Sunday, December 24, 2017

Bareilly Ki Barfi: Review

Rajkummar Rao is on Mint Lounge’s cover this week, and if you’re wondering why, I suggest you watch Bareilly Ki Barfi. Not only is this Rao’s richest comedic performance, his presence or absence onscreen lifts and depresses the proceedings. Bareilly Ki Barfi isn’t devoid of interest—that was never likely, given that it’s directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (Nil Battey Sannata), written by Nitesh Tiwari (Dangal) and Shreyas Jain, and features the underrated Ayushmann Khurrana and the sublime Pankaj Tripathi. But it lacks bite, which Rao, playing a rather toothless individual, supplies.

Bareilly Ki Barfi begins with a travelling overhead shot (which can be linked to the voice-of-god narration that continues through the film), before zooming in on one particular household, where confectionary store owner Narottam (Tripathi) is asking his wife, Sushila (Seema Bhargava), where his cigarettes have gone. Busy with her prayers, she tells him to ask their daughter—a neat exploding of two minor taboos in one go. It turns out Bitti (Kriti Sanon) doesn’t have her father’s cigarettes, though she’ll borrow one so that he can get through his morning business.

It’s a lovely opening, sketching Narottam’s pally relationship with his daughter, Sushila’s testy one, and the casual “modernity” of Bitti, at odds with the small town she’s in. The film reiterates that last point, which leads to an on-the-nose scene in which a prospective groom asks Bitti if she’s a virgin (when she asks him if he’s one, he says that doesn’t matter), and a later one in which she drinks whiskey straight from the bottle, like all truly liberated people do (when will filmmakers learn that nothing looks as fake as someone swigging alcohol from a bottle like it’s an easy thing to do?). Bitti isn’t opposed to marriage, but she wants someone who’ll respect her for what she is, which is why she’s intrigued by a cheap paperback in which the central character—who smokes, drinks, stays out late and lives in Bareilly—is, in all likelihood, her.

Bitti’s efforts to track down the author lead her to local printing press owner Chirag (Khurrana). He falls for her instantly, and doesn’t tell her that he—and not Pritam Vidrohi (Rajkummar Rao), the man he bullied into putting his name and photograph on the jacket—is the actual writer. They become friends, though Bitti remains intrigued by the thought of Pritam and his apparent approval of her lifestyle. Chirag, sensing a rival, tracks down Pritam in Lucknow, where he’s selling saris, and forces him to return to Bareilly, behave brusquely, break Bitti’s heart and leave him to clean up.

Few comic scenarios crack me up as consistently as anything involving a timid individual compelled to act a lot tougher than he or she is. In Bringing Up Baby, there’s an inspired five minutes of mugging from Katharine Hepburn trying to talk her way out of jail by claiming to be a gangster named Swingin’ Door Susie. Or, if you prefer, the simple pleasures of Billy Crystal’s psychiatrist in Analyze This, covering for his mobster client at a mafia meeting. Rao’s transformation from hesitant sari-draper to confident young jerk is the best passage in the film. The contrast itself is terrific—his stutter becomes a growl, hesitant behaviour turns decisive—but what’s funnier still is how, after he’s out of Bitti’s sight, he reverts to being Mild Pritam even though he’s still dressed as Crazy Pritam.

That Chirag’s plans go awry shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. This allows Khurrana to access the meanness that seems to lurk in several of his characters, but even here the film miscalculates, giving us a scene in which Chirag and his friend briefly torture Pritam, which places him outside the bounds of audience sympathy. Without giving away much more, I’ll say that ambitious plot machinations late in the film mean that neither Pritam’s nor Bitti’s behavior makes much sense—until it finally does and it’s too late. Perhaps some viewers will appreciate this trickery. To me it felt like a sacrificing of character at the altar of cleverness.

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