Q- What do you call a Bollywood movie that is completely original and has not been copied from any other film?
A- A flop.
I know that it is a very cynical attitude towards an industry that is primarily responsible for my love for movies in general, and I do like to give it the benefit of the doubt that I barely watch Bollywood movies anymore and hence miss out on quite a few good ones. However, it is also hard to deny that the majority of the "big Bollywood blockbusters" nowadays are either copied from crowd-friendly Hollywood action or comedy movies, or as the latest trend goes, from bombastic, nonsensical and occasionally fun South-Indian movies. Now I am not judging either of these types of movies. They are both made for a specific audience and they deliver suitably. My bone to pick is solely with Bollywood, and this copycat attitude.
To be fair, Bollywood has been copying, or as we like to call it, "being inspired by" other movies for a very long time, and with all sorts of results. But a recent discussion in my film studies has piqued my interest in this issue. The topic was about how as an industry, or even a country, we don't seem to have a distinctive identity when it comes to our movies, except that they are colourful and have musical numbers. Big whoop. It is kind of sad considering that we are the land of geniuses like Satyajit Ray and Raj Kapoor. Admittedly I am not that well-versed in their work, not at all in Ray's case (yes, I do hate myself), but the fact is that we are capable of such films and the current state of mainstream Bollywood is a bit tragic.
Now all this brings me to Anurag Basu's Barfi! First and foremost I have to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly and I do think that it is a very good movie. But its "inspirations" are so in-your-face. Anyone who is a film buff can easily pick out which films the various elements of Barfi! were taken from. Slapstick gods like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are obvious influences, the look and style is clearly reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, there are a couple of scenes lifted from Donald O' Connor's incredible "Make 'Em Laugh" from Singin' in the Rain, and there is also traces of The Double Life of Veronique and Benny and Joon. Due to all this, Basu has been getting a lot of heat on plagiarism allegations, especially since it was announced that Barfi! is India's entry to the Best Foreign Film category at the 85th Oscars.
Here is my question- what is the difference between an homage and a copy? Because I would say that I was thrilled to a lesser degree than others around me who have not seen the many films that Barfi! borrowed from. Basu, when trying to defend his film, gave examples of film makers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese who do emulate other films and film makers into their own final products. Tarantino was actually the very person I kept coming back to while discussing Barfi! with a friend right after we had seen it. My main argument was that maybe the reason why I love his movies so much is because I have never watched any of the films that he uses as inspiration. Except one- Bande à part, which is where things got even more complicated in my head, because it is a known fact that the dance in it was a major influence on the Mia-Vincent's Jack Rabbit Slims dance. But apart from both being incredibly awesome and a bit random, they are actually very different dances. So if this indeed is how Tarantino makes all of his films, then they can never be called copies of anything. But Barfi! did in fact imitate scenes, although in different contexts and I really don't know what to make of it.
Also I have to give credit where credit is deserved, even if we are talking about something as controversial as possible plagiarism. The thing is that yes, Barfi! has "been inspired" by many other films and isn't a completely original work, but once again look at the people and films Basu chose! There is actually a split second where there is a cut-out of Chaplin on the screen in between this very Chaplin-esque chase between the protagonist, Barfii and silly policemen. Therefore instead of yet another film with terrible one-liners and actors with their shirts being ripped off on their own accord and god knows what, here we have a film that celebrates these wonderful movies and people and does a more than decent job of using elements from them in its narrative.
Obviously Barfi! is much more than just this amalgam. The acting is superb. Ranbir Kapoor is pretty much the actor of his generation at present, and note how I say actor and not star, because the man knows how to act. He is splendid as the titular character, a happy-go-lucky, deaf and dumb, simple man who loves life and lives it to the fullest. Also the two actresses, Priyanka Chopra and Ileana D'Cruz, are both revelations. Chopra plays an autistic girl with a great deal of honesty and sincerity, something I really did not expect from her. D'Cruz, a newcomer in Bollywood, is just so beautiful and acts like a veteran in her field, so natural and understated. A perfect trio for such a film. Also I love that the film was set in Calcutta, aka my hometown, and Darjeeling, and that too in the 70s! There is such a dearth of period films in Bollywood. And I really adored the setting. Very few Bollywood films are set here anymore, and Barfi! looked gorgeous. The music is rather lovely too.
I am happy that such a happy film has been chosen as India's entry to the Oscars (there have been some dreadful ones in the past) and also that people are liking it so much. Of course many argue about how it is "completely unique" and I reflexively roll my eyes... Also when they say/post that it has been nominated for an Oscar, my blood boils just a little bit. But keeping my crazy cinephile tendencies aside, I am actually pretty convinced that it will not be nominated, seeing how tough the competition is this year with films like Amour, and because of well, all the reasons/rambles I have stated above.
I would like to end this post by asking repeating my earlier question and posing a new one-
What is the difference between an homage and a copy?
And if you have seen Barfi!- what did you think of it and its Oscar chances?
In case your answer to the latter question is 'no', I highly recommend it.
Thank you for reading :)