No doubt, it’s commendable that Anurag Basu’s Barfi! tries to treat its plot and characters in an endearing Chaplinesque sort of way by mixing light and slapstick humour with a tug or two at the heart strings – and I’ll even say that you so want it to work, and not just box-office wise, for more better, sensible films to be made in Bollywood – but sadly, the film is unable to quite pull it off. Yes, it has its charming moments, it boasts of some great visual quality in places, even has good performances but still ends up finally as being curiously uninvolving and dare I say it, boring, it’s length really telling in the second half.
The meandering script and narrative structure suffer as the film is let down by its writing. Sure, some of the ‘gags’ work, some moments stay with you but not in the larger scheme of things. As mentioned the film aims to be Chaplinesque but reaching nowhere near the genius of Chaplin, coming across instead as naive and on-the-surface superficial with plenty of forced synthetic sweetness. The narrative back and forth structure is clumsily done causing unwanted confusion at times while the major tracks between the three main characters, particularly between Shruti and Barfi, needed far more depth, thought and a proper graph. And you know, for instance, Barfi is saddled with Jhilmil but you never see the growth or transition in him from caring for her to falling in love with her. The sub-plot and ‘murder’ of Jhilmil doesn’t work while the relationship between Shruti and her husband is totally half-baked. Also, many of the gags give you a strong sense of deja vu – you have seen practically all of them in earlier Chaplin (City Lights, The Adventurer) or other classic comedy films – the scene with the dummy on the sofa is a straight rip off from the Make ‘Em Laugh Number from Singin’ in the Rain, already copied much earlier by Sachin in Aisi Bhi Kya Jaldi Hai. And even the reaction of Barfi to Shruti’s kiss is from… yes, Singin’ in the Rain again!
The performances do lift the film but again fall short of brilliance. Ranbir Kapoor proves yet again that he is easily the best young actor of today and this, even in a performance that is not perfect. So sure, he throws up plenty of expert moments in the film – see him in the scene with Ileana after he meets her parents in order to ask for her hand in marriage or when he meets her for the first time in 1978 in Kolkata – but he still overplays the 1972 portions – as he did the early Delhi portions in Rockstar too – and fails at times to maintain that fine balance of being the lovable, deaf and mute prankster and not appearing mentally challenged. Incidentally, what does he do besides having fun and falling in love and how does he survive post his father’s death in Darjeeling? Especially since his father was not rich, being a driver by profession. Or is that asking for too much logic?! Priyanka Chopra surprisingly keeps her autistic performance obvious but consistent enough and Ileana D’Cruz does manage to have her highs in the most ‘normal’ and least attention grabbing role of the film. Saurabh Shukla scores as the cop after Ranbir but caring about him inwardly while Rupa Ganguly does her small role as Ileana’s mother with reliable efficiency. Jisshu Sengupta is wasted.
The technicalities are just about so-so and even inconsistent. While some of the frames are extremely well lit and beautifully composed and even poetic, one cannot say the same for some of the night exterior scenes. The make-up of the characters in their old age avatars is tacky to say the least and while Pritam’s songs do complement the film at places, the back and forth shifting of the narrative between present day, 1972 and 1978 seems more a device to give the film some artificial complexity and layering as otherwise it has none. One cannot really comment about the sound design as everything is buried under a relentlessly loud and almost unending background score.
All in all, Barfi! with its forced mush is more like having a sweet dish with an artificial sweetener (lots of it) and not the real McCoy thrown in. Of course, many might argue this is brilliant compared to the Housefulls, Bodyguards and Raaz 3s and loads of other junk that Bollywood throws up week after week. Yes, it is undoubtedly a notch above them cinematically but merely comparisons to mediocrity don’t make a film great. The film has to work overall and in that aspect, Barfi!, for all it’s moments, is a disappointing watch.
Hindi, comedy, Drama, Color