Bigtime Bollywood meets small-town India with quietly entertaining, finally moving results in “Billu Barber.” Simple tale of friendship cleverly manages to bring together superstar Shah Rukh Khan, in full-on pin-up mode, with Irrfan Khan, who’s developed into one of the industry’s best character actors, in a movie that straddles both mainstream Hindi cinema and more specialty fare. Mid-February release, produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s own company, Red Chillies, won’t approach the grosses of his last starrer, “Rab ne bana di jodi,” but is way more engaging on an emotional level.
Bilas Rao Pardesi, aka Billu (Irrfan Khan), is a struggling barber in the small country town of Budbuda, with a young wife, Bindiya (convincingly deglammed Lara Dutta), and two kids (Mitali Mayakar, Pratik Dalvi). When Bollygod Sahir “King” Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) hits town to shoot his latest blockbuster, Billu’s life is sent into a free spin as word spreads that he’s an old friend of the star’s.
Everyone is suddenly Billu’s pal, from venal moneylender Daamchand (vet Om Puri) to the local school principal (Rasika Joshi). The downside is that Billu doesn’t think Sahir Khan will remember him, and becomes embarrassed by all the attention heaped on him, even though his business now flourishes.
First half takes its time drawing the local community and contrasting it with the actor’s privileged lifestyle, as he’s perpetually surrounded by bodyguards and assistants in a Bollywood bubble. But the wait is worth it: Post-intermission, the two worlds start to come together, with a final half-hour that pulls a couple of surprises prior to an understated, affecting finale.
Flashy, well-staged musical numbers are inserted with no attempt to integrate them into the drama. They’re simply from the film Khan is making, with a roster of Bollywood glamour: Deepika Padukone (from “Om Shanti Om”), Kareena Kapoor (in the pic’s standout number, “Mar Jaani”) and Priyanka Chopra. When Dutta is unexpectedly featured in one number, it ends suddenly, with her waking up as she falls from her bed.
In between, the film has some fun with the sheer fascination Bollywood exerts on the lives on ordinary rural Indians when it descends into their midst. But that never impinges on the main story, which remains firmly centered on Billu and his family.
Jack-of-all-trades helmer Priyadarshan hits a career high here, aided by striking lensing of the Pollachi locations and saturated color processing that’s sharp and detailed.