As is common with films starring major actors portraying disabled people, I expected the film to be an actor's vehicle, a film existing solely to showcase ability rather than craft. Boy, was I wrong.
Anurag Basu channels his inner Jean Pierre Jeunet and to some extent Wes Anderson to create a world of whimsy and impossible art decoration. Barfi never once goes into ultra histrionics, and while not subtle, Basu manages to keep it sweet and human. For a mainstream Bollywood film with a hearing- and speech-impaired leading man and an autistic leading lady, the avoidance of Bhansali levels of melodrama is pleasantly shocking.
The characters are created to exist in the impossible magic realism world Basu creates to stand in for Darjeeling, something that is itself a medium through which he tells his multiple timeline story. Basu's always been a consummate storyteller, deftly balancing emotion and spectacle. Barfi is his exercise in restrained-world-building and stamping his style, and it works wonderfully.
As the titular Barfi, or Murphy as his name is, Ranbir Kapoor makes the most of the subtlety that he is asked to exercise. Enunciating his name elicits the sound of the film's name, and boy howdy does Ranbir deliver that with aplomb. His joie de vivre is the catalyst that drives the first half of the film forward - a grand choice that both the director and his muse made was to use the main character's silence as a chance to introduce silent movie theatrics and slapstick, and it pays off, making our first half extremely enjoyable, and building the dreamscape Darjeeling quite solidly.
When Murphy meets a young Bengali girl and instantly falls in love, the gears shift ever so slightly, and we are introduced to her well-spoken world and the wild card Basu had been reserving - Priyanka's Jhilmil. This is the riskiest move in his arsenal, and it doesn't pay off, either. Priyanka is equal parts endearing and frustrating, using her ability as an actress well, but breaking the subtle craft of the film as we hurtle towards the core of the tale. It's from a different school, a different world, and her character's fundamental conflict often shatters the carefully art-managed world that Basu has constructed.
It's to his strength that he pulls it off as often as he lets the reins loose, though it breaks the illusion, almost as if the magician's hat was upturned, laying bare the tricks and cards he had enthralled us with. Thankfully, Ranbir Kapoor is made of sterner stuff than that, heroically saving the day with his nuanced journey through the time-shifting narrative.
The supporting cast, too, rallies behind him, with some genuinely heartfelt moments from all of them. Ileana is the biggest surprise - tasked with anchoring the emotional core as well the narrative with naught but her eyes and voice, she is absolutely what the film needed.
It's a lovely film, all told, even though let down near the end with a script choice that feels disingenuous. It's a movie that we all feel like we could love, warts and all, and that is always special. There is nothing I say that should dissuade you from watching it and deciding for yourself what you think of it.