It is no small feat for a movie about a deaf young man and a severely autistic young woman to avoid a "this week ... a very special episode of Bollywood" tone. But Anurag Basu's touching story Barfi (I can't bring myself to use the exclamation mark appended to the official title) succeeds in avoiding that pitfall. The movie offers a gentle look at the nature of love, and, notwithstanding a few narrative bumps, fills the screen with enough smiles and tenderness to be every bit as sweet as the confection both it and its main character are named for - with a light touch of sadness, too.
Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor), a deaf and mostly mute young man, is a gentle-hearted scoundrel, a good-natured smiling troublemaker who steals his father's liquor and performs minor acts of vandalism around his picturesque Darjeeling home. Barfi is instantly smitten when he sees Shruti (Ileana D'Cruz), whose family has just moved into town. Shruti is newly engaged, though, and Barfi settles for a playful friendship with her. Soon, though, Barfi's mischievous tenderness reaches her heart, and Shruti has to choose between Barfi's vibrant love and a solid, conventional, but perhaps dull life with her fiancé. In the meantime, Barfi's father falls ill, and to finance his treatment, Barfi decides to kidnap Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra) the autistic granddaughter of a Darjeeling millionaire, and hold her for a modest ransom. An unexpected connection develops between Barfi and Jhilmil. But Jhilmil is profoundly antisocial, and even her hard-won trust of Barfi is a fragile thing, threatened by his obvious love for Shruti. And now the police are after Barfi, as a mystery unfolds about Jhilmil's ultimate fate and her family's intentions for her.
Barfi's greatest strength is its tender playfulness - there are more "aww" moments than a visit to Cute Overload, and enough real laughs too to keep the film from veering irretrievably into the cloying. (Even the movie's one fart joke is adorable and funny.) Barfi's relationship with his father is affecting and hilarious, and his path to Shruti's heart is suitably magical and filmi while still being utterly charming. Ranbir Kapoor must be directed very carefully; he can easily become far too boingy-boingy, and needs to be held back from ferret-on-speed territory. Anurag Basu succeeds at this; Ranbir is charming and likeable and puts his full physical talent to work channeling his grandfather channeling Charlie Chaplin. The effect of this could be forced and eye-rolling, but Ranbir's air is natural and infectious, and he fully sells Barfi as a playful soul who just wants to make the people he loves smile - not as an attention-seeking clown.
Kapoor shows some depth, too, in the movie's more emotional, less playful scenes. Barfi obviously has very little dialogue - two of the three main characters more or less do not speak at all - and it taxes all the actors, as well as the director, to keep the story moving and the emotions palpable without the usual crutch of filmi dialogue, overwrought or otherwise. In one of the movie's strongest and most moving scenes, Barfi finally loses his jovial cool after approaching Shruti's parents to ask for her hand, and meeting her fiancé there. In a wonderful sequence that operates both literally and symbolically, a Barfi endures a rapid series of small frustrations as he leaves Shruti's home - he bangs hard into the door, his umbrella sticks, the chain falls off his bicycle. Barfi finally explodes at Shruti in a silent tirade of love and anger. The scene is perfectly executed - Barfi's resentment, Shruti's confusion, all rendered in gesture and expression.
The movie's rumination on the limitless capacity of love, is a refreshing change from the usual filmi trope of love as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. During the film's first half, Shruti's mother comments explicitly that one can love more than one person. The echo of these lines makes the ensuing love triangle and its resolution more sweet than bitter, and more believable than contrived. Indeed, I wondered at first whether I should be troubled by the movie's favoring of the "disabled" match over the "mixed" jodi. Is the movie suggesting that Barfi doesn't rate an unimpaired wife, or that he has a responsibility to settle for Jhilmil? But Shruti's mother's words quelled my concerns - Barfi, like Shruti's mother, has room in his heart to love both Jhilmil and Shruti. And Shruti does get a full, fair opportunity for a happy ending with Barfi - she chooses otherwise. Because she comes to regret that choice, the result is a movie that in no way questions whether she could have been happy in an unconventional marriage to a deaf man. And, of course, this last stirs a poignant bite of sadness into Barfi's sweet mixture. Shruti does not get a happy ending. Despite this, the movie's overwhelming sense of loves leaves a satisfying feeling of warmth and sweetness. It's a nice bit of narrative sleight of hand.As Jhilmil, Priyanka Chopra gets full credit for a performance that is immersive, physical, thoroughly unglamorous, and in many ways less annoying than Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. One might take issue with some of the characterizations of stereotyped autistic behaviors - these are rather stylized, as they often are in movies of any language. They also suffer some inconsistency; Jhilmil's ability to function independently and cope with strangers varies for narrative expedience. Nevertheless, Priyanka Chopra's rendering of what the script gives her is brave and flawless. For all Kareena Kapoor's crowing about her role in the upcoming Heroine - especially her silly claim that no other actor could do the role - here is Priyanka Chopra just putting her head down and acting. The willingness to sacrifice glamor for the sake of storytelling is what separates the actors from the movie stars.
Barfi is not without a few warts. It suffers most from its convoluted narrative structure. The movie begins in the present day, and operates in flashbacks - including the dangerously indulgent tangle of flashbacks within flashbacks - to several different time periods and locales: 1972 in Darjeeling, 1978 in Calcutta after Barfi's arrest, 1978 in Calcutta before his arrest, 1978 in Darjeeling. All this jumping about seems to be in service of building an intrigue that the movie doesn't really need, and makes the narrative a little confusing to follow at times. But this is really a small quibble in an otherwise beautifully crafted movie that is delightful and warming - the narrative does sort itself out by the end, and a few moments of confusion are well worth the ample reward of tenderness, joy, and smiles.