Monday, September 17, 2012

Barfi!, and the anatomy of a reaction

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.

I liked a few of the visual touches too. There are some nice little sight gags – 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.


  1. The film ran too long, in my opinion. At one point, it became difficult, trying to figure out the chronology of events. I gave up on that, I must admit.

    Not sure if I totally buy into Priyanka's depiction (or the director's viewpoint) of an autistic girl but given that I know little about this condition, I cannot comment any more.

    It is a delightful film, beautifully shot, and unashamedly Ranbir-centric in every frame. The guy is a good actor, handsome and charming... lights up the screen every time!

  2. Jai, i share your sentiments. sometimes a film touches you despite all its flaws. I loved Barfi even when it was self-indulgent, rambling and occasionally tedious to watch. because for all the shortcomings, i think it came straight from the heart and that shows too.

  3. If the silent film came first, the deaf-mute idea later, is that a bad thing? It is debatable I guess. I didn't find this "adorable" disabled person thing a problem because Barfi, when we meet, is a fully grown man and all that. His deaf-mute situation is never an issue at that point I thought. Of course, you admitted you were nitpicking. :)

    The moments after interval till the reunion with Shruti happens in Kolkata were joy. Definitely handled with tremendous control by Basu. And the topping is the way Phir Le Aaya Dil starts. I found the touches grating - the whole cycle chain coming off, stepping on dirt etc. Especially because he's so subtle and the direction flourishes otherwise.

    Anything on Murray win?

  4. I don't have anything "intelligent" or "profound" to write because I have not seen the movie and have no idea if I will watch it anytime soon (and its not because I dont want to but alas...). But then I loved this piece and thought I should express my appreciation . This one again , though not very elaborate as some of your other posts and kind of influenced by personal experiences has to be one of my favorites from all your film writing posts .
    Pleasure reading it.

  5. Thanks, Prashila. This was a very difficult post to write, and until I actually threw my hands up and said "what the heck" and clicked the Publish button I had no idea if I would even put it up here. The imperative for writing this piece was not that I wanted to write about Barfi! - it was something much more personal than that. And in the final analysis, I don't think I've managed to do what I wanted to - have held myself back a little too much. Maybe another time, in another space...

  6. Gradwolf: I stayed up that night and watched the whole match - the first full match I have seen since Fed-Djoker at Wimby. Glad AM finally got it - it was long overdue, and his road to his first Slam was certainly tougher than the one that Fed, Rafa and Djoker took.

  7. Lakshmi: about the depiction of Jhilmil: yes, I think it was more a generic idea of what an autistic person might be like (a "Platonic Ideal" if you will!) than anything else. But given this, I thought it was well-handled.

    Deepa: I actually didn't find it rambling while I was watching it - those thoughts only came to me with hindsight (which is why I mentioned that thing about the intellectualising of the viewing experience).

  8. Hmmm. Actually in the second half when that entire flashback is explained, things slowed down considerably. Frankly, if the narrative had only focussed on Barfi's relationship with the two women it would have been much more engaging. It's meant to be a fantasy and it works beautifully at that level till the real world intervenes and other characters butt into the picture. The police station scenes were particularly dragging, I thought. But you're right. This is one film that forced me to let go of my cynicism and watch it with and open heart. Hence it connected.

  9. Hi Jai. What i liked about this post is as you mentioned your personal connect to this particular movie...your personal experience and how it effected your reaction to the story. I have also liked movies that i know are superficial in its treatment of a subject but i have a personal connect with some part of it. I will go to see Barfi this evening. And i am expectant after reading this piece.:)

  10. Candide: well, actually part of the point of this post is that you shouldn't raise your own expectations just because the film had a particular effect on me. But still, I hope you like it.

  11. Enjoyed reading your piece, Jai.

    The movie worked for me too as essentially a series of (often 'inspired') moments rather than a coherent whole.

    RK and IdC's perfs esp stood out for me.

    One major issue, plot-wise though, which I'd like to share (spoiler alert to those who haven't seen the film yet):

    In my view, the depiction of the Barfi-Jhilmil relationship cannot be dismissed, as many other reviewers have done, as harmless, idealised wish fulfilment; it is ethically dubious and sends a dangerous message.

    If you go by Anurag Basu's recent interview, PC's role was clearly meant to be that of an autistic, but NOT learning disabled (ie: mentally retarded) adult. Which would have been fine.

    PC does not appear to have grasped this however and comes across as both in her delineation of Jhilmil. (Or gone 'full retard', to quote Raja Sen, in his Barfi review, quoting the 'Tropic Thunder' line).

    It is very inappropriate to (then) suggest that it is ok/possible for such an individual to marry and lead a long and happy(ish) life with Barfi. She simply would not have the capacity to consent to any form of marital/sexual (?) relationship, and is clearly vulnerable.

    There are many adults with autism who are happily married. But if they are additionally learning disabled, (and I understand this is a distinction that mainstream audiences may not grasp), consent is a major issue. Well-meaning families in the subcontinent (esp) often (try to) get their learning disabled sons and daughters married 'so that there is somebody to take care of them', without grasping the legal, moral, ethical and safety implications of such actions.

    As a psychiatrist who works with learning disabled adults in the UK, I have local incapacity legislation to use while assessing and helping (to) protect vulnerable adults in similar situations. There is no such legal protection available (yet) in India and it is important that films like Barfi, however laudable they might be in their desire to show disabled people without stereotyping them, take a more nuanced approach while depicting their lives.

  12. Raj: thanks for the comment, and point very well taken. Agree that the idealising of the relationship (presented in terms of a comforting, feel-good story with the two characters played by familiar mainstream stars) glosses over those ethical issues.

  13. Loved your piece and so totally agree with labouring over analysing and losing emotional connect like quicksilver. I experience this all the time when doing film appreciation workshop or just a casual discussion.

    Back to Barfi, brilliant scenes/touches were there throughout but one also sensed this belaboured effort to "let me show you all that Ranbir is capable of...atta boy Ranbir...let's charm/surprise/shock/amuse/humour like no one has done before...." Given a fraction less charm than what Ranbir has, the director would not have pulled it off so successfully!
    A bit of an overkill...a bit of a loose structure...a bit too long..and yet hugely enjoyable and loveable film!!!
    Just loved your peice.

  14. One of those irritants is the film's romanticising of the lives of people who aren't “normal”

    Haven't seen this film. But I can relate to this. A lot of films are guilty of this. I absolutely hated a film like TZP precisely because of this.

    There are several great exceptions though. Freaks for instance. A true masterpiece. Funny, cruel film bereft of any attempt to make the lives of wretched people seem pleasant. Difficult to top that film.

    Another masterpiece is Ali-Fear Eats the Soul - a film that involves a rather "abnormal" pairing of an aged German white scavenger and a young Moroccan. The film does not try to romanticize this pairing, but unsentimentally highlights the sheer unsuitability of the pair.

  15. Shrikanth: Freaks - very, very different sort of film, dealing with "abnormal" people in a specific, dehumanised setting in order to achieve a particular effect. You can't compare it with a situation where the two disadvantaged people have caring families and are treated like human beings by most people around them. (And surely you're not suggesting that all films about disadvantaged people should present their lives in the terms offered by Freaks??)

  16. one also sensed this belaboured effort to "let me show you all that Ranbir is capable of...atta boy Ranbir...let's charm/surprise/shock/amuse/humour like no one has done before...."

    Suman: yes, I think I agree with that. And though I rate him highly as an actor, I'm mildly surprised by how much praise he has got for this role.

  17. The line at the end says it all.. its not always easy to analyse something that affects us in a very personal way. I'd go further and say, why even do it at all.

    Although this movie didn't affect me personally, i can totally identify with your saying that for some works ( movies/books) which do affect us deeply, its almost dishonest to disengage, and reengage critically.

    I've felt that way about some movies and books, and I've felt it easier to just let them be, they're good enough, however they are..

  18. Not sure if this ended up quite the 'objective' analysis that you wanted it to be, given the personal and the 'subjective' quotient that seeps in. Whatever it is, I enjoyed your review as much as I enjoyed the movie. My review reads so different from yours that this got me thinking again - but then, I am a very passionate observer and seldom lose sight of the divide between people on and off the silver screen. Keep writing...

  19. Sudeshna: where did I say I wanted it to be an "objective" analysis? No review I have ever written has that pretence, but this post was specifically about how personal these things are.

  20. That "quasi-objective" reference was tongue in cheek, btw - it was more a way of saying "back to something just a little less subjective and a little closer to a conventional reviewing style".

  21. Jai - a long time fan of your blog, allow me a self-indulgent comment. I posted my thoughts on Barfi last night, and read your piece today. Super kicked to find that we had a few similar reactions. Hope you remain non-objective for some more time :)
    Here's what I wrote

  22. Jai: Ofcourse Freaks was an exceptional film dealing with an exceptionally rare disability in an era far less sensitive to "abnormality" than ours.

    My point was about the need for films to confront reality instead of softening the unpleasantness for the audience.

    In general I believe that modern films err on the side of being too romantic as opposed to say the films of the 40s/50s when the society was more hardy.

  23. I thought it was a delightful film but not too original. Apart from the obvious Chaplin references, Barfi and Jhilmil's relationship reminded me too much of Zampano and Gelsomina from La Strada. The background score is so reminiscent of the done to death Amelie score.

    Another issue I had was with the casting of Ranbir, even though he did a fantastic job, both physically and emotively. I think Sherman Joshi would have been a better choice, or Imran Khan (though I have my doubts on the latter's ability to pull off such a heavy role). Ranbir, for lack of a better word, is too "big" for this character. Of course the perfect casting would be an actor from the North East but Bollywood doesn't have such luxuries.

  24. Why would someone from the "North East" be the best choice for this role? I'm not sure I follow...

  25. Reply to Sapera:Because Barfi belongs to Darjeeling and is most probably a Nepali.

    Re Ranbir performance: I'm also mystified by the praise he has received. I thought Sanjeev Kumar in Koshish or even Shreyas Talpade in Iqbal did much better.

  26. @Anno: Don't get me wrong. I loved Ranbir's performance. I'm just saying he didn't look the part. Not his fault, obviously. Casting faux pas IMO.

  27. Hi Jai,

    Its the overt reliance on sentiments that makes most of our movies ordinary. Barfi, for the most part played out as on ODE to a well marketed actor. I do not wish to be over critical but your point that physically challenged people are always presented as sugary specimens with a heart of Gold is right and precisely the reason why the movie did not work for me.

    It is a nice film but then there are so many nice films being churned out by bollywood, which you can view without thinking too much about the content and craft of the movie.

    The problem with the movie is not bad acting , all the actors are competent and though I am no Ranbir Kapoor fan (He doesn't speak in the movie, so his pronunciation thankfully gets spared), there is no real sense of storytelling , I found it difficult to empathise with the character. Something which a viewer should not be expected to do automatically if the character is Mute.

    The movie misses laying out the character graph of its protagnist and there are no layers for the viewer to explore. The GOW saga was a better experience in this regard.Although I think that Nawazuddin Siddique's performance in the second part was probably the best I have seen for a long time in a Hindi movie. (It outshone a brilliant Manoj Bajpayee in the first)

    So probably I am prejudiced by two great performances or is it just that I found a lot in the two parts to think about at so many levels than I found in Barfi!

  28. At times I wish that films/books/objects that have profound and immediate impact on my senses should be written about, reviewed just like I would. If someone doesn't come up with a review, it leaves me tweeting in whimpers about this or that. I am glad you wrote almost everything that I felt and observed. The biggest similarity being the overpowering handful moments of something gushing. Sometimes films and books are pscyhoanalytic in a way that they are just triggers/doorways to emotions in one's personal sphere. For me Barfi did that. Thanks :)

  29. Jai, Wonderful Review as usual. Your reviews have started biasing my own thoughts about movies and thats why I avoid reading your reviews before watching a movie and deciding how much I liked it :-)

    This movie worked for me on many different fronts - Set pieces, Cinematography, general flow/editing and the general feel good feeling in a genuinely sad story. The movie had some nice shots of Darjeeling and Kolkatta (including the reflection / dispersion shots you mention). Loved the nod to Chaplin in the scene where Barfi goes out in the rain when he feels like crying.

    Again agree with you that the murder mystery was needless and the movie did not require a twist / mystery to be a good one. Would have made things interesting if Shruti did not tell Barfi about Jhilmil calling in the last scene.

    Was quite distraught to read a post on Facebook where they showed that many of the set pieces are similar to scenes from other movies (apart from the chaplin inspirations). I still prefer to think of them as being inspired rather than lifted due to personal bias. Definitely not a deal breaker for me.

  30. This was my first reaction too but I felt very cheated afterwards when I discovered that most of the scenes I had remembered were lifted lock, stock and barrel from various movies.

  31. Any thoughts on the plagiarism charges being raised?

  32. Barfi: A movie about a deaf and mute man whose life of fun and adventure soon starts revolving around a mentally challenged woman, and keeps getting disrupted by a Bengali woman. Pure brilliance ! Can't wait for another film based on Congress party!

    courtesy: a friend at work.

  33. Sudeshna: excellent! If they market it as a subtle allegory about the Indian government, I think we have an Oscar-winner on our hands *slow clap*