That rare film that puts a smile on your face even before a single frame of the story is revealed, Anurag Basu’s Barfi envelopes you like a warm blanket from the moment you settle into your seat. Even as routine acknowledgements appear on a black screen, you’re charmed by the accompanying ditty, Picture shuru, whose chorus instructs you to switch off your phones and submit yourself to the experience that follows.
There’s a lot that’s admirable about Barfi, particularly the simplicity of its characters and their actions. This is a film about inherently decent people faced with tough decisions. There are no villains in this story, only honest people who make wrong choices occasionally.
Ironic then that Basu himself suffers the same affliction… Not content telling a simple story without any fuss, he complicates the narrative with confusing timelines and a needless whodunit subplot. But more on that later.
Spanning forty years in the life of Murphy — or Barfi as he calls himself — a poor chauffeur’s son played by Ranbir Kapoor, the film unfolds in the early 1970s. He’s a happy-go-lucky deaf-mute boy in Darjeeling, forever on the run from a portly cop (Saurabh Shukla) for his petty misdemeanors. Doffing their hats to Chaplin in these comical chases, Basu and his star deliver a range of delightful slapstick moments.
Barfi falls for the delicately pretty Shruti (Ileana D’cruz), whom he woos relentlessly. But, in a scene lifted straight out of The Notebook, Shruti is reminded why their romance can have no happy ending. In a later scene, one of the best in this film, Barfi wordlessly acknowledges the gaping divide between Shruti and himself. Gesturing towards his torn pockets, his ripped shoe, his inability to hear or speak, Ranbir beautifully conveys Barfi’s deep hurt at being rejected. His life finds new meaning when he’s saddled with his childhood friend Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra), an autistic girl belonging to a wealthy local family.
The film works best as a love story, and Basu infuses humor and heart into the relationships between his three leads. There are lots of lovely little gems in Barfi, like those moments in which our hero repeatedly ‘plucks’ his heart out and offers it to Shruti. Or the test of unconditional friendship that Barfi puts his loved ones through, that involves a collapsing streetlight. How can you not break into a smile when Barfi exposes his own leg to a fellow passenger leering at Jhilmil’s bare calves during a truck journey?
Yet these lovely bits are offset by a messy screenplay packed with too many flashbacks, and a long-drawn second half that doesn’t benefit from the Gone Baby Gone-inspired subplot about a botched kidnapping. The tone now shifts abruptly from gentle humor and quirky romance to clunky suspense.
And yet, despite the indulgences, it’s hard to overlook the sheer skill invested in this enterprise, starting with Ravi Varman’s remarkable cinematography. Each frame is lovingly composed, the camera caressing those Darjeeling and Calcutta landscapes with unmistakable affection. Pritam’s music, some of his best work yet, is an assortment of charming melodies that lace the silences in place of dialogues. Basu particularly films the title song, Aala Barfi with startling originality.
Filling out smaller roles with relatively lesser-seen but fine actors like Rupa Ganguly (as Shruti’s mother) and Akash Khurana (as Barfi’s father), Basu draws heartfelt performances from his committed cast. Ileana leaves a lasting impression in her Hindi film debut, conveying both love and pain through those beautiful, expressive eyes. Priyanka escapes the typical pitfalls of playing an autistic character, making Jhilmil a wholly believable girl whom your heart goes out to.
The film, however, belongs to our silent hero, and Ranbir Kapoor owns the part completely. Never turning Barfi into a caricature or a stereotype, Ranbir adds wonderful layers to this seemingly simple fellow, and once again proves why he is his only competition.
Sadly, Basu’s film goes on too long and drags its feet in the end. Barfi had the potential to be great cinema, but as it stands it’s a respectable film that’s still better than a lot else you’re likely to see. I’m going with three out of five for director Anurag Basu’s Barfi. It’s a treat like the mithai it takes its name from. Go on, indulge your sweet tooth.