BILLU BARBER. Director: Priyadarshan. Players: Shah Rukh Khan, Irrfan Khan, Lara Dutta, Om Puri, Asrani, Rajpal Yadav, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor. Music: Pritam. Theatrical Release: February 2009.

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When superstar Saahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) arrives in the small village of Budbuda for the shooting of his latest film, the whole village is topsy-turvy with excitement. Rumors spread through the village that the local struggling barber, Billu (Irrfan Khan), is friends with Saahir Khan.

Suddenly, the manic-frenzy for Saahir Khan is directed towards Billu. But unlike his wife (Dutta) and children, who are reveling in the village’s new admiration and envy for the family, Billu is practical, and doesn’t want to make false promises of introducing people to the film star. In fact, he never acknowledges or denies knowing Saahir Khan in front of others. Privately, he confesses that though he knew him once, he is much too ashamed to go see Khan now. His financial state is depressing, and he doubts that Saahir Khan will even remember him.

Tensions arise when the principal of his children’s school promises to waive the children’s school fees, that Billu can’t afford, if Billu can bring Saahir Khan to speak at the school. Billu’s wife agrees, and the barber has no choice but to deliver. He makes several feeble attempts to connect with Saahir, but to no avail. The villagers soon lose their faith in Billu, and now believe that he is a phony, who has been using this rumor to garner favors, money, and gifts from the villagers. The climax is when Saahir Khan finally speaks at the school and shares, you guessed it, the story of his childhood friend named Billu.

A modern Sudama of sorts (Sudama was a poor childhood friend of the Hindu lord Krishna), one feels for Billu: an honest, hard-working man who is struggling just to get by. He is logical and practical, but has a fear of rejection that doesn’t let him move forward. But while one of the morals of the story of Krishna and Sudama is that “God helps those that help themselves,” one cannot help but feel that Billu didn’t do his part in this fable. Billu makes no genuine effort to find Saahir, which would ultimately help his family in their dire circumstances. Instead, this Krishna-Sudama tale is reversed, where Saahir must come to Billu’s house, and not the other way around.

Billu Barber is conceptually an interesting film which presents unusual insight into star-frenzy and mocks the way that superstars are put on par with Gods. Priyadarsan even shows a woman doing aarti to a photo of Saahir Khan along with all her other Gods. But the pacing of the film drags, and after the initial conflict has been established, the additional scenes of the villagers’ hysteria feel repetitive.

Billu Barber is, to put in colloquial terms, a time-pass film. Comedy sequences fall flat, or are too drawn out. Dutta does a fair enough performance as a villager, though she is inherently limited by the fact that she looks too sophisticated, no matter how you dress her.

The song “Billu Bhayankar” makes you laugh with its comical lyrics and silly histrionics, and the “item number” songs (three, each with a different actress) feel like commercial breaks. They have no connection with the story, and each could easily have been placed in any other arbitrary spot in the film. The Padukone number “Love Mera Hit Hit,” bites off the music of Timbaland’s “The Way I Are,” but Kapoor’s number “Marjaani” is catchy on its own terms. The choreography was surprisingly poor, though production value of all the songs and (dispensable) action sequences is high.

Antara Bhardwaj is an independent filmmaker based in San Francisco.

 

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