Review: BARFI! - Sometimes Too Much Of A Good Thing Is Just Enough

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
I can't imagine that the box office failure of Anurag Basu's attempted international crossover romance film, Kites, was far from the director's mind when he got to work on his latest film, Barfi! (the exclamation point is part of the title). Kites was targeted by the powers that be in Bollywood to be among the first genuine international hits to come from India. In the service of that goal, star Hrithik Roshan was joined by a Mexican leading lady, Barbara Mori, and American director Brett Ratner, no stranger to the top of the box office charts himself, was called in to re-edit the film from a smidge over two hours down to a 90 minute version, unfortunately redubbed Kites: The Remix. In spite of a decent opening in which the film became the first Bollywood film to crack the US top 10, the film eventually flopped hard, and everyone involved has worked hard to wipe the stain from their CV in the two years since.

If you were a director whose last film was a multinational production and major fiasco, what would you do next? Well, in Basu's case, the answer was Barfi!, a largely silent, small scale production that relies on the prodigious acting talent of one Ranbir Kapoor in a performance for the ages. There's no arguing that Anurag Basu is much better when his ideas are constrained like this. Miles from the over the top melodrama of Kites, Barfi! relies on story, characterization, and the intangible charisma of its leading actor. It isn't that Hrithik Roshan isn't one of Bollywood's most solid actors, but he's a movie star first and foremost; Ranbir Kapoor is an actor, and probably the best of the current crop.

Barfi! is the story of a deaf/mute prankster of the same name, played by Kapoor. Barfi has led a hard life; a mother who died in childbirth, a father who scrapes by, and while he has an innate ability to connect on a surface level with those around him, his disability makes it difficult to forge any lasting bonds. One day Shruti (south starlet Ileana D'Cruz making her Hindi film debut) stumbles into his life, and all of that is changed. She has his heart and, even though she is engaged, he slowly but surely wins hers. Their romance is a rocky one, and doesn't go exactly to plan, but that's only half of the story.

Barfi's father works as a driver for one of the wealthiest men in Darjeeling, whose daughter happens to be a grown woman, Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra), who is profoundly autistic. As children Barfi and Jhilmil were playmates, however, as an adult, Jhilmil is judged to be more of a burden than a blessing and she is put in a group home by her mostly despicable parents. When the patriarch of the family insists that Jhilmil comes homes before he dies, she's brought back into the household, and eventually becomes the beneficiary of the family fortune, much to the chagrin of her gambling addicted father and alcoholic mother. In steps Barfi, on the ropes with his own personal disaster, to take Jhilmil away, but not in the way you'd expect.

Much of the critical reaction to Barfi! is bound to be laudatory of the absolutely mesmerizing performance of Ranbir Kapoor in the title role, and rightly so. It's hard enough to carry a nearly three hour film without a word of dialogue, but to make his roguish character so damned likable is further testament to his skill as a performer. Kapoor draws equally from the two Little Tramps in his acting style here. There is, of course, the great Charlie Chaplin, who whom Kapoor owes a lot of his stylistic touches; but then there is the lesser known legend of Hindi film (and Ranbir's own grandfather) Raj Kapoor, who took the country bumpkin/tramp character in new directions with his own endearing performances in such classics as Shree 420. No matter how you slice it, Barfi! is a fantastic treat, and if there was any justice in the world, Ranbir Kapoor would be a household name after this film.

If all there was to this film was a fantastic performance from Ranbir Kapoor, it would be worth watching, but probably not worth remembering. However, Basu has taken a small cast and turned it into a huge, convoluted, complex story that is worthy of noting. The synopsis I attempted above is only the barest of skeletons when it comes to describing the action in the film. Barfi! is far more engrossing than I would have imagined going in, the trailer certainly focused on the magic and the dreamlike, Amelie-ish qualities of the film. In fact, if there is a major fault of the film, it may be that there is simply too much going on. Timelines cross and recross over and over again, there are flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, every character has their own secret, and every secret its own origin. With a bit of trimming, the film might have come in at a more arthouse friendly runtime, but as it is, I loved every minute of it.

As much praise is heaped upon Ranbir Kapoor for his performance, I can imagine that just as much criticism will be thrown Ms. Chopra's way for her characterization of Jhilmil in the film. I'm really of two minds about Jhilmil's character. It is difficult to portray profoundly autistic characters on film without them becoming overly broad. For example, I don't think Jhilmil is any more broad of a characterization than was Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, and certainly less clumsy than Shah Rukh Khan's portrayal of a grown man with  Asperger's Syndrome in My Name is Khan. However, there is always the threat, as Robert Downey, Jr. so astutely observed in Tropic Thunder, of going "full retard." Priyanka Chopra's Jhilmil is certainly walking a fine line in that respect, but I tend to fall on the side of the Chopra supporters this time, simply because of my own exposure to autism and the fact that it does often look like the character in this film. There are some revelations late in the film that are a bit hard to swallow, but apart from that, I was right there with the filmmaker and Kapoor and their vision for this character as a person worthy of love.

Ultimately, Barfi! is a love letter to the best part of everyone. I found myself recalling some of my favorite films and most treasured cinematic moments when watching Basu and Kapoor's creation on screen. I saw pieces of Amelie in the magical realism of the world Basu created, I saw the best of Charlie Chaplin and Raj Kapoor in Ranbir Kapoor's career-best performance as Barfi, I saw glimpses of Roberto Benigni as the roguish lover in the first half of Life is Beautiful, and so many more. This epic story deserves attention, and Ranbir Kapoor's performance is one I'm sure to revisit frequently. Having a pair of characters with disabilities as your leads is certainly a bold move, but Barfi! proves that these characters can be so much more than their perceived shortcomings.

Barfi! is a beautiful love story, not only of the love between its characters, but also between the filmmaker and the audience themselves. If Anurag Basu's intentions were to make a film to completely engross an audience and draw them into his characters' lives and loves, he has succeeded. This is one of my favorites of a very strong year from Bollywood, and I can't recommend it enough.
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