The central premise of Anurag Basu’s new film is that true love is that which is unplanned, unpremeditated—a pure impulse of the heart, unblemished by the dictates of the head.
At first it seems that the exemplary practitioner of this is the film’s deaf-mute hero, Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor), and the one chosen to relay his message to us is the winsome young girl called Shruti (well-cast debutante Ileana D’Cruz) that he first gives his heart to.
Barfi taught me, says a tastefully graying Shruti in one of the many too-easy voice-overs with which the film prepares to catapult us into epic romantic backstory, “ki life mein sabse bada risk hota hai kabhi koi risk na lena (The biggest risk in life is to never take any risks)”. If films must deliver how-you-should-live-your-life messages, then that’s a message I’d happily take on board.
But it turns out that the model of true love in Barfi is actually the relationship between Barfi and the autistic Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra). To the non-disabled, ‘normal’ Shruti, now the outsider in their wordless world, it is the only love that lives up to her childish vision of her grandparents, who lived together for ever and then died a day apart.
But childish is the operative word here. The relationship between Barfi and Jhilmil may well be unplanned, spontaneous and untainted by the instrumental pragmatism that underlies Shruti’s unhappy alliance to a suitable boy, which the film sets up as its other. But it is also untainted by the invariable crisscrossing of mutual expectations, or the occasional messiness of egos, or the essential frisson of desire. It is devoid, by its very nature, of any of the elements of real-life love as most people experience it. It is, like this film which places it on a pedestal, less pure love than pure fantasy.
The trajectory of Anurag Basu’s directorial career is an odd one, from the adultery and violence of Murder (2004) and Gangster (2006)—both fairly taut films, made under the Bhatts’ Vishesh Films banner, via the largely endearing (if undeniably derivative) ensemble film Life in a Metro (2007) to the overwrought romantic flourish of Kites (2010) – and now this attempt at epic tragicomic romance.
Barfi is as far as it is possible to come from gritty or sexy or dark or pungent. It inhabits a rose-tinted world filled with toy trains and picture-perfect houses, surrounded by magically wintry forests complete with fireflies that you can catch in shimmering soap bubbles. Right from the title onwards – named for the famously cute Murphy baby of radio fame, Ranbir says his name in such a way that people call him Barfi – the film clearly places itself in an alternate universe.
In this universe, being poor and mute and friendless in Calcutta means living in a place that manages to overlook the Howrah Bridge, and managing to make a living for two by pasting advertisements for Prestige pressure cookers on the city streets. From the picturesque ghats and green fields of rural Bengal to the sleepy, musty police station in a real place called Ghoom (sleep in Bangla), there’s no denying the care with which the film lays out its nostalgia-soaked milieu. It just feels suspiciously like a handkerchief placed there for us to weep into.
Because, despite all its avowed lightness of touch, personified in the adroitly Chaplinesque turn put in by its impressive leading man, this is a deeply manipulative film. The initial portions—in which we see young love bloom between Shruti and Barfi—do try to steer clear of mawkishness and sympathy, managing to make us believe in an initially reluctant Shruti becoming gradually smitten by Barfi’s wordless charm.
Ranbir’s effervescent performance, lifting sequence after sequence with his marvelous flair for physical comedy (like he did to some extent in Ajab Prem ki Gajab Kahani), has a lot to do with this. Everyone else is unmemorable, though Saurabh Shukla does reasonably well as a harried policeman whose waist “has gone down from 52 inches to 42 inches” in trying to keep up with Barfi, giving us several silent-movie-style chases that you cannot but smile at.
With the entry of Jhilmil, however, the film not only transforms into a circuitous, inexplicable whodunit that drags and drags, it also succumbs to everything it was apparently trying to avoid. Priyanka Chopra, officially deglamorised but never looking anything other than oh-so-adorable, makes a valiant effort to inhabit the rather impossible role she’s landed with, but there’s simply no getting away from the deliberately cutesy form that her relationship with Barfi takes.
From attempting to copy the elegant Shruti by wearing a sari, or trying to embody the imagined Bengali wife by fanning Barfi as he eats, there’s something terribly troubling about the film’s cloying resolution of Jhilmil’s autism. If only all differently-abled people could live in Barfi’s la-la-land.