The romantic misadventures of a mischievous deaf-mute occasion a series of CGI-enhanced silent-film gags in Anurag Basu’s whimsical comedy “Barfi!” The film traces Barfi’s overlapping involvement with two women — a rich Calcutta beauty and an autistic gamine — and features complex derring-do involving ladders, handcarts, puffing trains and the hero’s very own Keystone Kop. Hopping nimbly among three distinct timeframes, helmer Basu deconstructs the film’s sentimental thrust to stress his hero’s in-the-moment ingenuity; its genuine appreciation for Chaplinesque slapstick and sped-up chases gives it definite crossover possibilities following its Sept. 14 worldwide release.
When Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor) first catches sight of Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz), newly arrived in Darjeerling, he follows her around town, miming the act of laying his heart on the ground before her. She pretends to kick it away and tells him she is going to be married in three months. But Barfi perseveres, and soon the two are tooling around town on bikes, galloping away on stolen horses or involving themselves in whatever daredevil escapades Barfi’s fertile imagination can fashion from the possibilities at hand. When forced to choose between carefree Barfi and her family-approved fiance, however, Shruti does what is expected of her — at least temporarily.
A complicated kidnapping plot brings poor little autistic rich girl Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra) into Barfi’s orbit, a disabled Paulette Goddard to his reluctant Charlie Chaplin. Together they traipse across the country, encountering elaborate local wedding ceremonies and getting embroiled in oxcart chases. Jhilmil gradually lowers her guard around Barfi, while he graces her surroundings with magic.
Though Basu’s plays with format and lenser Ravi Varman’s fairy-tale atmospherics recall “Amelie,” the film’s emphasis on physical comedy thankfully dissipates any coyness. “Barfi!” hopscotches from the present, where all the characters sport deliberately fake-looking old-age makeup and reminisce directly to the camera, back to 1970 and 1978; an admonition to start from the beginning introduces a sepia-tinged, sped-up account of Barfi’s birth. This internal time travel, while mixing up the linear progression, intensifies the impact of each given period and adds credence to the script’s otherwise threadbare mystery subplot.
Kapoor, like his famous actor/director grandfather Raj Kapoor before him, channels Chaplin in tone and affect. Basu also appropriates several signature Keaton gags, like the seesaw ladder from 1922’s “Cops” and Barfi’s penchant for latching onto passing vehicles to escape pursuit. Thesping is first-rate throughout, and newcomer D’Cruz and former Miss Universe Chopra bring surprising depth to their roles. Meanwhile, Saurabh Shukla’s omnipresent corpulent cop executes ever-new forms of slapstick.
Unlike Michel Hazanavicus’ black-and-white silent homage “The Artist,” Basu’s film bursts with sound and color; only the speaking- and hearing-impaired Basu is condemned to silence. Ace production values include Pritam Chakraborty’s lush score, often jokingly performed onscreen by a trio of instrumentalists popping up in odd corners of the frame, expressing in music what Barfi cannot articulate in words.