Is film-making an indulgence? To indulge is to seek pleasure from an activity. If and when a filmmaker indulges in the processes of making a movie, it can be considered an indulgence. An extreme example of indulgence is the use of uninterrupted takes that last for a whole movie (Eg: 1917). A mild example is the use of push-in shots by Martin Scorsese. Such materialization of a director's indulgences is common. They create a recognizable visual pattern and emotional identity noticeable throughout their career. It becomes interesting to note the evolution of these characteristics, revealing an underpinning search for meaning.
The line between personal gratification and coherent expression is difficult to draw. Some might say that drawing this line is unnecessary. This conflict, though, cannot be ignored because we do feel a lack of connection with a movie. Often, this can be attributed to technical mistakes. For eg: a sloppy screenplay, absence of intention and perspective in cinematography, unconvincing performances from actors, etc. In a few cases, these technical drawbacks do not exist. Neither is the screenplay slowing the movie's tempo, nor is the cinematography devoid of perspective. This internal logic of that movie is sound and coherent. Why do we, then, still feel unconvinced and disconnected?
Barfi! suffers from this issue. The camera work in Barfi! is aesthetically pleasing. The colour palette is vibrant. Frames are pulsating to the melody of the music and the medley of Darjeeling's landscapes. Ravi Varman does an excellent job. So does Ranbir Kapoor. Although his speech is imparied, he uses his body convincingly to express a wide range of emotions. The costume, set and 'look' are rich in details. All these, and more, should make for a thoroughly pleasing experience. Unfortunately, something feels missing.
Technically, one could point at the long screenplay that drops the ball after the second half. It regains rhythm in the last 20 odd minutes but it is too late. The emotional journeys of Barfi!'s three primary characters (Barfi, Shruti and Jhilmil) are poorly balanced. It starts off and runs amok, much like Barfi himself. The three stories could've been linked better to create a satisfying ebb and flow of emotions. There are problems with the characters' individual arcs as well. Beyond this, the shortfalls I mention might become too personal. Thus, here is the fundamental problem: the movie feels like an indulgence.
Let's begin with the visual strategy employed. Scenes progress as flashbacks, visually queued by a documentary aesthetic, and aurally by voice-overs. This 'from outside to inside' perspective is reflected from other framing examples too. The movie opens with shots that have glasses in the foreground. Ranbir Kapoor's face is revealed through a camera frame. This perspective of an observer is maintained throughout. This technique grounds the movie in realism.
Juxtaposed to this is a fantastic universe. Three musicians regularly appear in shots. The music and diegetic sounds merge into one. The editing rhythm is heavily manipulated to heighten a scene's emotions. The comedy is slapstick and farcical; forms of humour where an action is serious but the consequence isn't. Obviously, there are song and dance sequences.
These two internal logics coexist in the movie, making my job harder. If I connect with the first logic, I am thrown off by the second; or vice versa. This brings into question the reality that is crafted on screen. Should I, as a viewer, invest in realism or fantasy? Which tone should I tune into? Can I do both?
This is essentially the line between personal gratification and coherent expression. Perhaps these two antithetical logics exist comfortably in the heads of the creators. They make sense to them and provide them pleasure. Consistent use of shots where water trickles down a glass in the foreground makes less coherence but scores high on gratification. Cartoonish actions having real consequences and real actions having cartoonish consequences perhaps makes sense to the creators. Charting emotional turbulences in a turbulent fashion is, maybe, a kink. If the use of film-making tools is aimed at gratifying a creator's aesthetic and emotional sensibility, does it make for uninteresting viewing?
Certainly not. Quentin Tarantino is the best example of an intensely indulgent yet thoroughly immersive film-maker. The reason being that his indulgence is expressed coherently; meaning, I am convinced by that. The internal logic makes sense to me. Having said that, one must remember the popular dictum that floats around on social media: "Either you love Tarantino or hate him". This comical dichotomy exists because his films are his indulgences. Either you buy into them or not.
Hence, thinking and writing about Barfi! becomes a tough task. For how far can I go with my observations without them being criticisms of a sensibility? If I don't buy into Barfi!, how much is it because of technical drawbacks and how much because I cannot indulge in the same things as the director? This is the primary drawback of indulgent cinema. If you can indulge, it is great. If you can't, it will feel distant.
Here is the issue in a nutshell. I connected with Shruti (Illeana D'Cruz's character) in one regard. Both of us were watching a story unfold. We were briefly connected to it. We wanted to become a part of it but couldn't. Only difference between her and I is that Shruti is sad about the result. I? Not so much.