Well, I wasn’t blown away, but I was charmed.
I’m not one to get all gushy about filmy conceits like smiling your way through life’s tragedies or how to be happy even when the shit hits the fan, but what I can and always will appreciate is a love story well told. And that’s the part of Barfi that worked for me – the beautiful narrative of the relationships between Barfi, Jhilmil and Shruti.
Though the film is laced heavily – too heavily at times – with adoring tributes to the silent film era, Chaplin, Amelie and heavy doses (weirdly enough) of The Notebook, at its core it is a story about 3 people – two of whom are “chalta phirta dils” (“walking talking hearts”) portrayed by Ranbir Kapoor’s Murphy aka Barfi, and Priyanka Chopra’s Jhilmil.
And one is a woman who like most of us, succumbs to the practicalities of the mind – Ileana D’Cruz’s Shruti, forever torn between love and reason and in the bargain ending up in a sort of no man’s land where “you cry, but not all of your tears and laugh, but not all of your laughter” (to possibly mis-quote Kahlil Gibran).
This dichotomy is the backdrop of what might have been a mundane love triangle if not for Anurag Basu’s beautiful and lovingly etched characterization of the three, and the tender and tragic moments that transpire between them.
And so you have Barfi, Darjeeling’s resident deaf-mute charmer who falls for the graceful and pretty Shruti one fine day. Their relationship unfolds – and yes, I hate to say there is a lot of manic-pixie-dream-boying that ensues, but it didn’t bug me as much maybe because on Ranbir, the trope isn’t half bad. A lot also had to do with Basu’s restrained and subtle handling of each character relating to the other (a restraint he doesn’t show during too many goofy silent-era-throwback chase sequences between Ranbir and the endearingly hilarious Saurabh Shukla).
Things go awry between Shruti and Barfi and soon after, Barfi finds himself saddled with the autistic Jhilmil, a childhood friend with a tragic past of her own. Basu never really points up the handicaps or tragedies but treats them matter-of-factly. He certainly never uses the handicaps as plot devices which is refreshing for a Hindi film (after the Paas and Blacks). The turns of heart and plot in Barfi! run deeper and truer and therefore they are universal – this is one of the major triumphs of the movie.
Much has been written about the scene between Barfi and Shruti after he visits her parents’ home and explains to her why he can’t be with her. It is undoubtedly one of the best scenes in the movie – Ranbir is brilliant in it – to convey so much without making a sound – only to be outdone by a scene just before the end, where the love triangle between these three characters swells up to a heart-breakingly gorgeous crescendo. The impossible choice Shruti is faced with, the only right thing there is for her to do and the understanding with which the decision is made – it’s that scene that represents for me what Barfi! is all about.
All of that was gorgeously done. What doesn’t work is the back and forth narrative jumping between 1972 Darjeeling, 1978 Kolkata and present day. I felt this jumping around was completely unnecessary. Though the relationships are the heart of the story, the plot device Anurag uses to presumably keep the viewer engaged involves a rather convoluted kidnapping plot which ended up being neither here nor there. The suspense element worked in bits but I found myself, especially in the second half, wanting to see more of these characters interacting with each other rather than being stuck in the police station solving a rather uninteresting crime.
Performances! Ranbir will absolutely charm you and break your heart – he is effortless and his portrayal of Barfi is marked with abandon and yet a subtle restraint – it never gets so cutesy that it makes you want to (here it comes) barf. He knows when to hold back and just be a regular bloke – and he conveys everything from anger to sadness to boredom to love with the same “living-it” quality that he showcased in Rockstar. The dude is just awesome. Period.
And yes – PC was awesome too. I can’t say how accurate a portrayal it was of an autistic person as I’m not informed enough on that front but what I can say is that Jhilmil never once reminded me of the PC who invokes so much of my annoyance because of her off-screen antics. All I saw was Jhilmil and for an actor, there is probably no greater compliment than that. It takes major guts to go THIS de-glam – the role wasn’t just about un-prettying herself but really going all out embarrassing in a few scenes like the one where she’s singing at a party at her parents house, or the scene where she tells Barfi she has to use the toilet. Very few of today’s female stars would be willing to go there – so major props for that.
I also loved Ileana and oddly enough her Shruti was the character I related to the most. Without any gimmicky handicaps to hang her acting chops on, she still managed to shine with a lovely screen presence that is immediately likable. I felt ultimately the story really belonged to Shruti – and Shruti is us, neither handicapped nor disabled, and yet living with a severely compromised heart, perhaps the greatest disability of all. Ileana was the perfect narrator for the tale – conveying with ease every shade of pretty, graceful, torn, broken and ultimately free.
Like I said, I wasn’t blown away the way I was with Rockstar, for instance, and I did feel there were too many directorial tips of the hat to too many other films and filmic styles, but what won me over was the beautifully flawed, human love story between three unforgettable characters. I also suspect that it’s a film that lingers and grows on you with time. What it can’t be faulted for is the passion and earnestness with which it was made which is apparent in every gorgeously picturised frame.
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