Let’s be clear on one thing. Billu Barber is not the film that you wanted it to be. A bitter-sweet portrait of the chequered and troubled star-fan relationship, it falls short of expectations mainly because the prolific Priyadarshan fills up the spaces occupying the star Shah Rukh and the commoner Irrfan Khan‘s tale with a hefty load of humbug. The village where the star descends to shoot his latest potboiler with three smouldering item girls in tow (couldn’t the unit have shot with Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra far away from the madding crowd in the city studios?) looks too chaotic to be real.
Priyadarshan saturates the filmy village with his characteristically caricatural actors who have been filling up his villages from the time he made the memorable Viraasat. Mohan Joshi (broad and brilliant as a boorish politician trying to act impudently nonchalant before the superstar), Om Puri (cracking one of the most vulgar jokes ever heard in mainstream cinema) Rasika Joshi, Asrani, Rajpal Yadav. . . you’ve seen them all doing their rustic satire for Priyan before. They’ve been there, done it all before.
You wish Priyan had brought in a fresh cast to bolster the film’s fresh look and texture. For all said (and how much they talk!) and done(the narrative is kept crisp) Billu is by far the director’s most sensitive and gentle work since Kala Pani and Viraasat. . . and that holds true in spite of the film’s extravagant excesses, like the three scorching item songs put into the film to counter the rural characters and ambience with dollops of urbane octane . The garnishing revs up the proceedings but slackens the subliminal sensitivity by over-punctuating the narrative.
What works is the star-fan relationship. From the outside the hyper-excitement of a village as it goes into top gear for a star’s visit may appear exaggerated. Priyan plants a train of sequences showing the Star in interaction with a star-struck mass of hysterical fans.
For sure the film wouldn’t work without Shah Rukh Khan who brings a sense of autobiographical opulence to the star’s part. He plays the besieged icon like a child let loose in a toy store. Don’t look for the lonely superstar pining for true love over here. This guy enjoys his popularity.
The sensitivity is saved as the end-game when at a school function in the village Shah Rukh/Sahir Khan breaks down talking about his childhood friend Billu.
This is where the crux of the film begins. The two actors at the core of the conflict play their parts with such empathy you forgive and forget the excesses in the earlier parts of the narrative where the star-fan relationship was converted into a melee of caricatural encounters signifying that space between fame and anonymity can only be filled with farce.
Not true! The truth of this film when it emerges at the end, is exhilarating and cathartic. The performances by the two actors carry the film. Shah Rukh Khan extends his real-life iconic status to a role that requires double his usual acting skills because it’s autobiographical. He rocks.
But the film belongs to Irrfan Khan. As Billu he is a portrait of restrained selfmockery and dignity in the face of bizarre demands on him by star-struck villagers. And that includes his wife and children.
Lara Dutta with her mannequin-like body language and over-madeup face sticks out like a sore thumb. She belongs to another film.