For all its noise and crashing music, “Barfi!” aspires to be a silent movie. To this end, its hero is a deaf-mute and the heroine autistic so communication will naturally be in gestures and facial expressions rather than dialogue.
The movie begins with a slapstick chase through and above the streets of Kolkata that Mack Sennett would recognize. Silent-movie tropes continue throughout the film.
The movie gods the film’s star, Ranbir Kapoor, seeks to emulate are Charlie Chaplin and Raj Kapoor. The latter personality, who was Hindi cinema’s first superstar, certainly incorporated Chaplinesque moments into many of his own major roles. But he was never the Little Tramp.
Rather Kapoor’s characters were romantic and happy-go-lucky, a fellow dancing and singing down the road of life but without the cunning guile or spontaneous violence of Chaplin’s gentle anarchist. Chaplin was a reference point for Kapoor, an immediate source of identification for the worldwide audience that embraced his films.
Ranbir Kapoor, who is Raj’s grandson, is, sad to say, a copyist. He is imitating his ancestor and his borrowings from Chaplin without establishing an identity that suits him — to say nothing of his complicated and somewhat artificial character here.
What screams out for simplicity is needlessly complicated by a convoluted storytelling style and too many dead moments.
The film jumps around in time and geography but mostly takes place in the 1970s in Darjeeling, the Himalayan town of tea plantations that looks like a lovely Swiss village only with South Asian features.
Because of how writer-director Anurag Basu curiously chooses to fracture his storyline, the story gets narrated by a female character who is not even witness to its main events. The focal point initially is on Barfi but this ultimately shifts.
Barfi was born with severe speech and hearing impairments. His parents named him Murphy after the Murphy Radios of the day, but when he tries to say his name it always comes out Barfi.
For some reason the film seems to equate physical handicaps with mental ones so Barfi is a bit daft as well. He communicates solely through Chaplin-like body language and facial expressions.
All this is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but for me these gestures ring false in every moment, something imposed upon the character to suit an actor’s skill sets rather than springing naturally from who the person is.
Barfi is a romantic creature certainly and during the movie he falls in love twice. The first time — and she is the film’s narrator — he gives his heart to a “normal” girl, Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz, pictured above, a beautiful Telugu actress making her Hindi film debut as a Bengali girl).
He tries to clown his way into her heart and actually succeeds. Alas, at her mother’s urging, Shruti chooses to marry a “normal” man and lead a “normal” life with all the creature comforts. So she departs Darjeeling. In this film, you must understand, normal equates with boring.
Barfi then encounters and grows increasingly attracted to a lovely girl, Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra), who as an autistic child was banished to a sanatorium but hauled back to Darjeeling to bid goodbye to a dying grandfather.
Since Jhillmil is shy and anti-social, Barfi cheers her by performing with an assortment of props and deliberate pratfalls — not that he isn’t capable of crashing into things without meaning to. So you see the strategy here: At every opportunity the film creates a motivation for Kapoor to clown for the camera.
The film then detours into thriller business about Barfi’s father needing an operation, a bank holdup, a kidnapping that’s not a kidnapping, two puzzling ransom notes and a murder investigation.
All this does supply a ticking clock for Barfi and Jhilmil, who are on the run — only they don’t fully realize it. But this distracts from the relationship story that Basu has set up.
The film brazenly loots from everywhere. Along with Sennett, Chaplin and Kapoor the elder, there are two sequences that strip-mines Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” number from “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Basu, whose “Kites” proved to be a real audience-emptier as the closing night film at this year’s Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, once again allows far too much air into a film.
Sequences go on and on to exhausting length. Digressions are everywhere and poignant moments hard to find. The screen drips with sentimentality and Pritam’s western-style musical score gushes incessantly.
The movie wants (desperately) for you to fall in love with Kapoor. You’re more likely to fall for Chopra, a former beauty contest winner and model who shows genuine acting chops in playing the autistic girl. From a medical standpoint, it’s not a terribly realistic performance but it does tug more successfully at the heartstrings than anything else in this movie.
Veteran character actor Saurabh Shukla has an amusing turn as a local cop who despite his girth must give chase to Barfi for most of the movie. He seldom captures him.
But he does sum up a film that endlessly chases audience laughter through strenuous manipulation without ever capturing it.
Opened: September 14, 2012 (UTV Motion Pictures)
Production companies: UTV Motion Pictures in association with Ishana Movies
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Ileana D’Cruz, Saurabh Shukla
Director/screenwriter: Anurag Basu
Producers: Ronnie Screwvala, Siddharth Roy Kapur
Director of photography: Ravi Varman
Production designer: Rajat Poddar
Music director: Pritam
Costume designer: Aki Narula, Shefalina
Editor: Akiv Ali
No rating, 149 minutes