Every now and then one encounters a film which succeeds in making its mark due to its jaw dropping pretension and limitless stupidity lying underneath. Following the saccharine sweet NGO outing Nil Battey Sannata, director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari comes back with another ‘small town’ tale in Bareilly Ki Barfi. The film fights tooth and nail to look and feel like a low budget ‘indie film’ while steadily unfolding within a moral universe that comes right out of a Sooraj Barjatiya production.

However, that is not the only 90s connect which this film tries to hide beneath its ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ surface. To put it bluntly, the plot of the film is basically a reworking of Saajan (Lawrence D’souza, 1991) in a comic mode. Just like the Madhuri Dixit blockbuster, this film is also about a small-town girl called Bitti who falls in love with a writer called Vidrohi after reading his novel and starts writing fan-mail/love letters to him via Chirag. But the fact is that Chirag has been the jilted lover who had written the novel after being dumped and in order to hide his identity and his former lover, he published the book in his friend’s name. So, when Bitti begins to write letters to Vidrohi, Chirag also starts replying but in his friend’s name and things reach a sort of climax when Bitti insists to meet Vidrohi and confess her love for him.

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From the plotline, a couple of points seems to stick out and merit some discussion. Firstly, the setting seems to be ideal for comedy but the important question is that the way it is being done and towards whom it is directed. In other words, what are the comic techniques being applied? And for what or at whom are we laughing? Technically, the film can be best described as a misunderstood or ill-conceived or superficial idea of a screwball comedy. The film merely puts a love triangle at the centre and leaves it at that which is barely sufficient to qualify as screwball. This sub-genre of comedy is essentially built upon a battle of sexes and thus challenging the masculine archetype. The laughter is mainly generated by farcical scenarios and a sharp critique aimed at conservative bourgeoise ideals. The film in question had enough opportunities to adapt the screwball techniques in an Indian context. But instead it chose to merely laugh at the wrong things such as shy and timid personality, effeminate nature, overweight woman with snoring habit, etc. Instead of being witty the film chose to be crass.

The second thing which the plotline apparently hints at is a strong female presence as it may seem that the entire narrative is driven by Bitti’s wishes and desires, her choices and opinions. However, the whole idea of an empowered woman gets reduced to her clandestine smoking and drinking habits, which by the way are all happening with the ‘support’ of the father. Furthermore, Kriti Sanon, in terms of the narrative logic, not only looks miscast in the role but her certain so-called empowered utterances sound quite disturbing and problematic in ideological terms. Her fair skin and sharp featured body type towers among her peers and suitors with darker complexion and flatter features. To make things worse, within a few scenes the film switches track to the narrative thread of Chirag and for the entire duration of the film there is an unabashed celebration of a typical rabble rousing North Indian masculinity built upon the ‘jilted lover’ archetype embodying every patriarchal quality in the book besides being a liar, a coward and an amoral and unethical character. The woman gets reduced to a mere showpiece without any agency.

The film’s mediocre craft fails to result even in a single memorable image or a moment. In fact, the images in the film in terms of composition and colour palette are more akin to ads rather than films. The screenplay is so busy being funny that after a while it begins to look and sound like a series of gags and jokes. And while there still was a semblance of narrative progression throughout the exposition which unfolded over majority of the first half, things completely came apart after intermission. The only memorable element in the film was the ‘supporting’ cast which featured some of the best contemporary actors. While Rohit Choudhary playing Chirag’s friend and Seema Pahwa playing Bitti’s mother were excellent in their delivery and timing, it was the pair of usual suspects, Pankaj Tripathy and Rajkummar Rao who owned every scene they were present in. Tripathy as Bitti’s father and Rao as the original Vidrohi managed to make bad lines sound funny or mundane moments seem memorable with their accents, gestures, physicality and every possible technique an actor can have at his disposal. Actors like these deserve better screenplay and better directors; not this reductive and reactionary nonsense trying to be clever. While it may not be the worst, but Bareilly Ki Barfi will certainly be an embarrassment in the filmography of both these actors.

Arup Ratan Samajdar

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