After all the glowing praise Billu (formerly known as Billu Barber) had been receiving from our trusty blog colleagues, Filmi Girl and Beth, we're a little disappointed to be coming to you as the Grumpy PPCC. Because here's the truth: we squirmed through Billu. We checked our watch. We waited for it to end.
The main problem, we reckon, is that Billu comes at the wrong time: during a veritable glut of films which tackle the exact same themes. Things like the mesmerizing, paper-thin world of our Bollywood dreams, the insanity of Shah Rukh Khan's fame, and the nobility of the common man have been tackled, with more subtlety and wit, in other films. For example, Om Shanti Om and Luck by Chance already addressed the mystique of Shah Rukh Khan and Hindi commercial films - the former via worshipful parody, the latter via a cynical satire. And the last properly masala film we watched - the early Anil Kapoor vehicle, Saaheb - told the same moral ("ordinariness is great!") in a more meaningful, touching way. In Billu, after the usual 2.5 hours, an ordinary nice guy was embarrassed and then, finally, acknowledged. The end.
Nice, simple Billu (Irrfan Khan) and his wife (Lara Dutta).
Nice, glamorous Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) and his co-star (Deepika Padukone).
Based on the friendship between Krishna and the humble Sudama, the story transposes things to a modern-day setting: Krishna is now the Bollywood superstar and SRK parody, Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), while Sudama is the humble village barber, Billu (Irrfan Khan). Although Billu has a gorgeous wife (Lara Dutta) and two cheeky little kids, he's got nothing but tension: his barbershop is losing business to the place across the street, the town big man (Om Puri) hassles him, his amateur poet friend (Rajpal Yadav) won't stop reciting his half-baked poems to him, the electricity just got cut and the kids are going to be thrown out of school if the fees don't get paid.
Next thing he knows, Sahir Khan and his
The story is straightforward, with few surprises. For this reason, it felt protracted and thin to us, with overly blunt symbolism. We know how it's going to end - the tagline pretty much gives it away - and so it's only a question of going through the motions. No great philosophical insight is given into why Billu's ordinariness should be preferable to Sahir Khan's glamour: both Billu and Sahir are pretty much regular, decent guys. The film seems to be saying that common kindness goes a long way, longer than celebrity, and it shouldn't be overlooked. But then - Billu's not the saintly, mini-bodhisattva that was the title character of Saaheb, another film which glorified the mundane (to much greater effect). He's just... nice.
Filmi Girl made some very interesting notes about the nature of icons and fame, but this isn't the film first this year to show us the vulnerability of unmasked celebrity. Luck by Chance, which we prefer to Billu, addressed the same issues via the scenes where superstar Zafar Khan (another meta-performance, this time by Hrithik Roshan) laments his status as an "image" and via the small, humane details of his day-to-day reality (his scene mugging to the children from his car window).
Thin plot, thin themes and next, thin characterizations. Alas, everyone just seemed one-dimensional to us: we started yearning for the complexity of Rishi Kapoor's aging, vulnerable producer from Luck by Chance, Romy "VOLCANO of talent! (write that down!)" Rolly. The acting was everything expected from everyone involved. Irrfan Khan was dependably believable, though, if we really wanted to emphasize Billu's noble loser-ness, Ranvir Shorey would have been more fun - hello, Mohan the chaiwallah! Shah Rukh Khan was playing, yet again, a parody of himself and, alas, we only felt feeble sparks of the SRK magic during those gargantuan songs. Is the spell broken? (Nahiiiin!) Lara Dutta and Om Puri are two actors that we find ever-lovable, but Lara didn't have much to do and Om Puri was misused (poor Om).
And even director Priyadarshan's cinematography was often a direct copy from Virasat! I swear, that's the same village! And that shot of the long line of carts on the curved path with the mountains in the distance?! Hello, end of the Sun Mausa Sun Mausi song!
So after all this disappointment, can we find anything positive to say? Yes! The songs were pretty grand, and the self-indulgent spectacle was a welcome respite from all that monotonous trudging through the "does Billu know Sahir really really?" village dialogues. Also, interestingly (because of the Krishna-Sudana undertones), all the songs referenced God directly - while the most spectacular song's refrain was "mar jaani mar jaani" (which our subtitles translated as, "they can go to hell!").
Edited, after a chocolate: Okay, here's another good thing: while Priyadarshan may have recycled some shots and the setting, he did have a lot of fun in some scenes - especially during the Sahir Khan sequences. That rock concert was a hoot, and there's am impressive long take of Shah Rukh Khan struggling to contain his pain when a local amateur actor massacres his single line of dialogue. Long takes are always notable, and it was fun to see how Priyadarshan films SRK's reactions rather than the bumbling amateur actor: it gives SRK a chance to show off his underused (at least in films), slightly edgy and subtle sense of humor.