Barfi!, and the anatomy of a reaction
Date: 9/17/2012 4:36:00 PM
There is a paradox built into the reviewing process: the films one really enjoys or really dislikes are such immediate emotional experiences that there is something almost dishonest about exiting the hall and trying to express your thoughts in writing a few hours or days later. By this point one has had enough time to analyse or intellectualise the experience, which in itself is not a bad thing – it is part of the process of critical engagement and articulation. But what sometimes happens during this period is that the emotional effect begins to wear off: the things you really liked about the film might become less tangible and the little flaws that didn’t much affect your enjoyment while you were watching it might now begin to colonise the mind.
I have touched on this before in my many rambling posts about reviewing. I have also touched on how one’s response to a film depends on an unquantifiable or unknowable combination of things – from the mood you are in on the day you see it to whether you’re seeing it alone or with company; the lingering effects of something you’ve just read, or a conversation you’ve just had, or something you’ve recently lost.
So here is... not a review, but a small (and necessarily inadequate) attempt to make sense of why I was so affected by Anurag Basu’s Barfi! despite the fact that I can easily make a list of its weaknesses and irritants.
One of those irritants is the film's romanticising of the lives of people who aren't “normal”, and central to this romanticising is the use of the idiom of silent-movie comedy to tell the story of a man who can't hear or speak. Thus, the very first sequence is a funny chase performed in the Keystone Kops style, complete with the famous Chaplin gag of a large statue being inaugurated to reveal the underdog perched on it. The prettifying conceit here is that in some way perhaps the world really does play like a soundless comedy film for the protagonist; all will be well if you can perform a few pratfalls, or evade your pursuers by playing see-saw on a ladder, to a lilting background score.
“Khamoshi pyaar ki zubaan hai,” the film’s narrator/leading lady Shruti tells her mother at one point, trying to make the case that she and Barfi can be happy together, and indeed much of their courtship is presented in the language of sweet silent-era romances. Later, even a bank robbery – where Barfi is trying to get hold of money for a vital kidney operation for his father – is shot in this mode. But in a way, this has the effect of undermining Barfi’s deafness and muteness: as a viewer immersed in this charming silent-movie world, one almost comes to believe that he is speechless not because he can’t talk but because this is the way the film is. In any case his condition is treated as a relatively minor detail, the way we might be told that he is left-handed or that he has an extra thumb. One rarely gets a sense of the effect it has had on his personal growth and personality – it’s something of a plot MacGuffin.
Nitpicking further, one can point to the film’s unnecessarily convoluted narrative structure and its facile incorporation of a mystery subplot just to keep the viewer in prolonged suspense about what will eventually become of the central relationship. (I was relieved that Saurabh Shukla’s policeman was around to clarify the plot chronology at a vital stage.)
This sounds like a very negative “review”, doesn’t it? And yet, oddly, none of the things mentioned above were deal-breakers for me because the film’s stronger moments worked so well and because I was usually happy to treat it as a collection of lovely vignettes rather than as a consolidated story with properly developed characters and perfectly tied up loose ends. One reason it may have worked for me is that I’m a big fan of wordless storytelling: if I were to make a list of my favourite movie sequences, very few of them would be dialogue-heavy. And on a scene-by-scene basis, the silent moments in this film are quite expertly handled.
Psychoanalysing my own reaction further, I have to say that these days I’m more vulnerable than usual to sentimental – even saccharine – movies. Life has been that way for the last three months; sad songs continually play in my head. More specifically, I felt a personal connect with an aspect of the central relationship in Barfi! – the Barfi-Jhilmil bond, which doesn't hinge on the things that are usually very central to human lives: being able to discuss common interests, for example, or even speak with each other in conventional language. (This is explicitly set against the commonsensical advice Shruti’s mother gives her: that she should spend her life with someone who can understand what she’s saying.) Without spelling things out too much, I have had recent experience of the ending of such a relationship – one of the most meaningful in my life – and if personal experience of that sort won’t inform your feelings about a sentimental film, what will?
Of course, I’d like to think this chord wouldn’t have been struck if these scenes in Barfi! were poorly executed. And so, to return to a quasi-“objective” analysis: I liked that this film sidestepped so many of the obvious minefields in its path – that it kept its head in moments that might easily have turned farcical through over-acting or over-writing, or just by showing one more reaction shot than was necessary.
Take a commercial project with glamorous, big-name stars cast in deglamorised roles and you’re treading on thin ice; the fourth wall between the film and the viewer becomes very fragile. Priyanka Chopra’s performance as the autistic Jhilmil could easily have sent the whole edifice crashing down with a single false note: for example, a self-consciously giggly response to one of Barfi’s antics that might have brought a scene dangerously close to a conventional, coquettishly romantic moment between “Ranbir Kapoor” and “Priyanka Chopra”. Instead – and I’m sure good direction had a part here – she plays Jhilmil as a girl whose limited attention span never lets her stay in a moment for more than a few seconds at a time, even when something key is happening in the context of the narrative. And it works. If you have to be critical, I suppose it’s possible to call it a one-note performance, but I think she handled that single note well – and to my eyes at least, the deglamorised look didn’t feel gimmicky.
Visually, there were a few other things I liked. There are some nice little sight gags – perhaps beginning with the opening shot that has “Muskaan” written atop an arch that resembles an inverted smiley (a pointer to the bittersweet nature of the story that is about to unfold)? There is also the slightly fetishistic use of the distorted mirror/dark glass motif. This is a film full of glass surfaces that provide imperfect views of things, or surfaces that don’t exist: from the paperweight that Jhilmil looks through to Barfi's first glimpse of Shruti's future husband as a ghostly reflection to a night-time view of what seems like the headlights of a single car but is revealed to be two bikes riding together. In less literal terms too, the characters often see through a glass darkly – losing touch with their real feelings, not being able to understand the full picture. In the end, perhaps this is why there is something appealingly direct and honest about the Barfi-Jhilmil relationship, even if it is an idealised one: they know they are happy in each other’s company, and that’s good enough.Certainly it was good enough for me. At another stage in my life, it might not have been.