Film Review: Billu Barber

A small Indian village gets upturned with excitement when a big Bollywood film comes to shoot, and the townsfolk think their local barber is great buddies with the star.

There is a type of movie, particular to the U.K., that I like to call "Stiff Upper Brit": A village of charming eccentrics either pulls together or seems to come apart before recovering when an important newcomer arrives, or there's an emergency or a contest at stake. The classic is Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983), in which an oil-company rep only thinks he's in charge of negotiations with a seaside village all too eager to sell out, and others, of course, include the likes of Waking Ned Devine (1998), Blow Dry (2001) and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995).

The Bollywood film Billu Barber (its onscreen title in the U.S. and the U.K., after objections by the Hairdressers Associations of Mumbai resulted in the removal of "Barber" from the title in India) is one of these, and a delight it is. Irrfan Khan, the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire, plays poor, decent, put-upon barber Bilas Rao Pardesi, a.k.a. Billu, in the fictional provincial town of Budbuda. A more modern hairstyling salon has stolen most of his business, local ne'er-do-wells hang around the entrance to his modest shop, and the local elementary school is threatening to remove his two children, daughter Gunja (Mitali Mayakar) and son Duggu (Pratik Dalvi), for lack of tuition payment. His only consolation seems to be that his wife, Bindiya, unaccountably looks like Miss Universe—which indeed co-star Lara Dutta was in 2000 before starring in a score of films.

When Bollywood superstar Sahir Khan (real-life superstar Shah Rukh Khan, playing a thinly veiled version of himself) arrives in town with a major film crew to shoot a picture in the quaint, northern India village, the sleepy town understandably goes bonkers. It gets even more crazy after Billu's kids, to whom he's said that he used to know Khan, brag about their dad's connection—feeding the local gossip chain until everyone from the local rich blowhard (Om Puri) to the local bad beatnik poet (Rajpal Yadav) all think Billu can introduce them. No matter how hard Billu tries to dissuade them, the deluded denizens won't listen. No good can come of that, and doesn't. But thank goodness for superstars with long memories. What? Did you think it wouldn't have a happy ending?

Billu Barber reaches that point with sharp pokes at self-important bureaucrats, merchants, "artistes" and others, and wry humor throughout. What makes it work, however, is that neither Billu nor his situation is played for laughs—his hardscrabble poverty isn't glossed over, and neither is his wife's longing for acceptance in the class-conscious village. And a climactic speech by Khan at a school gathering works fully well emotionally, despite a huge potential for hokiness—and incidentally provides concrete reason why real-life Khan, who's often starred in glowering action-hero roles, is a genuinely top-notch actor in addition to being a popular star.

Speaking of which, babelicious Bollywood starlets Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra appear as themselves in pretty ka-pow musical numbers from two movies-within-the-movie.