Film Review: Billu (formerly Billu Barber)

Billu Barber

Directed by: Priyadarshan

Starring: Irrfan Khan, Lara Dutta, Rajpal Yadav, Om Puri, Asrani and Shah Rukh Khan in a extended guest appearance.

***WARNING: Contains plot spoilers! If you don’t want to know what happens, please watch the film first and then read my review!****

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Going to the barbers can be a daunting experience. When I used to go to George, the Cypriot who had previously sheared sheep and would rotate my head 360 degrees whilst smoking a cigarette and talking to another man smoking a pipe at the till, it should have been clear I would get a complex about going to barbers. Worse still, was in 2006, when I went to a barber in India. Having been taken under duress to get three days stubble scraped off  my mug before a cousin’s wedding that night, once in that sweaty leather chair, the barber casually assaulted my face with shaving soap which stung like a bitch and then after putting a new blade on the razor, literally scratched my upper layer of skin, whilst watching the world go by outside. That he didn’t cut my throat was a miracle. That I didn’t cut his once he was done a greater one.

This memory came rushing back to me as I went to see Billu (it was called Billu Barber but apparently, an association of Barbers in India complained this was offensive to them – without having seen the film that is – so it was changed) and I was hoping the film wouldn’t be as painful as that. After all, this film has a lot in its favour- SRK still basking in the success of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Irrfan also doing very well from Slumdog Millionaire, plus three hot item numbers that have flooded music channels everywhere. Would the omission of the word Barber affect how the film turns out?

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Billu is the story of a barber called, erm, Billu (Irrfan). Married to Bindiya (Dutta) with two children, Billu’s salon is shabby and broken and he is losing customers to an opposing barber who is better equipped and more trendy. Not only that, he has no money, meaning he cannot pay his children’s school fees, nor the electricity bill. Refusing to take loans, the situation is dire. Meanwhile, superstar actor Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh)  is filming his new film and needs a village as a location. When Billu’s village is suggested, Sahir agrees and soon, word gets out in the village that Sahir Khan is coming to make his next film in the quiet village. More surprisingly, Billu tells his children that he knows Sahir. As this snippet of gossip spreads around the village, it snowballs into something bigger and Billu’s life is turned upside down overnight. At first, he is adored – but as reality sets in, Billu must face the consequences and answer the question – does he really know Sahir?

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Billu reminded me a lot of one of Priyadarshan’s best films, Virasat with Anil Kapoor and Tabu. There are similar themes, where the modern meets the traditional, the urban clashes with the rural and external influences prompt internal soul searching. At times, Billu feels like two films in one – Billu’s story and a commentary on Bollywood. The latter accounts for the three item songs as well as throwing up some interesting conundrums. First, we have the actual film being made, which is like a musical Matrix/Star Wars complete with sparkly costumes. Then we have hero worship as real footage from SRK’s superhit films is shown – yet, Sahir the superstar confesses he would like time to himself. Then there is the way the public react to film stars and a declaration that the film fraternity is like a family – a few good natured digs at Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan demonstrate this (“Some heroes get their partners named tattoed on their forearms” says Bindiya, hoping to discourage Billu from joining films). The commentary, though valid, does a feel a little out of place and slightly unhinges in the film, in that the abrupt switches to this commentary aren’t always as seamless as they could be.

The other storyline involves exploring Billu’s world and  this is where the film gets it right and wrong at the same time. That there is a mystery around Billu is no bad thing but it does make the viewer question at times why he keeps getting into certain situations, why he does not assert himself when under attack. Though at the end, we find out Billu has a heart of gold and is too humble to approach Sahir, to me, this character trait needed to be stressed more strongly to make the pay off more worth it at the end. Although we do care for Billu in the film,  we do wish he showed more spirit and this is the script that does not account for this. Billu’s character is the film’s greatest strength and is underused, partly due to the split in the main focus of the film, what with the Bollywood commentary storyline.

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Having said that, Billu does have a lot going for it. The cinematography is excellent, giving us the lush greens and earthy browns of rural life and the film does move at a brisk pace, combining the comedy and commentary tracks into pushing the film forward. The editing is very good too, with the songs in particular benefitting (I’m thinking of Love Mera Hit Hit here).  The songs are also very catchy, maybe not wholly necessary to the plot but still adding value and entertainment. The script is largely successful, as when it does marry together all the different elements of the film, one does get absorbed by the story and at the very least, entertained. The sets, styling and choreography also all merit a mention, showing glossy production values without distracting too much from the film.

In terms of performances, Irrfan is superb as Billu. Right from the first frame to the last, he brings the character to life effortlessly and even if his role feels familiar, Irrfan adds that much needed twist. I’ve always felt actors like Irrfan aren’t given their dues in hard core commercial cinema and here, it seems part of those dues are paid. Shah Rukh puts in an honest performamce – at first, it feels like a documentary and after giving us Surinder Sahni in RNBDJ, I was worried SRK was back to safe roles again and that too much attention was being given to him to cater for his fan base – no crime, seeing as it is SRK’s presence that will get people who wouldn’t normally come and see Billu in cinema  – but it does overwhelm the film a little at first. I did like the clever teasers in the first 20 mins of the film though, where we see some posters from some of SRK’s old hit films in the shot,designed to ease his presence into the film. However, SRK doesn’t disappoint on the acting front,with an amazing soliloquy at the end of the film which is raw, honest and gives SRK a good showcase for his talent and gives the film some weight behind its premise.

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The supporting cast do a good role – one of director Priyadarshan’s strengths have been the ensemble (note Paresh Rawal stealing the show in Hera Pheri – by the way, would have been nice to see Paresh in Billu) and Asrani, Om Puri and Rajpal Yadav all hit the right notes in their stock roles, adding to atmosphere of the film and complimenting Irrfaan’s fine nuanced performance. Lara Dutta is perfunctory, a bit too stylised and glam as a poor man’s wife. Her roti making skills attracted comments in the cinema from a concerned aunty as did her shade of lipstick which said aunty liked. However, Lara does deserve credit for attempting something different and this is no bad attempt to move from glam doll to actress. In the battle of the item numbers, Kareena slinks off with the crown, looking stunning, with Priyanka a close second. Though Deepika looks amazing, she did seem to be doing the song by numbers (no pun intended). One thing that did concern me was how svelte all three girls looked – it looks like Hindi cinema has yet to wash its hands of the size zero phenomenon.

All eyes are on Billu at the box office as to whether it will do well or not. It does deserve to – especially after the disappointment of Chandni Chowk To China, this is an entertaining film and one suitable for all the family. For those who are also scarred by visits to the barbers, don’t let that put you off going to see Billu. Though I may not be brave enough to venture into a barbers, I have to say Billu was a good way to confront my fear and get some closure. Now I just need to find George and tell him all is forgiven…

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