Barfi! – Communicating in Fragments

Memories are strange commodities. Many of them represent the times we have traipsed through, many of them depict our relationship with the world of yore, the world that once was, and yet so many of them remain dormant, frozen, locked somewhere distant. Cinema is arguably one of the few inanimate things that helps us unlock those memories, and that’s why it’s a special medium. Books help us create new images, but cinema helps us revisit certain images. There’s such a scene in Barfi, when Shruti (Ileana) is sitting in front of her dressing table and she removes a bindi (a forehead decoration) stuck on a dressing table mirror. That scene has a certain time stamp on it, and most of us have been privy to that relationship among the women in our family, the bindi, and the dressing table. And it’s just a small scene but says a lot about how rooted the movie really is, not only to its characters, but to us, and to our times, to its times.

Barfi can’t speak or listen. You could say life has been rather unfair to him. Anurag Basu is interested in none of that. His Barfi is too busy making a buffoon of himself and of other people, even unrealistically at times. What’s good about the character is that he isn’t fundamentally different from any one of us. He’s as flawed and as frivolous as anyone could be. And thankfully, neither does he have a heart of gold. His impairments are just that, obstacles. They are not painted in grim colors and he doesn’t try to connect to us via them, rather beside them.

Barfi!

The movie begins with Shruti telling us her story. You get worried because Basu is using that same old crutch. Voiceover. Something that’s rightfully frowned upon, because so few people get it right, and because it doesn’t let us soak scenes for what they are. We are being constantly reminded of what the character is feeling and thus what we should feel too. While the thing is, everything’s pretty obvious. To his credit, Basu doesn’t botches the use of voiceover, for the most part it even shoulders the story effectively. But in some of the scenes, especially towards the end, when we have lived the character’s journey and we precisely know what they are supposed to feel, but even then one of them, Shruti (Ileana) chooses to verbalize her feelings. You want to shout at the screen: let your images breath, let them speak what they want to, let there be silence, we will understand, we are not that dumb. It’s irritating and to an extent, condescending. This is something even Gangs of Wasseypur – I grappled with. Nothing’s more infuriating than a director who’s otherwise confident and deft, and has a good subject matter at hand, but displays sporadic flashes of timidity.

It’s strange when many people judge a movie solely on it’s story. If I just want to knowa story, I would rather read a novel. Cinema’s a visual medium. I know it sounds a little too obvious to even merit a mention, but so many movies never seem to realize this. Which is why most of the movies look the same, feel the same. And we just watch and hear those movies, never feel it. Here, you experience Barfi. Almost every scene is filled with such beautiful imagery that you can’t help noticing how suffusing with life individual frames are. On paper, Barfi does not have a remarkable story, good, yes, but nothing extra ordinary. But what elevates the movie is the fact that for the most part Basu is not telling a story, he’s showing it.

And much of the movie’s joy lies in its moments, in its individual scenes. The good thing is that the movie is not fixated on reaching somewhere. Most of the scenes in the movie are miniature movie in themselves; they stand independently of the entire canvas. And as a director, that’s the best way to show empathy towards one’s characters. By just letting them be,  because they are just so caught up with themselves that they can’t plan. So it makes more sense that their small flippant moments have an entire arc. The movie doesn’t depend on disparate scenes to come together to form a bigger truth, to become the truth. The individual scenes are truth in themselves.

And in a movie like this, it’s very difficult to pull off the voice, the tone. It’s remarkable how spot on is Basu with that. For the major part of the movie before intermission, comedy seems to be the only goal of the movie. Everything is milked for laughs, and while it’s engaging still the same, too much of the same thing can not only start getting tiring, but it also risks a chance off looking like a calculated move, but thankfully the movie soon loses its comic stiffness, and with much ease becomes somber when it has to, though the drama is never overtly maudlin.

The movie’s subject is unconventional for commercial Hindi cinema (well, it doesn’t take much to be unconventional in Bollywood, anyway), but even then Basu doesn’t shy away from the use of songs. Bollywood seldom recognizes songs as a narrative device, they are present because they have to be, and it shows on screen. But here, Basu knows two of his characters can’t claim to be even remotely articulate, at least not in a conventional fashion. So he uses songs to paint his characters’ unbridled exhilaration, their sorrow, their lament. And Basu isn’t willing to use songs conventionally, that’s why initially they play for little more than a minute, and then the characters goes on with their life, and then the song plays back and hits us again. Why can’t songs be used like dialogues? Why can’t they be seen for what they really are – heightened emotions?

Coming to performances, I thought this would be Ranbir’s breakthrough film, and although he’s very good, it’s not his performance that you carry outside once the end credits roll. Priyanka Chopra also had to essay a particularly difficult role. It’s especially difficult to play someone autistic, because it just isn’t about authenticity, but also how you are trying to trying to communicate with us. Anything that’s outside the story can be labeled as sham, and to Chopra’s credit, it’s a decent performance but it comes across as too labored. If you can see or feel an actor acting, most of the effect is lost. Chopra’s performance kept infiltrating what she was trying to say. It’s a sincere effort, but an unfulfilled one. But for me, someone who walked with the movie, performance wise was Ileana. She’s the one who has the most developed faculty amongst the three characters, and yet ironically, she’s the one who’s most stunted. Maybe it’s because people who can do something, they just wait for the perfect moment, for that nod, for that glint, but it never comes. And why should it? Moments are not pre-constructed, they have to be constructed.

And yet, Anurag Basu is no Micheal Haneke, there are moments where he slips quite gloriously. In the final frames of the movie, we suddenly watch him become timid. But it’s okay, to carry this movie right till the end, this movie needed a director of not only exceptional caliber, but also someone who was unprecedentedly arrogant. Basu gives in at the final frontier. But then, he gives us a lot to cherish. And he checks almost all boxes. Which in itself is a remarkable effort.

It’s strange; we have all been stunted like Barfi at different point of times in our life. There’s this moment where we are supposed to say certain things, and we have all said that in our head many a times, practiced the sentence in so many variants that it has become too familiar for us, even played out the scene in our head. But we just can’t say it. But Barfi’s not like that. He says what he wants to, and then just gets on with his life. Ability and disability can be so deceiving if you just perceive them at their face value.

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