India's Oscar Entry "Barfi!" Pays Tribute To Charlie Chaplin (Q&A)

UTV Motion Pictures

In a departure from his earlier, darker films, Anurag Basu has delivered a hit--netting an estimated $10 million at the Indian box office within its first week--in the Chaplinesque "Barfi!"

In a departure from his earlier films which tackled mostly dark subjects, Anurag Basu has delivered a hit in the Chaplinesque Barfi! 

India's Oscar entry is produced by Disney UTV Studios. The film's title refers to an Indian sweet and is also the name of the charming principal character, a mute and deaf young man (top actor Ranbir Kapoor). Within its first week, Barfi! netted an estimated $10 million at the Indian box office as the film gets set to hit the international festival circuit starting with Busan (October 11) followed by Marrakesh. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the director about his latest hit.

THR: Did you take a conscious decision to do a Charlie Chaplin tribute with this film?

Anurag Basu: Yes I did, even though I got introduced to Charlie Chaplin quite late in my life. It was amazing how he told stories without dialog. I have watched a lot of his films and of others like Buster Keaton from the silent era. And they have been one of my inspirations. When you do a film with a lot of physical comedy, Chaplin is a good reference point, so we paid tribute to some of the gags from his movies.

THR: Another obvious comparison is how, in the title role of Barfi, Ranbir Kapoor channels his grand-father, iconic actor Raj Kapoor (famous for his take on Chaplin's “Tramp” character).

Basu: When I first narrated the story to Ranbir, his character was still not clear but we developed it over many meetings. Ranbir has always said he has been inspired by Raj Kapoor, even more than by his father (top veteran star Rishi Kapoor). So perhaps he thought that with Barfi! he could be closer to Raj Kapoor, which is true.

THR: Barfi! is an obvious departure for you from your earlier serious dramas like Gangster and Life In A Metro. How did the concept come about?

Basu: I try and make films which are different from each other but yes, this is my first U (Universal) certificate film which is more friendly for family audiences. I wanted to make a film which talks about celebrating life. Also, earlier my movies were quite verbose – you could close your eyes and understand the whole film - which I realized was a flaw in my previous film Life In A Metro. So I was looking for a story where I could flex my directorial muscles and narrate the story visually and not depend on spoken words. Barfi! gave me this opportunity. I first wrote it as a two page short story and then developed it as a film.

THR: How challenging was it convince top stars like Ranbir Kapoor and actress Priyanka Chopra (who plays an autistic girl) to portray such offbeat roles?

Basu: Well, everybody wants to challenge and rediscover themselves so it wasn't that difficult. It just took me one story session to convince everybody on this project starting with my producer Ronnie Screwvala (Chairman of Disney-UTV India) followed by the actors Ranbir and Priyanka. I was fortunate enough that they agreed right away and I didn't have to fall back on my second choices for producers or actors. It was all team work.

THR: Another high point of the film is its visual beauty, locations and production design. What kind of thought process went into that?

Basu: The film demanded a particular treatment. It took me a week to get the visual language but sometimes when you go on set, all your homework makes no sense. In fact, I had to scrap the first three days of shooting until I got it right as it was something totally different from what I had done in my earlier films, from production design, costume, lighting, cinematography etc. I based the story in Darjeeling (a popular hill station in Bengal state) and Kolkata city because I am familiar with that area as I grew up there. I am lazy as a director and I didn't want to do more work and research about some other locations. I am from that world so it was an easy choice to base my story there.

THR: Since there's minimal dialog, the film's music easily commands half the credit for its success.

Basu: Absolutely. People are crying and laughing because of the music. Half of the credit goes to composer Pritam who did an amazing job, both on the songs and background score.

THR: You survived a life threatening battle with acute leukemia. How did that experience help you tell a story revolving around characters who suffer from disabilities?

Basu: What brought me out of my illness was my positivity. My view of life changed. My priorities changed. Initially, I was only after fame, money and getting publicity but it all became useless after I saw death so closely. I realized we can find happiness in the smallest of things in daily life but we normally don't see that as we are so driven with our ambitions. We have forgotten selfless love. So that was the idea behind the film that you can find happiness in the small things of life. And people with disabilities can also find this happiness while so-called normal people often miss this aspect.

THR: How do you see Barfi! opening new story directions for you?

Basu: It becomes difficult as I don't know what to do next. Audience expectations are going to be higher and I have to deliver. But I will not repeat myself. I will not make another Barfi! If you are not doing something new with a film, its very boring as you have to live with a film for over a year while you make it. So you better be passionate about it. It depends what frame of mind I am in but I won't be making dark films as I am living a good life right now. Whatever film I make, I want to share with my kids so I can't make a film which they can't see. Metro and Gangster were dark films because that was a dark period in my life too.

THR: Given this is a film with minimal dialog, comparisons with The Artist can't be ruled out. With Disney-UTV's backing, do you see Barfi! reaching out to wider audiences?

Basu: Ronnie was telling me that he is getting great feedback from his Disney colleagues. And its great that the film is going to festivals like Busan and Marrakesh. More than its foreign appeal, Barfi! is also reaching out within India in regions where Hindi films don't play that much such as in South India (where local language films dominate). So that's also interesting. We can dub the film in many languages, which won't take much work, and that could also expand its market in overseas non-traditional markets.

THR: Did you have this kind of critical and commercial expectation with Barfi!?

Basu: Honestly, I didn't expect this kind of a response. I knew this was a special film and perhaps it would not be that viable but I still wanted it to make money so I kept the budget as tight as possible (at about $6 million). It is not a flawless film but I am pleased with the way audiences have responded.