Initially, the tagline can come across as incredibly silly. It seems like an unnecessary move, lame even, to riff on a common saying for the sake of a slogan on a movie poster. But upon watching Barfi! it’s easy to understand why it was done—the title character’s entire being is a reflection of the idea. And though the philosophy of living carefree isn’t exactly groundbreaking or profound, Barfi! reinforces that it's not a bad one to abide by.
Born deaf and mute, and raised by a poor single father in a Darjeeling village, “Barfi” (Ranbir Kapoor) is the result of his own mispronunciation of his actual name, Murphy. He is as sweet as his nickname would imply, yet his impish side and constant prank pulling renders him the bane of a local cop’s (Saurabh Shukla) existence. In the midst of his mischief-making, Barfi encounters new-girl-in-town Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz), is instantly smitten, and woos her the only way he knows how, with exhilarating bike rides, adorable miming acts, and a muted but crystal-clear window into his heart of gold. Regardless of his childlike demeanor—or perhaps because of it—Shruti finds herself falling for him in return, despite her engagement to a perfectly suitable (and perfectly non-disabled) other man. Parental disapproval and her own lack of courage to defy it lead to their incomplete love story, leaving Shruti to join her new husband in Kolkata and Barfi to mend his bruised heart.
Not one to dwell over disappointment, Barfi is quick to recover, soon reuniting with his childhood friend, the autistic Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra). Confined to a “special home” by her pretentious parents who were too embarrassed to raise her themselves, Jhilmil finds both a caretaker and a companion in Barfi. But when she disappears and Barfi is held to blame by his police officer enemy, a frantic chase commences in which the paths of Jhilmil, Barfi and Shruti coincide.
It has become standard for Bollywood actors to promote their films as “different,” declaring their treatments and characters to be unlike anything the audience has seen before. Barfi is the only instance this year where those claims can be held as true. Director Anurag Basu has created both a visual and an emotional world that is so inviting and unique that one cannot help but be drawn into it. The town of Darjeeling is as enchanting as Barfi himself: dusty paths winding through misty mountain tops, toy-like trains snaking through the streets, wooden bridges and vintage cottages all lend themselves to a glorious storybook quality.
With the only speaking part of the three leads and the responsibility of narrating the story via voice-over, Ileana in her Bollywood debut does her role of a woman caught between her heart and her family full justice, elegant in her appearance while graceful in her delivery.
If Ileana represents the voice of the film, Ranbir is its heart and soul. One moment, he wrenches your heartstrings and the next, you’re chuckling as he entangles himself in yet another stop-motion style, cat-and-mouse game with the police. In a non-speaking role that could easily have been overplayed, Ranbir draws inspiration from yesteryear masters of physical comedy to create his Barfi without resorting to caricaturization. His slapstick antics are reminiscent of Buster Keaton, while his facial expressions bring to mind Charlie Chaplin and his temporary moustache is a nod to his own legendary grandfather. Yet, none of it is frivolous mimicry. Instead, it is indicative of the very essence of Barfi’s personality, contributing to the idea that his sensory limitations do not obstruct his appreciation of life; on the contrary, they may be the reason for his unrestrained optimism and ability to find happiness in the mundane.
Be it Rocket Singh, Sid, Rockstar, or Barfi, shedding his off-screen image and immersing himself completely in the unconventional characters he takes on has become Ranbir’s brand itself: a modus operandi that few actors in Bollywood are talented, confident, or brave enough to even attempt, let alone excel at. Maybe it's my preference for happy-go-lucky charmer over angst-ridden rebel, but his turn as Barfi far supersedes the Rockstar role lauded as his career best to date.
Perhaps the most striking performance is Priyanka Chopra’s. Whether her portrayal of an autistic young woman is 100% accurate is debatable, but what is undeniable is her complete commitment to her character. She betrays no inhibition in her physical transformation, trading in her lusciously long locks and glamor goddess wardrobe for a rather unbecoming mop-of-curls hairdo, buck teeth, minimal makeup, and frumpy cardigans. Add to that her nervous twitching, childlike posture, and slightly muffled timbre of her voice, and it’s clear that she has given the indisputably demanding role of Jhilmil all she’s got.
Additionally, the chemistry between Priyanka and Ranbir is almost too cute to handle, their shared sequences at once amusing and poignant: perfecting the art of spitting watermelon seeds. Their special rendition of hide and seek involving a party whistle and goofy costumes. A particularly heartwarming scene in which Jhilmil teaches Barfi the alphabet, he dutifully copying the 'B' she has confidently written backwards. Together, they easily embody what those with fully functioning minds and senses often fall short of—unwavering loyalty and unconditional love.
Given the lack of dialogue between two of the main actors, the movie’s music is required to become a central character and the accordion-infused lilts that we were teased with throughout Barfi!’s promos fulfill the role perfectly. A favorite is the lyrics and picturization of Kyon, during which the relationship between Barfi and Jhilmil begins to blossom from that of babysitter-versus-nuisance to steadfast friends. The tunes are woven beautifully and seamlessly into the narrative, blurring the line between background score and feature song.
And yet the narrative itself is the film’s biggest drawback. It starts off promisingly as a romantic comedy but is then convoluted into a clunky, whodunit-style mystery, leading to a lagging pace post-intermission. Perhaps this was an effort on Basu’s part to avoid accusations of being run-of-the-mill. However, in a film so rich with the innocence of the era and the electrifying dynamic between the 3 characters, this may have actually been best left as an unlikely love story.
The film’s greatest strength is that Barfi and Jhilmil evoke endearement, not pity. This isn’t a melodrama bogged down by sermonic criticisms of society’s prejudices against the disabled. Rather, it’s an out-and-out feel good film, worth a watch for plenty of reasons besides the somewhat haphazard specifics of the plot. Watch it for the unforgettable music. The courageous performances. The nostalgic recreation of 1970s Darjeeling and Kolkata. And finally, watch it as a reminder that life is best celebrated with the simplest of joys: in his own silent way, Barfi makes this loud and clear.