There's an interesting observation about the classic Hindi song 'Bar Bar Dekho', sung by Mohammed Rafi for Shakti Samanta's China Town (1962), that is often pointed out by seasoned screenwriter Kiran Kotrial at one of his uproarious Timepass Talkies shows. In this performance, during which he comments on goofs in Hindi films both popular and obscure, he often brings our attention to one back-up dancer: a young girl whose smiling face turns dark every time the hero, Shammi Kapoor, passes by. At one point, it almost looks like she swears at him.
This week's big, glossy Bollywood release is named after the song and features Katrina Kaif making similarly sneery expressions for much of its running length. Nitya Mehra's directorial debut, a rom-com with a healthy dose of sci-fi, is largely about a young mathematician named Jai Varma (Siddharth Malhotra), who finds himself confronted by a dilemma many twenty-somethings will identify with.
At the centre of this dilemma is Diya (Kaif), an artist and Jai's childhood sweetheart. In a sweet opening sequence, we see how young Jai and Diya came from different backgrounds. She was born in London to a British mother and a well-to-do father (Ram Kapoor) who secretly wanted a son and hated English weather; he grew up in Delhi, where Diya and her family moved to eventually, under more modest circumstances and lost his father early. We see how friendship paved the way for puppy love, which in turn led to actual companionship. All this, set to a lilting acoustic tune featuring the vocals of Prateek Kuhad and Jasleen Royal, makes for a pretty terrific beginning — a Bollywoodised, mirror-image tribute to that wonderful opening sequence from Up, I daresay. Soon, a wedding date is fixed and it's clear that Jai is uncomfortable with the idea, although he can't seem to say it out loud.
A fantastical device is introduced, reminiscent of about half-a-dozen Hollywood films (see: Groundhog Day, The Kid, The Butterfly Effect, About Time etc). After a brief argument, Jai drinks himself silly to find that he has managed to bend space and time. He wakes up one day to find that time has jumped 10 days ahead and they're already on their honeymoon. The next day, two years have passed and she's giving birth to their son. You get the idea.
As the most unassumingly attractive maths professor to have perhaps ever existed (an early scene shows his female students sticking around in class only to check him out), Malhotra's Jai is perennially wide-eyed, dumbfounded and — truth be told — difficult to take seriously as a self-proclaimed genius. It's a real dilemma — you want to respect this young actor for continually punching above his weight (see: Hasee Toh Phansee,Kapoor & Sons: Since 1921) but the gulf between expectation and reality is hard to ignore.
It's the same case with Kaif, an actress who can and often has torpedoed entire films single-handedly (see: Fitoor). Here too, she is perennially blank-faced, always reminding the viewer that she is Katrina Kaif playing a version of herself. It doesn't help that her oft-derided accent, which is given a real reason to exist here, is constantly on display (she does speak more Hindi than is necessary, but distributors seem to get antsy with too much English). In Baar Baar Dekho, one can see how the script — written by Mehra and comedian Anuvab Pal — goes out of its way to accommodate its extremely good-looking lead duo's shortcomings. As a result, they are pushed to deliver what could be called career-best performances — by their standards.
Unfortunately, the film deserved better, because there is a fair amount of thought that seems to have gone into it. The message is age-old — 'everything needs balance' — and the premise isn't incredibly original; yet, wherever it lacks in these qualities, Baar Baar Dekho makes up in sincerity and execution. For instance, in sequences set in 2018, 2034, and 2046, Sharmishtha Roy and Fali Unwalla's production design takes cues from Minority Report (2002) and imagines a believable future where transparent-screened devices are voice- and gesture-controlled. It isn't something we haven't seen before, but unfortunately, the bar for slick production design and competent CGI in Bollywood is so low that this film is something of a revelation.
There is, however, an overall consistency to the film that heralds the arrival of an interesting new filmmaker in Mehra.
In other technical departments, the film scores high. Master cinematographer Ravi K Chandran ensures that it ends up being one of the best looking Hindi films of the year, while Sameer Uddin's score is commendably aware of when to ebb, when to flow, and when to shut the hell up.
Sure, there is the occasional tendency to overcompensate and take itself too seriously. Comedian Rohan Joshi and current 'it' actress Sayani Gupta appear as Raj and Chitra, a couple who seem to be Jai's only real friends, but the film squanders the opportunity to do justice to the former's comic timing and the latter's range by giving them one-note characters. As a result, this is a film with plenty of comic situations, co-written by a comedian, and starring another but, surprisingly, very few genuinely chuckle-worthy moments.
There is, however, an overall consistency to the film that heralds the arrival of an interesting new filmmaker in Mehra. Most mainstream Bollywood films are tonally all over the place, with disparate romantic, dramatic, and comedic tracks. What I appreciated about Baar Baar Dekho, however, was its willingness to commit wholeheartedly to its premise without getting tempted to add more melodrama than is necessary.
At one point, I was afraid that a 'love is all you need' message was what the film was hurtling towards; however, the resolution, like every good mathematical solution, tries its best to balance all variables. As most of us have all (probably) once said to our math teachers, "Steps ke marks toh milne chahiye (we should get marks for following the steps correctly)."
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