Movie Review: Barfi! (2012)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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Like its namesake confection, Barfi! is certainly sweet. Not a frothy sweetness but a complex one with real depth and substance. Barfi! is not to be missed.

The film defies convention yet feels familiar. Flashbacks within flashbacks within flashforwards play with typical narrative format in a way that works better than it should.

The bulk of the action alternates between two times and places — 1972 and 1978, Darjeeling and Kolkata — framed by scenes set in the present day. The film’s narrator, Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz), recalls how her life changed in 1972 when her family moved from Kolkata to Darjeeling and she met Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor).

“Barfi” is how the deaf young man pronounces his given name, Murphy, so everyone calls him by his nickname. Unemployed Barfi spends his days making mischief around town, to the consternation of police inspector Dutta (Saurabh Shukla). Though he has a crush on Shruti, Barfi settles for friendship with her, because she is engaged. The two spend their days racing bicycles and bumming rides on train cars, falling in love in the process.

In the hands of a writer-director less skilled than Anurag Basu, Barfi’s penchant for mischief could be a cheap way to substitute quirkiness for character development. That’s not the case here. Barfi acts like an overgrown child because no one expects anything from him. He’s the town’s beloved mascot, cared for by his doting father, but that’s it.

Barfi’s outsider status makes a romantic match with Shruti impossible, even if she didn’t have a perfect-on-paper fiance waiting for her back in Kolkata. There’s no way her parents would accept a deaf son-in-law, even if the reason they give is their desire to spare her from the harsh judgements of society.

Shruti herself fails Barfi’s loyalty test. She lets go of his hand and leaps from his side as a light pole falls toward them. Having doctored the light pole himself, Barfi knows they were never in any danger. Like others before her, Shruti abandoned Barfi at the first sign of danger.

The one person to pass the loyalty test is Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra), the autistic granddaughter of a wealthy local man. Having spent most of her childhood at a sanitarium — so as not to embarrass her snooty parents — she’s summoned to the side of her ailing grandfather. Barfi’s father is the grandfather’s driver, and Barfi and Jhilmil were childhood friends.

Jhilmil’s parents are no less embarrassed by their now-adult daughter when she returns. Jhilmil shuns almost all physical contact, screams and panics when she gets mud on her shoes, and loudly sings along with the band at a society party. The only person in Darjeeling who warms to Jhilmil is Barfi. Caring for her gives him purpose, and he provides her with a sense of security.

These themes — security and purpose — are universal, and those are the main challenges for Barfi and Jhilmil, not their special needs. Basu writes the characters as real people, not as a collection of physical and mental issues to be triumphed over. Shruti — the “normal” character among the three — is actually the most flawed, in that she lacks courage.

D’Cruz, an actress who has predominantly worked in Telugu films thus far, is a fine avatar for the audience. She nicely portrays the conflict inside Shruti, who would like to follow her heart but lacks the will to do it.

Ranbir Kapoor is the only actor who could have played Barfi. He has great physicality, both in scenes where he runs from Inspector Dutta (Saurabh Shukla is also great in the film) and where he bares his soul to Shruti using only gestures, no words. Kapoor makes Barfi more than just a lovable rascal.

But the standout performance in the film is by Priyanka Chopra. I’ve long appreciated the risks she takes in the roles she chooses, even if they don’t always work out. Playing an autistic woman could have gone poorly, but Chopra is perfect.

Like Kapoor, Chopra has very little dialog in the film. Jhilmil spends most of the time staring at the ground or observing the action around her, yet Chopra makes it easy to read Jhilmil’s emotions. Chopra’s depiction of autistic characteristics is accurate and respectful. Despite having a condition that makes forming emotional connections with other people difficult, there’s a lot to love about Jhilmil.

Other things to love about Barfi! include the beautiful scenery and music. Transitions between scenes are frequently accomplished by a pan over the silhouettes of three musicians — a guitarist, a violinist, and an accordion player — who seem to follow the characters everywhere.

Barfi! is a really special film. I laughed out loud, I cried, and I would happily watch it again tomorrow.


43 thoughts on “Movie Review: Barfi! (2012)

    1. Kathy

      Thanks, Keyur. 🙂 My buddy who works at the theater where I saw the film had the same issues with Barfi! that you wrote about in your review. At least we are in agreement that the movie is visually stunning and that the acting is top notch!

  1. Anushka

    Its not surprising,you gave it 4 on 4,Kathy.The film has received a staggering amount of appreciation.And it right now holds a 9.1/10 rating on IMDb.WOW!!
    Actually,I thought you’d give it 5 on 4.:P
    I can’t wait to watch the film.I am surely checking it out tomorrow.Great review Btw 🙂

    1. Kathy

      I was stunned by that IMDb rating, too, Anushka! Most well-regarded films only manage around 7/10 at IMDb, 8/10 if they’re lucky. Enjoy Barfi!, and be sure to bring some tissues with you to the theater. 🙂

  2. TS

    Lots of comic scenes were copied from charlie chaplin movies. Thats not new. This director Anurag Basu is known for copying movies. His first film was a copy of unfaithful. Priyanka I think tried to copy what shahrukh did in my name is khan. Even priyanka tweeted that she watched my name is khan to prepare for this role. I knew that you will give 4 stars to barfi.

    1. Kathy

      TS, I think the slapstick scenes in “Barfi!” are an homage to Charlie Chaplin, not direct copies. As for Priyanka’s performance, she may have watched Shahrukh’s performance in “My Name Is Khan,” but her role was much more challenging to execute and her performance more nuanced.

      1. Keyur Seta

        Although I didn’t like Barfi! much, I had respect for the film for the international manner in which Basu made it. However, after watching this link – all my respect has vanished!

        And if it was a homage to anyone, there should have been some mention or a credit. After watching the videos from the above link, I am sure this is a shameful lift instead of a co-incidence and I am also sure there must be more of such scenes!

        1. Kathy

          That link contains some fascinating videos, Keyur. I’m less concerned about copying some of the Chaplin and Keaton gags directly, as I feel like those films are old enough that the majority of people alive today haven’t seen them. The car scene from The Notebook and the scene from Kikujiro are shocking, as Basu seems to have stolen them almost shot-for-shot and appropriated them as his own. This is really disappointing.

          It will be interesting to see how this plays out as it gets more attention. I believe Disney had a part in distributing (maybe producing?) Barfi! along with UTV, and we all know how much money Disney has. The makers of The Notebook and Kikujiro would appear to have grounds for a lawsuit and could stand to cash in big time.

          1. Keyur Seta

            I agree that a large majority of people haven’t seen those Charlie Chaplin and Keaton gags but still feel they should have given some credit or thanksgiving at the start of the film for at least 2-3 seconds. And yes, those scenes from The Notebook and Kikujiro are shocking! I really hope the makers of Barfi! are sued!

            It is because of few such incidents that Bollywood films have earned a reputation of being copycats.

            1. Kathy

              You’re right, Keyur. A note at the beginning of the film would’ve save Basu a lot of headaches: “Thank you Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton for inspiring generations of filmmakers.”

              I should clarify my above comment, since I don’t mean to imply that copying is okay if few people have seen the original. In the U.S., there’s a limited period of time (several decades) for which the use of artistic works like songs requires payment to the creator. After that point (barring some restrictions), songs are considered to be “in the public domain,” and anyone can use them for free. I think a song like “Jingle Bells” falls into that category. Incidentally, “Happy Birthday” does not: you have to pay to use it on TV or in movies.

              I don’t know if this is legally true, but I feel like Chaplin and Keaton movies have been around long enough that gags from them are okay to copy. Likewise, some of their slapstick moves are so iconic and recognizable that it’s obvious when someone is imitating Chaplin or Keaton, just as it’s obvious that someone moonwalking is imitating Michael Jackson.

              But, as you mention, Keyur, a note at the opening or closing of the film would have been a nice courtesy.

              1. Keyur Seta

                I really didn’t know that they fall in public domain after certain decades. And it is more surprising to know that ‘Happy Birthday’ doesn’t fall 😀

                Yes, that’s what I meant. Some mention. Thank you Kathy for understanding and providing detailed information 🙂


  3. TS

    ok we hardly agree on anything. anyway what u have to say about darjeeling. did u like it. I m asking this coz I m from darjeeling.

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  5. arun jaswal

    after such a long time i have seen such a nice movie ever made in bollywood…. i hope this movie may not be copied from any international or regional movie …. silence is more effective than words… saying everything without saying anything!!!!

  6. Vineet

    Interesting development by the way! Either plagarism is not as much of an issue here as we make out of it, or its going to be fun watching the lawsuits down the producers throats.
    Over all I believe this movie has nicked lots of stuff from various movies but no doubt is a delightful cocktail. You would remember Kathy, I had pointed out the trailer soundtrack similarity with Amilie. It seems music composer was not the only one to borrow creativity here!
    Overall I feel its a very nice movie, Anurag Basu is no doubt a very talented director, its a shame, a few moments of recklessness might taint his “a could have been masterpiece”.

    On the other note, as far as I know, a director only shoots major portion of the movie, some parts are given to assistant directors to work on, which are, if approved by director, sent to the editing team as such. Maybe the notebook copy was such a scene. I feel so because its such a easy scene, a talented director like Basu could easily have shot it differently if he wanted. Seems such a waste.
    Maybe he thought he could get away with it.
    Well, if thats true, I guess Fareed Zarkaria has company. 🙂


    1. Kathy

      Thanks for the link to the Oscar entry story, Vineet! (I updated the link to a desktop-friendly one.) Break out the popcorn, because I can’t wait to see the Academy’s response to some of the scenes in Barfi!. You are so right that Basu has jeopardized the reputation of an otherwise great film.

      I remember your comment about the soundtrack’s similarity to Amelie. I never saw Amelie, so do you mean just in tone, or did the composer copy specific portions of the soundtrack? If it’s a direct copy, would you be able to mention the names of the songs or provide YouTube clips? I’m really curious, because the soundtrack of Basu’s Kites copied an Enya song.

      This apparent plagiarism habit of Basu’s could really cripple his Oscar chances. In addition to stealing music for Kites, the producers also failed to pay many of the American crew members who worked on that film. I know Basu isn’t directly responsible for paying people, but there are lots of folks here who aren’t happy with the way they were treated on the set of one of his films.

  7. Vineet

    Actually Kathy, I wont call it plagiarism (soundtrack) but its does push the thresholds of the word “inspire” . Listen to both.

    Infact here is the link to complete soundtrack for the movie

    you will have to agree that if you add that Barfee trailer score anywhere inside the above link, no one would give it a second thought!!

    Also, regarding the Plagiarism part, I am in two minds about the scene from Kikujiro, “The Notebook” scene is not any iconic scene anyway, its more of a cliché scene, we see these kind of scenes all the time. Like the meteor shower scene in “Ek tha Tiger” was so very “aww (cringeworthy)” we have seen many such cliché scenes many times in different forms. I don’t think it makes any difference. At best it is pure procrastination followed by panic direction on directors part.

    Regarding the Chaplin and Keaton gags, it is not plagiarism in anyway. It is an obvious homage. And mind you its very difficult to pull of the Chaplin, many have tried and failed, but Ranbir looks so convincing and acceptable which I think is great effort on his part.

    But that’s just my opinion, Oscar jury, as you said, might disagree! But shame on the Kikujiro scene, that is blatant.


    PS: (that Amelie soundtrack is pure awesomeness by the way, one of my favourite soundtracks, other being Clint Mansell’s perfect “The Fountain:“, “In Bruges”, “Into the wild” to name a few from non Bollywood cinema)

    1. Kathy

      Thanks so much for all of the links and videos, Vineet! The song from “Barfi!” sounds like the musical equivalent of a student trying to doctor a term paper to pass off as her own. Change the instrumentation and a few notes here and there, and everyone will think it’s a new song! “Plagiarism” might be too strong a word, but “paraphrasing” seems apt.

      I totally agree about the Chaplin/Keaton homage. The biggest problem in “Barfi!” is that the sequence from “Kikujiro” was copied almost shot-for-shot. I think there might be enough similarities — camera position, framing, dialog — that the makers of “The Notebook” might have a case, too. I’d have to watch “Barfi!” again to be sure. Knowing that the controversy was out there, the Indian governing board might have been wiser to nominate “Kahaani” (which is still my favorite film of the year).

      You seem to have similar musical taste to my husband, Vineet. 🙂 He’s fond of the soundtrack to “The Fountain” as well and is eager to check out “In Bruges” and “Into the Wild” on your recommendation. The soundtrack to “Sunshine” is in regular rotation in our house:

      Greg’s also a fan of “Solaris”:

  8. Jason

    Its no hommage its just a copy and thats a shame anurag needs to stop his idea piracy, in saying that Scorsese got an oscar for the departed with was complete copy of infernal affairs so guess barfi should not feel like they are cheating the academy. Next film for Basu to steal life is beautiful.

    1. Kathy

      Good point about The Departed, Jason. There’s a very good chance that none of the Oscar voters will notice the copied scenes, and the subject matter of Barfi! is certainly feel-good Oscar bait. I’m really interested to see if it makes the final list of Best Foreign Language Film nominees.

  9. Pavit V

    Apparently to send the movie for Oscars I guess Jury never look for a “Best Movie” because that’s a subjective term. Every movie has its own pros and Cons. Rather the Jury looks for a movie of Producers which has deep pockets to promote the movie at international level. UTV which is producer of this movie can certainly pitch this movie at international level which is not possible for regional movies (however good they are) because of Budget issues. Aamir khan spent 5-6 months outside India to promote his movie ‘Lagaan’. Same case with some small budget Hindi Movies. So in short, ‘Barfi’ is certainly not the best movie of the year, it has capacity to at least get heard at international level.

    Last Year a regional Marathi movie (HarishChandrachi Factory) was sent for Oscars and the producers never had any money to promote their movie. Its a true fact. It has to be a fine balance between Good Cinema and Practical Decision.

    IMO, there are 2-3 good Regional movies this year also, but the movie “Deool” (Marathi) which won National Award for best Movie is relatively better than “Barfi”..and has my vote.!!.Worth Watch.

    By the way Kathy, I am regular reader of your blog, never got any chance to comment. Its really great ..Please keep writing…!!


    1. Kathy

      Thanks for the encouragement, Pavit! And thanks for recommending “Deool,” for anyone looking to branch out beyond Bollywood. Excellent points about the importance of promoting films that are vying for awards (for better or worse). Priyanka has spent a lot of time in the U.S. recently to promote her music career, so I’m sure she’d be amenable to spending a little more time here to promote “Barfi!.”

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  11. AO

    Hey Kathy,

    About that whole Kites dilemma, it’s kind of hard to believe Quezeda’s story. I was one of the first ones who responded to him on his IMDB post. He didn’t respond back to any of the replies to him, and I found it hard to believe that we would complain to IMDB for non-payment issues, especially since he’s been in this business for thirty years. He could have gone to the newspapers, media, union, but instead, decided to post on IMDB. Plus, he used two different aliases in that post. Plus, if he claimed that more people didn’t get paid either, why didn’t we hear about anyone else? I don’t know, but his whole story seemed sketchy.

    1. Kathy

      I don’t think there’s any reason not to believe Quezada’s account, AO. If you haven’t read my interview with him, please check it out. Due to non-payment of the cast and crew in both New Mexico and California, the Screen Actors Guild forbade its members from working on Kites, which seems a good indication of legitimate and widespread problems. The reason why we didn’t hear more about it is that most of the actors who weren’t paid are working character actors, not stars. I appreciate that Quezada took it upon himself to make the complaints he did on IMDb, given that he was the highest profile actor affected. The story didn’t sustain interest because, once the producers left the country, there was little that the unpaid cast and crew could do to recoup the money they were owed.

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  17. Lesley Appleby

    I heard an interview where P.Chopra stated that much of their acting was improvised…so the actors and the crew made this movie great. In fact, as I watched this, I seriously wondered if Kapoor was Charlie Chaplin reincarnated. It is about the right time for Chaplin to reincarnate to film. It would make more sense that he would fit in a film family like the Kapoors rather than modern day Hollywood. Watch Kapoor – and his aura. You will see what I mean. It is too remarkable – and too meteoric a rise in career. If so, I pray for him…because it would also be typical Chaplin to land in a film that gets sued! Kapoor is obviously a genius and Chopra is quickly following suit. I recommend this movie despite Basu ‘s error in copying Kikujiro.

    1. Kathy

      I guess I’m not surprised, Lesley. To pull off their roles so successfully, both Chopra and Kapoor had to really understand the conditions that their characters live with. Both of them are so impressive in Barfi!.

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