|Ranbir in Raj Kapoor mode.|
After seeing Barfi at a New York theater recently, I was surprised to learn that the buzz among Indian Oscar-watchers was all about the film’s supposed lack of originality. OK, I thought—maybe the nominating committee picked Barfi in a cynical attempt to piggyback off the success of The Artist, another film with a nearly silent leading man and a lot of nods to plot points and visuals from the pre-talkie era. Remember this?
(In which case, I hereby predict, it was a bad move; there’s no point whatsoever in second-guessing this year’s Oscar winners based on last year’s. But I digress.)
As it turns out, no, The Artist isn't the problem. Instead, as a quick click on some Wikipedia links reveals, Barfi is being charged with stealing ideas from a host of other films, from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton silents to South Indian and Korean films of recent vintage. And the Internets are abuzz with concerns from Indians and NRIs that this kind of “cutting and pasting” (or theft, as the less polite would have it) will make Indian film a laughingstock in the international film world.
Now, Indian cinema has had a history of “unacknowledged remakes” in which hits from other cultures (often Hollywood) are recreated—character for character, plot for plot, sometimes word for word—without any “based on a story by” or writer credit to the original film. (Here, for example, is an unacknowledged remake, starring Oscar producer Aamir Khan, of this Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr starrer, and by the way, I loved both films.) And perhaps that history is what’s driving the almost unhinged anxiety among so many in the Indian media about whether Barfi is “original” or not.
But I have seen no evidence at all that Barfi has borrowed or repurposed material from other films on a scale bigger than what is typical in American cinema. Yes, Ranbir recreates Donald O’Connor’s dummy schtick from Singin’ in the Rain’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” number nearly move for move.
But what is he trying to do? Well, the autistic girl he loves, Jhilmil (a very un-glam Priyanka Chopra), is upset, so duh, he’s trying to make her laugh. I don’t know how popular Singin’ in the Rain is in India, but American audiences know it so well that I assumed the reference was purposeful, and it worked beautifully for me.
|Raj Kapoor in Raj Kapoor mode.|
|Saurabh and Ranbir?|
|Harold Lloyd goes to Korea?|
I really do wish that Indians wouldn’t get vocally outraged about the kind of "plagiarism" that is really a non-issue, if only because it reduces the chances of commercial Indian films being taken seriously abroad. (And yes, there are commercial Indian films that deserve to be taken seriously.) But sadly, I agree that Barfi—which is a very good and hugely enjoyable film—doesn’t stand much of a chance of getting into the foreign-film Oscar Top 5. Why? Well, in the U.S.A., “barf” (rhymes with “scarf”) means “vomit.” And that, not the silent-film references, is what Americans will find hard to swallow.
|Charming, not barfy.|