Barfi!: Film Review

Quirky deaf man gets entangled in love triangle in poignant Bollywood romantic comedy.

Quirky deaf man gets entangled in love triangle in poignant Bollywood romantic comedy.

Chances are, someone’s already told you to run out and see Barfi!, Anurag Basu’s tender romantic comedy starring Ranbir Kapoor as a deaf man. The film has opened strong in India, and word of mouth among Indian and diaspora audiences is bound to elevate Barfi!’s fortunes still more with repeat viewings.  Auds new to Hindi films may find much to like here, as well.

The film -- told mostly without dialogue -- is a refreshingly non-commercial exercise, with Kapoor in a Chaplin-inspired performance; Telugu actress Ileana D’Cruz adding elegant solemnity as an upper-class woman who falls for the spontaneous Barfi against her parents’ wishes; and most spectacularly former Miss World Priyanka Chopra, sans makeup, as an autistic girl.

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Actors playing differently-abled characters often walk a fine line (cue Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder), and Hindi films are not known for their subtlety as a rule, but here Basu has guided Kapoor and especially Chopra to turn in exceptionally restrained, organic performances.

Barfi was named Murphy by his parents, who spotted the name on an old British radio. Unable to pronounce his own name, he says “barfi” (ice cream), and the nickname sticks.  Barfi and his parents are poor but happy, living in a ramshackle cottage on a hillside in remote Darjeeling, when he meets Shruti (D’Cruz), who is visiting family there. Immediately smitten by her beauty, Barfi attempts to woo Shruti, and although she is already engaged to a successful businessman, slowly her defenses come down.

At the same time, Barfi befriends Jhilmil (Chopra), the autistic daughter of a wealthy Darjeeling family.

When the helpless Jhilmil disappears, her family turns to the local police inspector (Saurabh Shukla, stellar as a hilariously put-upon small town cop), who pronounces her dead and is tempted to pin the crime on Barfi to placate the family and ensure his own job security. A caper ensues, finding Jhilmil and Barfi on the run to Kolkata, where their shared experiences draw them inexorably closer.

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Basu handles the growing attraction between Jhilmil and Barfi with a deceptively light touch, letting it draw viewers in as their relationship gets more serious; and beautifully depicts Shruti’s ambivalence about whether to fight for Barfi or watch as he and Jhilmil live out their own story -- as unusual as it may seem on the surface.

In a way, Basu’s approach to presenting Barfi is not unlike the way the character himself gets by in the world, with a mix of mischief, cleverness and sweetness (Basu even throws in a dash of the bittersweet whimsy of French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet).

The dreamy landscapes around Darjeeling, a city in eastern India, deserve a special mention. Production designer Rajat Poddar evokes the 1970s with myriad simple details, and the gorgeousness of Darjeeling’s tea plantations, quaint narrow-gauge trains and mist-shrouded hills is captured in some lavish visuals by cinematographer Ravi Varman (who no doubt has been inspired by Santosh Sivan). The film’s soundtrack (Pritam), enriched by accordion and strings, adds depth as well. Indian VFX house Pixion does seamless work, while costume designers Aki Narula and Shefalina capture the colors of Bengali tradition in Shruti’s silk saris and Barfi’s homespun sweaters and suits.

Anurag Basu, in a welcome change from the typical Bollywood saga, has given us a singular love story — and an unforgettable character — in Barfi.

Opened: Sept. 14, 2012

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Ileana D’Cruz, Priyanka Chopra, Saurabh Shukla

Director: Anuraj Basu

Screenwriters: Anurag Basu, Sanjeev Datta

Producers: Ronnie Screwvala, Siddharth Roy Kapur

Director of photography: Ravi Varman

Costume designers: Aki Narula and Shefalina

VFX: Pixion

Sound designer: Shajith Koyeri

Editor: Akiv Ali

Music: Pritam Chakraborty

Not rated, 120 minutes