Billu Barber is the third retelling of a modernized Krishna Sudama story. Since no hairdressers protested in the USA, I did get to see Billu Barber in its entirety with no words hidden, muted or bleeped! After the highly successful Malayalam version, we had a failed Tamil version, and now Pridarshan gives us the tale in Hindi. Why so many versions of the same story? Because the world has changed, and the characters and morals of the story must needs be reworked for modern times.
Billu (Irrfan Kahn) plies his marginal barber trade in the small hamlet of Budbuda, Uttar Pradesh. In the opening scenes a Raj transport bus is shown to be going from Ghazipur to Budbuda! Billu’s shop is barely running and his family in dire straits. Then Budbuda is turned upside down by the arrival of a filming crew with the reigning superstar Sahir Khan (Shahrukh Khan). The village finds out that Billu is a childhood friend of Sahir and suddenly Billu’s lot is much improved, only to be cast back into the doldrums when he is unable to show any proof of knowing the star. In this tale, as in the divine one, in the end the friendship is acknowledged and Billu is redeemed in the eyes of his family and friends.
The tale is simple and linear, and told without much fuss or diversions. The entertainment quotient comes from the ensemble cast that makes up Billu’s fellow Budbuda dwellers – the poet “laureate” (Rajpal Yadav), the neighbor (Asrani), and local moneylender (Om Puri) and his henchmen, and his rival “hairdresser”! And of course the star comes with his own accoutrement of item numbers with a trio of beauties, Deepika, Kareena and Priyanka. The 4th beauty, Lara Dutta, is the muted Bindiya, Billu’s wife and mother of his two kids. The films travels through some placid and some turbulent waters of Budbuda life, interspersed with encounters between the villagers and Sahir. The comic moments are vintage Priyan and remind one of the Hera Pheri days more than the recent Priyan films. The other entertainment is by way of a nonsensical film of brothers separated, one is an intergalactic traveler and the other lives in a village! In an insane twist the quest to find the brother is set in a mela – thus turning the classic bichadna scene into a possible milna. And the beeping locket that was supposedly put around each neck is the cause of much hilarity. The simplicity of village life, a goat, a chulha with roti cooking on it, washing clothes at the river, school-children with oiled hair in plaits, bullock carts, bicycles and the constant need to know about neighbor’s affairs is put together like a piece of art by Sabu Cyril and framed beautifully by Manikandan’s lens.
The performances by the main cast are quite even, others sometimes loudly comic and a bit loutish, especially when it comes to the villagers. Irrfan IS Billu. He is brilliant as the hard working, wry, and dry humored man hard-pressed to make ends meet, and terrified of finding out that Sahir does not remember him. His “conversation” with Sahir in the phone booth is a classic. Lara is competent as the village woman, a bit youthful but still down-to-earth and human in craving attention. Shahrukh gives an even performance as a larger than life star – all the way from the on-stage rockstar persona (Ae Aa Oo), to the man who, in a flash, reveals his vulnerabilities as he reminisces about his long lost friend. The item girls are all gorgeous looking, but Kareena and the setting and choreography of Marjaani steal the show. Deepika has equal time in the intergalactic Love Mera Hit Hit, while Priyanka does part of the lunge version of Khudaya Khair. The reality of these songs is apparent in the film – as none is part of the narrative, and they are either parts of Sahir’s films, or being shot in front of the villagers. Some trimming of these (as was done with Priyanka’s song) would have helped shorten the film and made it better paced.
So what is this new take on the Krishna Sudama story? By making a superstar take on a god-like role (and this was the intent right from the original Malayalam version) is the author of the story telling us that we have now created new icons? Perhaps a villager putting a tika on the forehead of a star photo and praying to it, only pushes the idea further. That is a depressing thought indeed. In Sudama Charit Narottam Das tells us:
Dekhi Sudama ki deen dasha, karuna kari ke Karuna Nidhi roye
Paani parat ko haath chuyo nahin, nainan ke jal so pag dhoye.
To balance deifying of stars out, this “Krishna” seeks out Sudama, and does not promise or bestow wealth on him, but by merely wistfully wishing to remember those good times, tells him they are in essence equals.
The film has its heart in the right place and is worth a watch! 3.5/5
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