Feb 14, 2009 at 12:51am IST

Masand Verdict: Billu... a simple moral tale

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Irrfan Khan, Lara Dutta

Director: Priyadarshan

Billu Barber has its heart in the right place, but you wish it didn't have its eye focused so firmly on the box-office.

A simple story set in the fictional village of Budbuda in Uttar Pradesh, Billu Barber is a modern-day Krishna-Sudama story of a poor man reluctant to claim any ties with his rich friend, partly because he thinks the friend may have forgotten him, and partly because he's embarrassed of his own humble status.

This remake of the Malayalam film Katha Parayumbol stars Irrfan Khan as Billu, a pretty much penniless barber who nevertheless goes through his days with a smile, until a film unit shows up in the village and turns his life upside down. The arrival of mega-star Sahir Khan (played by Shah Rukh Khan) sends the entire village into a tizzy, and when word gets around that Billu and Sahir are childhood friends, the poor barber finds himself fobbing off requests from all and sundry for just one meeting with his movie-star buddy.

The key problem in director Priyadarshan's Hindi remake is that he uses Shah Rukh excessively, and in a manner that ultimately hurts this simple film. By portraying Sahir as a larger-than-life star who flies around in a helicopter and is surrounded by a battery of beefy bodyguards everywhere he goes, the director succeeds in establishing that Billu and Sahir belong to completely different worlds, but in giving Sahir so much screen-time he also distracts your attention from Billu's now-disrupted life, which is really the film's central story.

In contrast, in the original Malayalam film, the superstar played by Mammooty gets very limited time on screen, and unlike Sahir Khan, his unattainability is reflected in the fact that you see such little of him.

As is the problem with most films Priyadarshan helms, Billu Barber too suffers from what can be described as the 'hurried' effect. You never get a sense of the geography of Budbuda village or its colorful inhabitants. Interesting comic characters - like those played by Om Puri, Rajpal Yadav and Asrani - are introduced to us, but never fully exploited. The screenplay is choppy, jumping from a Sahir Khan item-number, to an emotional moment between Billu and his wife, to a comic scene involving a junior artiste on Sahir's film set. It's all done without much thought and as a result the film doesn't achieve the emotional tone that is so desperately required.

Not to say there aren't engaging moments in Billu Barber. The relationship between Billu and his two kids is both comical and believable; and the scenes in which Billu's wife (played by Lara Dutta) confesses she's enjoying the overnight attention directed at them ring so true. In the Sahir Khan track, it's just a delight watching Shah Rukh address the Khan vs Khan war, and even his self-directed digs will leave you smiling. Billu Barber saves its best cards for the last 20 minutes, when it goes straight for the tear ducts. It's an ending you've guessed early on in the film, but one that still leaves you with a lump in your throat.

The star of this film - no questions asked - is the abundantly gifted Irrfan Khan who invests such sincerity in the character of Billu, that you can't take your eyes off him. Even in scenes without dialogue, he is a presence hard to ignore, and even when the script wobbles it's only Irrfan who holds it all together with an extraordinary portrayal of everydayness. Watch him in that scene in which he reprimands his kids for spreading stories of his friendship with Sahir; or in the film's final scene when he comes face to face with his childhood friend. It's difficult to imagine anyone else but Irrfan play Billu so convincingly.

Lara Dutta slips effortlessly into the role of Billu's wife Bindya, and the film gives her some wonderful moments to own. Like the scene under the waterfall when she makes up a story about Billu and Sahir's friendship to impress her neighbours. Or that scene in which she tenderly asks Billu if indeed he ever knew Sahir at all.

In the end, Billu Barber works smoothly as a simple, moral tale, its charm interrupted every time the director goes for broader, more 'commercial' appeal. But it's enjoyable and heart-felt too, and for that reason deserves to be watched. I'll go with two out of five for director Priyadarshan's Billu Barber, it's an above-average entertainer. And to Shah Rukh Khan, the film's star-producer, here's deep-felt gratitude for giving Irrfan Khan a role to shine in.

Rating: 2 / 5 (Average)

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