Based on the book The Ingredients of Love by Nicholas Barreau — which itself draws inspiration from Cyrano de Bergerac — Bareilly Ki Barfi (“The Sweet from Bareilly“) feels familiar but fresh. Delightful characters, wonderful performances, and a touching and funny love story make Bareilly Ki Barfi an example of the romantic comedy genre at its best.
Bitti (Kriti Sanon) is the black sheep of Bareilly, a tomboy with a fondness for booze and breakdancing. Her mother Sushila (Seema Bhargava Pahwa) frets that Bitti’s unladylike tendencies are driving away potential suitors. Her supportive father Narottam (Pankaj Tripathy) is happy to have a daughter off whom he can bum smokes.
Father and daughter are aware of the societal norms that Bitti is up against. “Being a girl is a complete disaster,” Bitti says. Narottam doesn’t have any wisdom for her, but he stays by her side as they stand on their balcony looking glum.
Bitti runs away from home, but a book she buys on the train platform entitled “Bareilly Ki Barfi” prompts her to return. The protagonist of the book, Babli, is the spitting image of Bitti. Assuming the book to be the work of a secret admirer, Bitti asks the bookseller, Munna (Rohit Choudhary), for help finding the author, a man named Pritam Vidrohi. Munna instead sends her to his best friend, Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana).
Five years earlier, Chirag wrote “Bareilly Ki Barfi” about his ex-girlfriend, Babli. In order to protect his identity, Chirag bullies timid Pritam (Rajkummar Rao) into claiming authorship. Chirag hopes that Bitti can replace Babli, but he doesn’t own up to being the book’s true author, vetting Bitti first. He instead acts as go-between for Bitti and “Pritam,” writing letters on his behalf, spending time with Bitti, and gradually falling in love.
Unable to put off Bitti’s requests to meet Pritam in person, Chirag and Munna track Pritam to Lucknow, where he fled to avoid the mobs of zealous book readers that never materialized (Bitti is the first person to ever buy the book). Pritam is as meek as ever, and it’s easy for Chirag and Munna to pressure him into returning to Bareilly. They force Pritam to adopt a brash, chauvinistic avatar designed to repulse Bitti, thus clearing the way for Chirag. Of course, things don’t work out the way Chirag plans.
One of the themes of Bareilly Ki Barfi is that we are who we are. Bitti won’t change herself to suit the demands of a conservative potential groom. Pritam’s tough-guy act has the unexpected effect of imbuing his natural helpfulness with a cool air, instead of his usual subservient aura. By refusing to acknowledge his true identity, Chirag deprives himself and Bitti of the love they both want.
Munna says something interesting to Chirag as his buddy’s manipulation of Pritam intensifies: “You’re not the villain.” It’s meant to absolve Chirag of wrongdoing, but it highlights the way Chirag’s deceit is changing him for the worse. The longer he continues the charade, the further he strays from the man he and Bitti want him to be.
While the plot of Bareilly Ki Barfi echoes stories that have come before, the setting and characters provide a refreshing update. Bitti and her family are so likeable, and Pritam’s Amitabh Bachchan-inspired boss act is a hoot.
There’s also a lot to like about the story’s construction. Barielly Ki Barfi is directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (who debuted with 2016’s impressive Nil Battey Sannata) and written by her husband, filmmaker Nitesh Tiwari. An economy of characters ensures that everyone matters, even minor players like Pritam’s mom and Bitti’s best friend, Rama (Swati Semwal). A runtime of around two hours keeps the action moving, allowing the Tiwaris to wrap the movie up before it becomes tiresome.
Best of all is the cast. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Khurrana and Rao as Chirag and Pritam. Khurrana is a master of facial expressions, from his brilliant smiles for Bitti to his stony glares for Munna. Rao has the challenging job of essentially playing two parts and switching between them often, and he does so with ease. The whole supporting cast is terrific as well.
This is the Kriti Sanon performance I’ve been waiting for. She’s been little more than a helpless damsel in distress in her first two Hindi films, and it’s gratifying to see that she’s capable of so much more. Hopefully filmmakers follow Tiwari’s lead and look beyond Sanon’s beauty, capitalizing on her humor and ease in front of the camera.