Monday, October 15, 2012

BARFI: Good Taste

Ranbir in Raj Kapoor mode.
India’s 2012 nominee for the foreign-language Oscars is Barfi, a sweet film starring the charisma-oozing Ranbir Kapoor as a deaf Darjeeling boy. If Ranbir weren’t already a great big movie star, this performance would make him one—he’s graceful and charming, selling comedy and schmaltz with equal panache. Like every Hindi-film fan, I could list star kids at whom producers should stop throwing money, but in Ranbir’s case I’d argue that the genetic slot machine handed him a jackpot (which isn’t to say that he doesn’t put any effort into his roles—only that his effort is usually invisible from the audience’s perspective).

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.
And I also assumed that Indian audiences would enjoy, as I did, the sight of Ranbir channeling the great Raj Kapoor, whose beloved tramp character was “Chaplinesque” but firmly situated in Indian stories and films. Wearing a pencil moustache through much of the film, Ranbir looks remarkably like a fit, younger version of his grandpa. (Were filmgoers in the 1950s jumping on Raj for borrowing too heavily from Chaplin? If they were, Raj’s legacy is having the last laugh.)

Saurabh and Ranbir?
Yes, Barfi includes moves you’ll recognize from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, with chases that involve teetering ladders and runaway handcarts. The interaction between Barfi, turning to robbery in desperation to pay for his father’s operation, and his fat-cop nemesis (Saurabh Shukla, one of those undersung second fiddles whose solid performances anchor so many Hindi films) is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, or the Keystone Kops—practically any silent featuring an underdog accidentally provoking a foul-tempered authority figure, which is, let’s face it, a lot of movies.

Harold Lloyd goes to Korea?
There’s also talk of a sequence supposedly stolen from the Korean film Lovers’ Concerto (of which I’ve never heard, but who knows, maybe it did blockbuster business in India). A boy who has come on strong to a pair of girls in a restaurant realizes that he shouldn’t have and tries to “turn back time” and start the friendship anew. In the Korean film, the boy shows up outside the restaurant holding a clock. Barfi scales a clock tower precariously and swings the hand back. If you ask me, director Anurag Basu was inspired less by Korea than by Harold Lloyd’s iconic scene from Safety Last, but hey, I guess I’m not really that much of a stickler for originality. Whatever that means.

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. 


  1. love this article..really luved Barfi! even though sm scenes are copied director has used them efficiently and intelligently.. (may b a little name change will be needed..:P)
    Really wish Barfi to win oscar!!

  2. Thanks for reading--I loved it too! But I don't think "copied" is the right word. There's nothing wrong with being inspired by other films (ask Quentin Tarantino; he's been nominated for Oscars as well). I think Anurag Basu has given us more than a mere pastiche of silent-film moments--Barfi is delightful and original in all the right ways. But yeah, too bad about the name :)

  3. yes..of course..not 'copied'.but inspired!! anyway, i love the movie and its one of the best bollywood movies i have watched.i'm not indian.but i feel it has a great repeat value. i can watch it at least 10 times i suppose.
    i also think indians shud not have make such a buzz of plagiarism. (it has gone out wildly now..i dont like it at all. insulting a great cinema)
    are u indian? do u think it has a chance to be nominated in top5 (not considering the name i suppose.. :P)

    Meghani from Sri Lanka

  4. Hey, Meghani--
    No, not Indian, not NRI, just a New Yorker of German/Irish descent who loves Indian films. I do hope the "plagiarism" buzz doesn't hurt Barfi's chances of making the top 5. But how the Oscars will roll is anybody's guess! Fingers crossed for Barfi.
    Thx for commenting! It's a newish blog, and it's exciting that someone is reading....
    Carolyn from NY

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