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Based in Budbuda, Uttar Pradesh, Billu Vilas Pardesi barely makes a living as a barber. His wife, Bindiya, looks after the household, and his children, Gunja and Ronak, are on the verge of being expelled from Gyaan Bharti Vidyalay Higher Secondary School due to non-payment of fees. Then everything changes when Bollywood actor Sahir Khan makes an appearance to film a movie in the town. Rumors spread that Billu is Sahir's close friends, and he becomes a celebrity virtually overnight. His shop gets donations and clientèle, and the school decides to educate his children for free. The trouble begins when townsfolk want to meet with Sahir but Billu is unable to contact him. Written by
Billu Barber had already courted some controversy because some hairstylists protested that the term "Barber" was offensive. I don't understand it, but this meant the word has been dropped, and it's now known simply as "Billu", still after its titular character. A remake of the Malayalam film "Katha Parayumpol", Billu is one of those films that work because of its spot-on capturing of the ugliness and greed of man.
It opens quite matter of factly with Billu, played by Irrfan Khan, a poor barber in s small village, being down to his last rupee, seeking help from an official knowing that he has to offer a bribe for a loan. Naturally he gets thrown out because of his frankness, and we slowly learn of Billu's immediate challenges - his barber business is down because the state of his shop is run-down, there's a trendier salon opened opposite his, electricity to his small house got cut because of his inability to pay, and the school principal is threatening to throw his kids out of school because the school fees are not forthcoming.
And little does he know that his problems will multiply with the coming of a Bollywood film crew for a shoot in their village, turning his entire world as he knows topsy turvy just because he is a friend of India's mega-star, Sahir Khan (incidentally, like the credits say, played by Shah Rukh Khan). This premise puts an interesting dilemma on Billu, because while he is a nobody and a would-be bankrupt, suddenly the village folk start to pay homage to him, from neighbours to rivals to the town's rich miser, because their degree of separation to Sahir Khan is now 2, provided they think, that they had better try and "bribe" Billu by doing favours and giving charity to him, from provision of food, to an overhaul of his shop, so that they can get an opportunity to meet the mega-star up close and personal.
To make things worse, Billu's motor-mouth kids and a wife who thought she could now impress the neighbours, start to craft stories of their association, and as we all know, word always get around in a misconstrued manner, thus something innocently said, becomes blown out of proportion. While sometimes the intent is based on perceived noble terms, like accepting the school's bursary in exchange for the star's presence in an anniversary celebration, making false promises puts a question mark on integrity, and worse, the effects are felt by Billu himself, for something that he did not boast about, or craft.
My growing list of character actors I admire had included Irrfan Khan ever since I watched his role in The Namesake, and I felt he always had this regal presence, even for short roles such as that in The Darjeeling Limited and Slumdog Millionaire. Here, he brought out the down-to-earthness portrayal of a small village barber trying his best to etch a living and provide for his family, and feeling very out of place with all the unwanted attention showered upon him. We feel his dilemma instantly, as his worries come from it being a very long time since he and Sahir had met, and the unassuming man that he is, believes that he shouldn't impose himself on a friend from the past, in fear of having his friend think that he's clinging onto the coattails of his fame, or worse, to want to ask for favours, which many in the village expect him to do.
Much of the film plays around the dilemma, of how people often impose their wishes onto you just because you have the facility to possibly grant their wishes, and rebuttals are often unheeded because people only want to hear what they want to hear, and worse, when assumptions are made. Suddenly you find enemies and casual acquaintances proclaiming themselves to be your new best friends, because of the benefit they can gain from such lip service. And nothing could be worse if these impositions turn out to be from family members - the kids want to meet their idol, and so does the wife (played by Lara Dutta). How can one turn these requests down, when one takes on the role as provider? Shah Rukh Khan looked like he had a field day playing a parody of himself, the film star who happened to share the exact same filmography as himself at that too. Although in a support role, his Sahir comes across as direct and no-nonsense, and having hordes of security and minders around him, makes one wonder who Billu, a man amongst thousands in a crowd, could somehow get him to notice, if it's true he is a friend in the first place! But the role here offers the inevitable opportunity for some staple song-and-dance, and the filmmakers don't let up the chance to pair up SRK some of his more memorable co-stars such as Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, and Deepika Padukone, with whom he bursts onto the scene in a futuristic setting for the song Love Mera Hit Hit, the start of Sahir's new movie which ironically is based on an alien's search for his long lost brother in a village.
Billu turns out to be a superb balance between fun and an examination of a key negative human condition. I was pretty much entertained throughout, and thanks to the all round fine performances from the cast, Billu is very much enjoyable, and puts itself into the shortlist of one of the fine movies of the year thus far.
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