Bareilly Ki Barfi movie review: This Ayushmann, Kriti, Rajkummar starrer ain’t no Nil Battey Sannata
Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
If you debuted with Nil Battey Sannata, there will obviously be high expectations around your next. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, who broke into Bollywood last year with that sleeper hit starring Swara Bhaskar, is back this week with her second film, Bareilly Ki Barfi.
Nil Battey Sannata was set in the Indian city that houses Shah Jahan’s monument to his love for Mumtaz Mahal. Bareilly so far has been best known to Bollywood gazers for the many musical references it has inspired, and most famously of course for that jhumka that Sadhna lost in the local bazaar in Mera Saaya 51 years back. I wish I could tell you it will henceforth be known for Bitti Mishra.
That would be our heroine (played by Kriti Sanon), a spirited young resident of the place whose father runs a sweet shop, mother is a school teacher and who is herself working in the public grievances section of the city’s electricity department. Bitti’s parents are worried sick because though they have paraded their beti before dozens of prospective grooms, she is still kunwaari.
Whether or not she is a kanya in the complete sense of the word is a separate question that they have not dwelt on, but one potential husband does. “Are you a vurjjinn?” he asks her on the terrace of her home, where she and he have been sent to bond while both sets of parents wait expectantly downstairs. Bitti snubs him, as any self-respecting woman should, and so her matashri’s lamentations for her daughter continue.
This is our introduction to both Bitti and Bareilly Ki Barfi (BKB). Bitti is a non-conformist with a mind of her own, we are told: she ignores curfews imposed on daughters alone, does the break dance and rides a mobike in this conservative milieu. Add to that her professional and financial independence, a point underlined by her supportive Dad, and you might assume writers Nitesh Tiwari and Shreyas Jain would be satisfied with their rather neat profile of a small-town woman who refuses to be constrained by social straitjackets. But no sir, they are not.
Despite all these markers of Bitti’s free spirit, Tiwari and Jain (who earlier collaborated on Dangal, which the former directed) feel the need to make smoking the overriding signifier of her sense of independence by stressing and re-stressing it, then colouring it with a bold red marker in case we have not noticed – because Bollywood has for some reason in the past decade or so decided to make the cigarette the ultimate metaphor for feminism. Apparently, courage and a sense of independence are not good enough.
Nitpicking, did you say? Actually not. This confused feminism signifies the writers’ lack of conviction and clarity that turns out to be BKB’s undoing.
First, while the film’s first 20 minutes are devoted solely to Bitti, once the hero enters the frame she is completely sidelined. This delightful creature, brimful of potential though she is, is relegated to the margins as soon as we meet Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Pritam Vidrohi (Rajkummar Rao). From then on, Bitti is reduced to being nothing more than the object of their interest and duelling.
Second, both BKB’s male leads are victims of half-hearted writing, lost to the most inconsistent characterisation I have seen in a Hindi film in a while. The motivations for their actions are unconvincing because each man’s nature and character swings from left to right like a pendulum throughout the narrative. No, this not what you might describe as shades of gray, this is a different colour of the rainbow in successive scenes.
With a screenplay this weak, nothing can save BKB. Not Sanon’s natural charisma (this woman is truly special, give her better projects please!) nor Khurrana’s innate charm. Not the flashes of genius we get to see from Seema Pahwa and Pankaj Tripathi playing Bitti’s parents Susheela and Narottam; and from Rao when his character Pritam is being bullied by his friend Chirag.
Pahwa, Tripathi and Rao in particular pounce on every morsel of inspiration available in this largely uninspired script. All five artistes far outshine their film.
BKB even fails to explore Bareilly with any degree of detailing. Add to this one of the plainest soundtracks delivered by Bollywood this year (featuring songs by five composers) and it almost feels like Ms Tiwari and her writing team lost interest in this venture halfway through it.
It did not start off this way. In the opening 20 minutes of BKB, there are little touches that hold out a promise of better things to come. Like a dejected middle-class Mum stuffing namkeen back into its plastic container after the departure of a possible dulha’s family from a ladki dekhna session, while her forlorn spouse packs laddoos back into their dabba. Like that scene in which Bitti lies to a cop that she is Christian and he breaks into English without batting an eyelid, as any north Indian fed on Bollywood stereotypes would. These well-observed moments are a reminder of the detailing in Nil Battey Sannata, a film that was both intensely local and universal. The rest of BKB does not live up to them.
The only positive that remains consistent throughout BKB is the humour in its dialogues (barring the decidedly silly, schmaltzy climax). Funny conversations, however, are not enough to redeem the insubstantial story into which they are written.
My heart kind of broke as I watched BKB. 2017 has been a lousy year for quality Hindi cinema so far. Apart from a handful of indies that have shone in the dark, the rest of Bollywood’s offerings in the past eight months have been bad enough to tempt a cinemaniac to hang up her boots. Even in my saddest moments in the months gone by though, I did not dream that the woman who brought us the life-affirming tale of Chanda and Apu from Nil Battey Sannata would follow that up with the blandness that is Bareilly ki Barfi.
What happened, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari?