Sunday, September 23, 2012

NEW: Barfi: An unlikely and unconventional triumph (but also quite literally a scene-stealer)

Barfi, Barfi, Barfi.

I don’t know what I expected from Barfi, but it blew away any expectations. It was poignant, its performances wonderful, and yet it was still funny.

Barfi is definitely a romance and an entertainer — but still artsy. So it appealed to me on several levels, and I’ll try to address them all, from simple to complex.

Before I begin anything, let me say this: I loved this movie. I would definitely recommend seeing it. It’s different — really, actually different — and enjoyable. I say this first because I’m not sure my other commentary on the movie will adequately convey how much I enjoyed the film. Talking about Barfi seems to be fairly easy; describing why I like it is not.

But on to the movie.

From the first, let’s start with Ileana D’Cruz, making her Bollywood debut. It’s easy to lose her in this film both because she disappears for a section of it and because of the power of the other two lead roles. Shruti is by far the most traditional (or typical) role in this film, and Ileana fills it as adequately as any, with several commendable moments.

Ranbir is, as one would expect, incredibly endearing as the titular Barfi, a poor deaf-mute boy in Darjeeling who nonetheless has an unflagging optimism and upbeat persona. Barfi appreciates life — bike rides, making people smile, helping others. And Ranbir brings his charm and sheer adorable factor into the role.

But the true standout performance — and before I saw the film, you’d never have convinced me of this — is from Priyanka Chopra. There are definite flaws in her portrayal of an autistic girl, but other mannerisms feel uncannily accurate (the performance is perhaps not so full as SRK’s portrayal of a high-functioning autistic man in My Name is Khan, but it’s pretty close). And gone is the diva Miss World who is currently trying to become a pop star. Jhilmil is hardly glamorous, with her frizzy mop of curls, high-necked shirts and frumpy cardigans, and she hardly speaks, let alone dances and sings.

This alone would be commendable for Piggy Chops, but just that wouldn’t be enough for the depth she brings to Jhilmil. The moments of Jhilmil’s simple wonder are incredibly powerful. She isn’t a character we pity for what she doesn’t have; she is a character who teaches us — even more so than Barfi — that enjoying life is simple.

But if Barfi and Jhilmil’s enjoying life is simple, the film’s plot is incredibly overconvoluted for the powerful performances and poignancy, and I really wish it’d been able to do justice to the rest of the film. The problem of cops and chasing and ransoms is exacerbated by the film jumping back and forth between three settings — modern day Darjeeling, where Barfi is dying; 1970s Darjeeling, where Barfi and Shruti fell in love and then parted; and slightly later 1970s Calcutta, where Barfi and Jhilmil live and later encounter Shruti.

But broken down more easily, the film is a tale of two romances: one in the first half, another in the second (both with reference to the interval and with reference to the movie’s timelines).

Barfi’s romance with Shruti is, like Shruti's character, the more conventional. Girl who already has a marriage arranged (though a love marriage, she tells her friend) meets a boy who is smitten with her. Girl slowly falls in love with boy. Girl’s family does not approve. Girl’s mother reminds girl of duty. Girl’s fiance returns. Girl doesn’t have the guts to stand up to her family and breaks boy’s heart, marries fiance and goes away.

But, of course, Shruti lives with regret (as does her mother, who told her about choosing duty over love). We don’t get to see much of it until Barfi re-enters her life, and she thinks she’s gotten a second chance — except that she hasn’t, because Barfi is now in love with Jhilmil (though he doesn’t seem to realize it). But once Shruti realizes this and realizes that Barfi will never love her the way he once did — amazingly portrayed by Ileana, one of those standout moments I mentioned — it is, in a way, too late. She has — finally — mustered courage and left her husband and her family for Barfi. Except Barfi now has Jhilmil.

Shruti never really stops resenting Jhilmil for what she has (angrily folding her out of photographs of the trio), but she does not stand in their way — in yet another brilliantly acted moment choosing to steer Barfi back to Jhilmil when she could’ve kept him (in ignorance) to herself. And so she continues to love Barfi, despite the fact that Barfi loves Jhilmil.

If you’ll stomach my overarching thinking for a moment, I’d like to observe that I think in general, film-going audiences (and readers/fiction consumers) are more willing to accept a longsuffering woman who selflessly lives with devotion to her love while allowing him to move on. In more simplistic terms, if a love triangle resolves with a couple and a third wheel, the valiant, understanding third wheel tends to be a woman. As Jane Austen wrote in Persuasion, “All the privilege I claim for [women] ... is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” This came up as well in another film I watched quite recently: Cocktail, a completely different film but with a similar romantic theme. I can point you to examples in film and literature, but I digress.

Think simply of the comparison, as Shruti has much of the movie to wallow in her lost love, Barfi has very little time to mourn his lost love and the ways that Shruti has wronged him. Soon after their breakup, his father falls ill and Jhilmil falls into his care.

If the failed love story of Barfi and Shruti is conventional, Barfi and Jhilmil’s relationship is anything but conventional. They are two people the world doesn’t expect to be able to love; Shruti’s family rejects Barfi because of his disability, and Jhilmil’s own family seems incapable of seeing her worth. And yet Barfi appreciates life’s small things, and Jhilmil is constantly in wonder at the simple things others take for granted. In Jhilmil, Barfi finds someone who will always appreciate his antics. Barfi ensures that Jhilmil will no longer be alone, neglected or forgotten.

Of Barfi and Jhilmil, Barfi is the mentally sound one, but we are never given any real indication that he understands his feelings for her. Jhilmil, however, understands hers. She experiences jealousy, rejection, possessiveness. Painful and triumphant, moving.

Perhaps this is an unlikely triumph of Priyanka’s acting over Ranbir’s, perhaps it’s by design. But Barfi first tries to rid himself of Jhilmil simply by leaving her, then taking her home and leaving her, then directing her where to go. When she doggedly follows him, he becomes annoyed. Later, he accepts that she won’t leave and tries to cheer her, but really that’s no more or less than he’d do for anyone. When they settle down into a routine of life, still there’s little indication that Barfi’s regard for Jhilmil is a real relationship love (though he’s quick to defend her honor to a creep on a train or bus). Maybe you can argue that he’s blind to it, but you’d think at some point, he has to realize it. He’s angry with himself for losing her, depressed when he thinks she’s dead, but it still could be over a friend. Only when his desperation comes through when he’s at the mental home searching for her does any hint of a more heavy love come through, and even then, there’s no aha! moment.

But maybe the greatest victory of Barfi and Jhilmil’s romance in this film is that their relationship is so different, so innocent, and yet as heartwarming as any other. There is no condemnation in their living together (even sleeping side by side) long before marriage because their relationship is so innocent. And yet there is, by the end, no doubt that what Barfi and Jhilmil has is deeper than what Barfi and Shruti have had. Neither Barfi nor Jhilmil really speaks, in the traditional sense. And to make a love story, believable and beautiful, without words is really something.

And I know that’s a lot that I’ve said, but there’s another thing before I can let this film go: the “borrowed” (lifted, stolen) scenes. I’ve seen some discussion of them on social media so far, but I haven’t seen anyone break down the actual amount of, hem, stealing this film does.

While Bollywood romantic comedies often lift scenes, they adapt or desi-ize them for their own films. (Like Josh and West Side Story. Like Dostana and Chuck and Larry. Like Humko Deewana Kar Gaye and Notting Hill.) That, I think, is the case with Barfi! and The Notebook. Two scenes that I could identify came from The Notebook: when Shruti’s mother takes her to see her own former love and the final scene in which Barfi and Jhilmil die together.

But the movie’s lifted scenes don’t stop there. Much of the comedy is stolen from other movies. There are three definite sources I can identify, and I’m not sure there aren’t more.

First, there’s Singin’ in the Rain (one of my all-time favorite movies). Aside from an initial frivolous observation that rain is kind of a recurring background character in Barfi just as it is in, well, Singin’ in the Rain, there are two very memorable gags from the song “Make ’Em Laugh” that Barfi steals. Watch the video below of Donald O’Connor (whom I love not just because we share that most glorious of Irish surnames) smashing and adjusting his nose/face and doing a couch scene with a dummy, both at around 1:54. Barfi does both gags to cheer Jhilmil at different points in the film.

Next, there’s two parts stolen from a very famous Buster Keaton gag in the 1922 film Cops. The first is grabbing a moving car to make a getaway; the second is the ladder gag. Barfi does both when, well, he’s running from the cops.

And last but certainly not least is Charlie Chaplin. The film also directly lifts two scenes from Chaplin films that I can identify: one is an unveiling statue scene from the opening of City Lights (1931); the second is a sliding door gag from The Adventurer (1917) (start the video at about 22 minutes).

But I think the film actually does more than lift those two scenes from Charlie Chaplin films (though I’m almost certain the scene where Barfi dances off-beatand out of control to music he can't hear is a tramp gag too; I just can’t find it).

I like to think I know a little more about Chaplin films than perhaps the average person; my final paper as an undergraduate focused on Chaplin’s manipulation and mockery of sound and preference for silence and physical comedy. Barfi as a film is, like some of Chaplin’s films, willfully made in mostly silence. Barfi uses many of the same devices and embraces — or imitates — many of the same ideas. The comedy is physical (i.e. falling down, using props, making faces) because Barfi cannot speak (and Chaplin refused to). Sound is used to remind you of the silence like when the film goes out of its way to remind you Barfi can't hear what's going on (Chaplin used the same ploy in movies like City Lights and Modern Times). Both Barfi and Jhilmil are unable to navigate social space (“embarrassing” themselves in front of others at parties), a concept crucial to Chaplin’s tramp comedy. Even the ambiance of ill-fitting, worn-out dress when Barfi dresses up to meet Shruti’s parents but his jacket doesn’t fit well and has holes in it recalls the tramp — not to mention Barfi's mustache!

Part of me cannot decide whether Barfi is paying homage to Chaplin, perhaps to a certain degree recognizing his mastery of silence and silent comedy, or simply stealing because it works.

What disturbs me about the number of Barfi’s “borrowed” scenes is how much of the film’s laughs are actually someone else’s, just re-acted by Ranbir. But what amazes me about it is that all of those same old gags — some of them are more than 90 years old! — still work and still get laughs.