm light over him—this is consciously pretty framing, which articulates nothing more than the film-maker’s romantic view of the city. He is obviously in love with his locations—misty Darjeeling, its small trains, the steam engine in all its glory, the chlorophyll-soaked rural Bengal landscapes and the local theatre of Purulia’s famous Chhau dancers. In some scenes, the visual exuberance overwhelms the characters populating them.
The second half of the film drags over by at least half an hour to a climax that trumps reason and guile, and celebrates difficult, unmitigated emotion. For a film that hinges on so much emotion, Barfi! is refreshingly subtle. The romance is awkward, but the inherent humour in it and the laughs the characters have at the expense of each other, make you warm up to them. The storytelling and cinematography are stripped of any complexity—Barfi! is the perfect example of how Bollywood can get feel-good, simple emotion right.
Kapoor as the lead man proves that he is an actor who thrives on challenges. He takes on this role with intelligence and invention. He adopts a pitch that he adheres to throughout, which makes the character’s transition through a gamut of avatars convincing—a young man with fickle affections, a clown (his Charlie Chaplin-via-Raj Kapoor antics, reminiscent of his role in Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, depend on physicality), a lover drowned. He is Hindi cinema’s most talented actor, with the shrewdness to choose the right roles. Chopra’s tricks to portray an autistic person show, but it is still an impressive performance; Jhilmil is a child, and Chopra inhabits this childhood completely. D’Cruz is an able, expressive and charismatic actor and her role is possibly the toughest to render in a film so obviously tilted towards the romance that beats conventions. In a beautifully twisted way, although her life is fraught with comparatively banal dilemmas, Shruti is the outsider in the film. Saurabh Shukla does a pot-bellied, small-town police officer with relish, and Rupa Ganguly as Shruti’s mother has a subtle but memorable presence.
In Hindi cinema, any banal story and a big star pass off as feel-good. Barfi! is refreshingly skillful, feel-good cinema.
Barfi! releases in theatres on Friday.