Film Review: Billu Barber

Bottom line: Bollywood comedy about an unlikely friendship is full of unexpected pleasures.

FREMONT, Calif. -- Priyadarshan, one of India's most prolific comedy directors and now an acclaimed art house filmmaker (his "Kanchivaram" is currently on the festival circuit), proves that he's not just versatile but warmhearted too, in a sunny comedy that leaves a glow long after you've left the theater. "Billu Barber" -- retitled "Billu" in India because a barbers' union there labeled the word "barber" derogatory before seeing the film -- may start out slowly at the boxoffice, but it's destined to pick up positive word-of-mouth.

Billu ("Slumgdog Millionaire's" Irrfan Khan) is an ordinary, hard-working but dignified soul who toils long hours in his village barbershop, resigned to the fact that he gets no respect. Customers flock to Modern Mohan, the barbershop across the street, while back in Billu's tiny home, goats bleat outside as his sharp-tongued wife (Lara Dutta) and sassy kids pester him nonstop about overdue electricity bills and unpaid school tuition.

It seems impossible, then, that when India's biggest movie star, Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), comes to town for a location shoot, Sahir and Billu would have anything in common. As rumors spread that Billu is a childhood friend of Sahir's, villagers like the blustering moneylender Daamchand (Om Puri) come forward one by one to exploit Billu and demand exorbitant favors.

The film's success lies in the way it overturns expectations: Irrfan Khan's put-upon demeanor and Shah Rukh Khan's glib charm suit their characters in surprisingly complex ways. Several comic scenes, though long by Western standards, turn out to be pitch-perfect, including an exchange between an exasperated Sahir and an incompetent yet hammy bit player that reaches a hilarious crescendo.

Priyadarshan frames his scenes with surprising beauty, showcasing lush rural Indian locations. As an extra treat, Sahir's flashy songs feature Shah Rukh Khan in top dancing form, surrounded by Bollywood queens Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone.

The truth about Billu and Sahir is revealed in a touching climactic scene that affirms the meaning of friendship. These are no ordinary friends, and "Billu Barber" is no ordinary film.

Opens: Feb. 13 India; Feb. 20 U.S. (Eros Entertainment)

Production company: Red Chillies Entertainments

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Lara Dutta, Om Puri, Asrani, Rajpal Yadav
Director: Priyadarshan
Screenwriters: Mushtaq Sheikh, Priyadarshan, Shrinivasan
Producer: Gauri Khan
Executive producer: Sanjeev Chawla
Director of photography: V. Manikandan
Production designer: Sabu Cyril
Songs: Pritam
Background score: Sandeep Chowta
Costume designers: Anaita Shroff, Manish Malhotra, Neeta Lulla, Naresh, V. Sai Babu
Editor: Arun Kumar
Sales: Eros Entertainment
No rating, 138 minutes