Bareilly Ki Barfi is a classic example of how good actors and texture often makes Hindi cinema's quirky spate of small-town stories look better than they are. In fact, one can sense the faces (and food) rescuing – instead of elevating – the film every time they appear on screen. I'm not sure that's a favourable trait. Because viewers might be left with parts instead of the whole: perhaps a handful of scenes, throwaway lines, a fleeting gesture, or a character they didn't see enough of. I'm all for details and chemistry and the littler things, but they shouldn't be topmost in the hierarchy of storytelling devices. They are easy to forget if the inevitable heavy lifting – the conflicts and showdowns and resolutions – acquires all the derived heft of a harebrained rom-com.
This film begins with a once-upon-a-time-ish voiceover (by Javed Akhtar) that introduces us to Bareilly's Mishra family. The voiceover becomes somewhat lazy writing later on, for it occasionally tells us what minds are thinking and how things are changing instead of merely establishing the scenery. It's probably more of a device to "edit" feelings and actions into a compact and commercially viable two-hour film.
Most of the standout moments don't involve the two main players. They involve awkwardness and unrehearsed charm, from peripheral performers who seem to be winging it and taking the film into the realms of a stage-bound behavioral comedy.
For the first ten minutes, it's all about Bitti Mishra (Kriti Sanon), the typically cinematic tomboy that scares away potential grooms. We're told this as much as we see this. Her father (Pankaj Tripathi), a world-weary sweetshop owner, indulges her. He adores her. He is a key character here; he wants to understand the disillusionment of his daughter and is acutely aware of his region's skewed gender dynamics. "Samaaj hai, idhar hi rehna hai (That's how society is; we've to occupy it)," he replies, submissively, when confronted by his daughter's lost-little-girl rants. He trusts all her mistakes and habits and reactions, almost as if he is resigned to the fact that this is the least he can do to compensate for her condition. His progressiveness is muted.
Her mother (Seema Pahwa), however, fears for her. She oscillates between loving and resenting her. For the second consecutive time after last week's Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, it's the girl's pushy mother whose inbuilt regression highlights the reactionary liberalism of the males occupying her environment. This alpha-female trend is an interesting one, and perhaps might have had a bearing on Bitti's eventual chemistry with two beta males.
The film begins with Bitti's loneliness, raising visions of another spunky woman-oriented tale. The kind Alia Bhatt or Kangana Ranaut excel at. But it slowly adds the genre elements – the male ingredients of a farfetched love triangle – like instruments populating a perfectly functional orchestra. Bitti, like many of us, finds truth in words and fiction. She is transfixed by an obscure novel called Bareilly Ki Barfi, whose "heroine" is very much like her. She feels wanted and understood. She sets out to find the author, an elusive chap named Pritam Vidrohi (Rajkummar Rao). What she doesn't know is that a local printing-press owner named Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana) is the real writer; his book is a result of tears and heartbreak, and the protagonist was his ex-girlfriend. He had bullied poor Pritam into taking the credit, for fear of backlash – an act that drove a frightened Pritam away to start a new life in Lucknow.
Chirag's predicament is complex; he wants to locate old unrequited emotions in an updated version of his ex, and falls for the girl he is programmed to love. It's an unfair situation for everyone but him, and he sees nothing but redemption. He tests the waters and writes letters to her as Pritam, and for a while, this looks destined to turn into a rustic Mujhse Dosti Karoge.
Chirag, we discover, is an insensitive jerk – a slightly more vengeful Sunil (from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa) – especially when he brings Pritam back into the equation only to scare Bitti away. For this, he trains Pritam to be a fake, loud, rude manifestation of machismo – a heightened version of himself. He thinks this persona, and not Pritam's natural timidity, will repel Bitti and drive her into his own arms. Perhaps because he has noticed that Bitti's father and Pritam are temperamentally similar.
Either way, the film stops being about Bitti. And soon, the film stops being about Chirag, too, once Pritam discovers that the Raj Malhotra (or Tamasha's Corsica Ved) in him is a better enforcer than his default Surinder Sahni (or Tamasha's Delhi Ved) avatar. Chirag has created a monster; Pritam has discovered a voice.
While the interactions within each scene are fluidly written, it's the screenplay that isn't structured subtly enough to pull off a surprise (contrived) ending. For instance, midway through his cocky "acting" stint, Bitti catches Pritam alone at a vulnerable moment. They sit at a dhaba. His demeanor changes, and he even breaks down. But the scene ends abruptly, and we return to the whole "setup" next morning as if their conversation didn't head anywhere. The moment is crucial, because it punctures the elaborate plot-ness of Chirag's puppeteering; it happens behind his back, from a different point of view, in one of the few scenes he isn't manipulating. This strange insert is quite a giveaway, if you're someone who really wants to believe that Chirag's man-child ways deserve better. And, that he is the flawed hero.
Like Ashwini Iyer Tiwary's first film (Nil Battey Sannata), this one, too, revels in wit and world building and performance, but falters when it comes to the heart. Which is odd, because at the core of BKB is intended to be a roundabout love story. Most of the standout moments don't involve the two main players. They involve awkwardness and unrehearsed charm, from peripheral performers who seem to be winging it and taking the film into the realms of a stage-bound behavioral comedy. When Pankaj Tripathi, Seema Pahwa and Rajkummar Rao speak in the same frame, their banter is so organic and unassuming that everyone else feels like a bit of a downer. Unfortunately, even one of the film's biggest clichés isn't in their hands – a piece of romantic melodrama so familiar that it makes me wince at the mere anticipation of it.
Not for the first time, we see Rao as a meek and cripplingly under-confident man – almost designed as an antidote to middle India's inherent masculine rakishness. And so it's fascinating when he gets an opportunity, as the reticent Pritam Vidrohi, to actually emulate this famed machismo and act within the film. His role – and performance – is designed to gently mock Chirag's foolhardy interpretation of manhood. It isn't as playful as, say, Shah Rukh Khan's Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi dichotomy, because his character isn't given the required mental bandwidth to let us invest in his transformation.
Which is why Rao literally hijacks proceedings to an extent where Khurrana and Sanon often seem unremarkable – and even unnecessary. This is a pity, because their personalities are part of a visible environment (relatives, friends) that defines them better. Pritam, in contrast, only has a fleeting mother, and an annoying voiceover to tell us about him. Yet, there could be a separate spinoff franchise on Pritam, and I'd still be paying more to figure out if he is originally the man or the mouse.
As a result, on one hand, BKB is the kind of well-meaning romantic comedy with each character compelling enough to deserve a film of its own. On the other hand, BKB is a greedy, crowded drama that isn't impulsive enough to do justice to each of its littler films. I won't be dwelling on it too much, though. Because, if not for Rao, it'd be neither of the two.