Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A few thoughts on the Barfi plagiarism fiasco

Okay, I just had to interrupt my hiatus for a post on the Barfi Plagiarism Fiasco.

Let me first bring you an extract from an interview with writer/director Anurag Basu:

How difficult was it to bring in the fantasy-fun element in a subject so serious and thoughtful?

I've to confess it was a lonely journey. I had no reference points. It was like entering a dark tunnel. I just pushed through. While shooting we had lots of fun. Aur film banti gayi. Yes, it took me 10 days to get a hang of the subject since it is a completely new genre. We even re-shot the initial portions.

So the man had no reference points? Interesting... considering this delightful post from Tanqeed picking apart all the scenes copied directly from Hollywood films.

Now I've to confess that I'm enjoying the shade being thrown at Basu because I've been annoyed at the bubble of Barfi hype since the film began shooting and I think I finally realized why. To quote Sal from the comments of GetFilmy's post on the topic:

I think Baradwaj Rangan hit the nail on the head when he called it an Indian film for those who don’t watch European cinema...

Exactly. I loathe that brand of mawkish "magical" European cinema embodied by films like Amelie and Life is Beautiful so it makes sense that I would be turned off by an Indian homage to it.

As somebody who has close relatives with mental illness, I find something really off-putting about using mental illness and physical disabilities as a way to make characters "special" or "different." There is nothing magical about mental retardation or schizophrenia or autism and it bothers me to see these conditions used this way. IF Priyanka's character is supposed to be "deeply autistic," she should be living in her own internal world and not really paying attention to other people... and if she is mentally retarded on top of that, as many people with severe autism are, I just don't see how her character could be one half of a feel-good romance and all portray autism accurately.

To quote (again) - this time from TV Tropes:

[D]isabled characters often being little more than gimmicks to tug the heartstrings of able-bodied and able-minded viewers and make them feel "inspired" without actually challenging them to do anything about the systems that make life so difficult for the disabled in the first place.

It would be interesting (for me) to see what the reaction of Western critics would be to this "European" style film. The LA Times found it exhausting.

Two films I thought handled mental illness really well are Bala's Pithamagan - in which Vikram played a character who was probably on the autism spectrum somewhere - and Naan Kadavul - in which Arya played a character who was also probably on the autism spectrum somewhere. Naan Kadavul also had the bonus of a large number of physically and mentally disabled actors.

Would everybody have liked Barfi as much if Priyanka's role had been played by an actual mentally retarded person? One who didn't look like a former Miss Universe?

But putting aside my schadenfreude at the shade being thrown, I'm not sure what to think about Basu's "homages." My impression from what I had read about the film was that it was supposed to contain a lot of Charlie Chaplin-eqse pastiche - sort of a Quentin Tarantino thing but with shmaltzy European films instead of Asian martial arts films. If that is the case, then I see no problem with it. But if Basu was lifting whole scenes without saying anything... and doing it copiously, then that is kind of a problem. ESPECIALLY since he had been playing up the "original" tag.

I like Basu as a director but as a screenwriter, he is too insular. I think he's just not a storyteller. Out of everything I've seen of his, I think I liked Kites the best, tempered, as it was, by Rakesh Roshan.

The overriding feeling I get from Barfi is just a question of "why?" Why did he use the (let's give the benefit of the doubt) pastiche? Why did he use mental illness and disability? To make everybody feel all sentimental and gooey inside? If that is the case, how is Barfi any different from what Karan Johar does? Is it really that much more an important film than Student of the Year - which I am genuinely looking forward to?


Bastard Keith said...

Having seen Barfi, I think that many of those plagiarism complaints are absolutely ridiculous. The Notebook stuff, sure, whatever, and Koshish, okay, fine. But those are TINY little touches, not huge plot points. The Amelie music? Okay. It's not like a million movies haven't played with that, but sure.

But all the other stuff, the meat of that plagiarism post, is PLAINLY meant to be an homage. We're not talking about plot stuff here (which I think is what Basu meant when he was talking about his lonely road as a storyteller), we're talking about establishing Barfi as a character in the tradition of old movie clowns. The complaint that somehow Basu's plagiarising Singing in the Rain/Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton/Harold Lloyd is utterly, utterly inane because Basu is offering up these bits as visual and textural touchstones. He's telling you what kind of character Barfi is. It is homage, not plagiarism.

Now, let's be clear: the movie DOES NOT WORK. And a big part of it is Priyanka Chopra's character. Her physical performance is actually not bad. I worked for several years in direct care with the developmentally disabled, and at first I pretty much bought her as a slightly exaggerated version of someone with autism and retardation. It's when she opens her mouth that it becomes a problem. She's doing...well, there's no delicate way to put it...a "retard" voice. The kind of voice schoolkids do when they want to make fun of the disabled. It's jarring, it's wrong, and it undermines both her potentially revelatory performance and the movie as a whole. Because she's so thuddingly "movie retarded" (the details of her autism are never really dealt with), her romance with Barfi is troubling and the consent implications are not really explored.

Now, see, there's a potentially much spikier, more interesting film inside Barfi waiting to get out, and what's frustrating is that Basu seems to know it. The D'Cruz character pulls the film into some fascinatingly dark directions before being revealed as pretty much pointless. Chopra's character is the real love interest; D'Cruz's dramatically compelling jealousy eventually melts into Disney treacle rather than curdling, even though the movie ALMOST goes somewhere unpredictable with it.

The tug of war between the D'Cruz storyline (woman on the verge of marriage meets a seductive wild card) and Chopra's (disabled people in love! AAAAWWWWW!) is only resolved late in the film, and Basu makes the boring, safe (and ironically borderline offensive) choice. It also derails for a mystery plot that carries no intrigue whatsoever and exists only to give us a feel-good twist.

But man, Ranbir kills in it. And you can see what Basu was trying to do.

Jess said...

I haven't seen either of the films you mention, but my favorite portrayal of a person with a mental disability in a bollywood movie is Katrina's brother in MBKD. It had nothing to do with the plot, he was just another character/family member.

Filmi Girl said...

@Bastard Keith If it's like you say, I don't see any problem with the homages. It is like Tarantino then. But I am amused at the outcry from the Passion For Cinema types who feel betrayed...

And the consent issue is important, I think, and is definitely one of the things I was concerned about with a romance between PC and Barfi (aside from just disliking the shmaltzy AW DISABLED PERSON IN LOVE angle). But still I could almost be talked into giving the film a chance based on your description but I had no idea PC was doing "retard voice" - that's pretty terrible.

I wonder what kind of film it would have been wit the Amelie music toned down, "feel-good" ending gone, and using an actor with Down's Syndrome for PC's role.

Probably one that didn't make money... but I might have liked it.

@Jess I forgot all about that!!! Great call...

Chiranjeevi said...

@Bastard Keith... Are you related to Mr. Basu or something? How could you term so many lifts in one film "little touches"? All these little touches actually carry the film forward. Mr. Basu responded to these "blatant plagiarism" charges in recent interview with IBN saying he is not a genius and he couldn't come up with original ideas by himself. Just, why did he end up making the film then? The guys at UTV must be held responsible for encouraging this.

Krunal Desai said...

"Ok folks let's make a film that connects." "how about a feel good film" "...but what do we do???" "Let's take a character of a deaf and mute person, cast the current heartthrob for it...." "Now Hey!!! you got to make kids laugh in a feel good film..." "Ok add some Chaplin + Mr Bean + Some Comedy Classic Film Antiques n that should do" "...well you must appeal to youngsters but..." "Sure make him fall for a hot young chick...send him to her parents only to know she's already engaged...make him wish her all the best like a true hero n just when he turns....hit his head with a door bang on!!" "Oh my poor baby chicks will shout" "Sob Sob Sob...." "Oh!!! excuse me??? We were suppose to make a feel good movie n not asking for audience's pity????" "So now???" "No worries...add one more challenged autistic girl who will portray it as a mentally retired...just in case the audience doesn't know the difference" "but what if some find it boring n dull..???" "Oh no problem use nonlinear method of narration to create little suspense...little robbery attempt, little kidnap, cute girl gone missing kind of stuff" "Now for the feel good crescendo show a challenged couple live life with great gusto n zing" " WOW how poetic!!!" "Hey icing on the about showing them die by each other...hand in hand..." "Bingo" "Amazing" "Send it to the Oscars" ...... Well Well let me first opt out of this conversation......I still remember the scene in the movie hall with my wife constantly sobbing next to me accompanying countless other girls who were inconsolable watching their favorite actor in sad state. Btw i've seen people cry so much watching a film promoted as feel good movie. They say live life Barfi size!!! Oh sure only if our lives are so eventful...I mean robbery, kidnap, police, property case, etc etc. Anyways while watching the movie between those sobs my wife gave me some puzzled looks as if it was almost inhuman not to cry at reconnect with her emotionally I tried my best to feel concerned for Barfi...u know what i actually tried to cry :P..... Well I could've cried only if I had found the treatment little less manipulative... If the characters are not looking for audience's pity why compel them for the same scene after scene!!!. Just like Bhansali's black.I would leave at that. But certainly not one of the greatest films from India...Not by a distance. And coming to know the lifting scenes were astonishing really...Some Straight Lifting this... One can inspire from a director's style, an actor's acting method, A story's idea, Screenplay technique but sorry to say this is simply act of blunt stealing. It is mainly a visual film...and so many visual ideas are copied. and it's been India's official entry to oscars... Unbelievable. Yes the film has touched hearts but to reach to that stage every director need to employ certain creative visual methods...specially in this film...what if those vary methods to win people's heart are bluntly lifted....this is why mediocrity rules long as you have your momentary satisfaction who cares what is wrong n what is right. and because people have done lifting in past doesnt justify this at all. It was ok the filmed has grossed 100 carores n liked by all...but to call it one of the best films of this country and sending it to oscars only after two weeks of its release is beyond me.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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