Every now and again, a madness seizes me, and I decide to watch a movie that I know I won’t like.So it was with Barfi! I was even warned against watching it by some who did like it, including both Dolce and Namak. All the reasons I thought I would dislike it proved to be true, in spades. Huge chunks of it were at best derivative, at worst outright plagiarism, and the background soundtrack was driven by a monomaniacal obsession with the belief that French-style accordion music automatically makes everything whimsical. It made me homicidal.
Looking back on my experience with Barfi, the one thing I find hardest to believe is that I made it through the first twenty minutes. NEVER have I been filled with such rage at an overdose of twee. I like Buster Keaton, Chaplin in small doses and Amélie, but Basu’s decision to rip off all three, and crank them all up way past eleven made for a truly barf-y first half hour. Sheer bloody-minded masochism kept me going, and in the end, I’m glad I persevered.
This does not mean that I ended up liking the movie. The saccharine horror of the start was too great for me ever to like the film, but there were things about it that I did like in isolation, and which suggested how it could have been a film I would have really enjoyed.
I really like Ileana in this film. She is extremely beautiful, of course, but I thought she did well in a largely thankless role. The clumsy emotional manipulation of the film with its “noble savages” adoration of the “incomplete” Barfi and Jhilmil meant that a real character was always going to have their work cut out getting any attention. Her vulnerability and inner conflict helped give the film some grounding, I thought.
I also liked the last thirty minutes of the film. For me, the ending showed what this film could have been – an interesting dramatic romance examining the challenges faced by the three leads. The “mystery” involving Jhilmil was not much of a mystery of course. It was immediately and transparently obvious who was primarily responsible and why, but as a mechanism for bringing real emotion into the story, it worked.
The songs too, were quite pleasant. In the early, agonisingly painful “clownish” passages, the light, hummable tunes were a break from the incessant whimsy, helping save my monitor from meeting my fist. I’m not sure why the copy I watched didn’t have them subbed, but at least my Hindi was up to the task of getting the gist of the songs.
I would summarise this film as the anti-Aiyyaa. Overall I liked Aiyyaa, but I absolutely loved its opening twenty minutes or so – full-on, no holds barred 1000% Rani madness. Where I thought it stumbled was when it tried to come back down to Earth. With Barfi! I liked the last thirty minutes, when the attempts at “whacky whimsy” were done away with, and we saw what could have been, but by then the scars of the first half hour were too deep and too raw, and the film could not be saved.
One scene in particular sums up what I found most aggravating about the film. Shruti has driven from Kolkata to Darjeeling to support Barfi at the police station. After some time her husband turns up. Do we get any dialogue, any emotional interaction? No, what we get is more (insert gaali of choice here) ACCORDION music! A perfect summary of the first two hours of the film – avoid emotion, avoid conflict, make everything whimsical by just playing the accordion.
The promotional poster I used above nicely shows what I think of as the promise of Barfi!. It could have been an interesting film with potential for a nice blend of drama and comic relief. Instead, we learned that Basu knows how to recreate scenes from other films and that he loves the accordion.