I had rather be first in a village than second at Rome. -Julius Caesar
Ah, small town life. How we all, in our own ways, idealize and vilify it in equal measure. There is something about the idea of small town life as being simple that we idealize, even as we scorn the inhabitants for being simpleminded. I could say this started with the industrial revolution, but we all know it goes back further than that. From the fables of Aesop, praising the virtue of the country mouse over the flashier vainer city mouse, to Greek plays, in which the road holds dangers that the city avoids, there are those who have stood for the country and it’s villages, and those who have advocated for the city, and it’s concentration of people. With Our Town on one side and every Dickens novel ever written on the other, we know that the stereotypes about each geography are both truth and fiction, limited in their scope and generalized in their content. And yet we continue to categorize the world in this way, enjoying our geographic biases. Certainly as an urbanite I have little patience for the small town, although that doesn’t compare to my distinct loathing for that most American invention, the dreaded suburb.
But I too see the limitations of a town, or village, as many Indians would call it, and my association with villages, especially here in India, is lack of educational access, caste restrictions, limits in technology and sophistication, and a certain, shall we say, conservative attitude towards women. Of course, this isn’t really fair, after all, I’ve never even been to an Indian village, and it’s a generalization that doesn’t take into account the diversity of this massive country. But it is an opinion that I have absorbed from books, movies, and Indian urbanites, who are often quick to define their lives in comparison to village existence.
Of course, that knife cuts both ways. In the 1995 hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the village is idealized by the female protagonist’s father, even as he enjoys his first world NRI existence in a suburb of London. That movie was nothing new, in fact, it was one in a long line of Bollywood movies embracing the idealism of pure unspoiled village existence, with its rosy-cheeked maidens and sweeter pace of life. The village is innocent, a place of virtue and kindness, in a harsh world it is a bastion of values the modern age has no time for anymore.
Or at least, it was. Small town life in India is a popular topic in Bollywood right now, but in an aggressively more complex way than its earlier representations. A new spate of movies about small town life are eager to unveil characters who are more dynamic than their clodhopper counterparts of days gone by, characters who rebel against their circumstances not by moving to the big city, but by staying where they are and refusing to conform. And that is the sort of thing Bareilly Ki Barfi seems to be trying to do. A recent movie with a spate of strong reviews and countless gushing facebook posts, it tells the story of a small-town girl with a big personality looking for love. But what can it teach you about India? Well, we’re about to find out!
But, before we jump in, it’s vitally important to note that this movie ups our jobs-for-women-in-India options by not one but TWO, putting it up there with Calendar Girls and Dear Zindagi. And if it’s anything like either of those movies, well, strap in folks, it’s going to be a long ride! I joke. No, not really. But Bareilly Ki Barfi adds to our list with a seamstress, nice, and a complaints handler for an electrical company! What? That’s creative, right? Nice! Dream big, ladies, and someday you could be…a cog in a bureaucratic wheel fobbing off customers with ill-crafted lazy lies! Well, it’s that, model, doctor, actress, sex slave addict, costumer or cinematographer. Take your pick.
Okay, so our story takes place in UP, in the town of Bareilly, just like the movie title. Wow, really stretching your creative muscles there, guys. A girl named Bitti lives with her loving but exasperated parents, who just want her to get married, already, she’s already like, 24! Bitti, however, is a rebel, Dotti, a loner! She doesn’t want to conform to some idea of an Indian bride! She smokes cigarettes! She drinks! She eats NON VEGETARIAN FOOD! We call this meat in America, but like so much in India, it must be defined by what it ISN’T, not what it is. Lesson number 1! To be a non-conformist in India, you need to rebel in SUPER conventional ways. Bitti wants to do her, guys, can’t you accept that? They can’t, and neither can a suitor who comes to call and inquires about the state of Bitti’s hymen. Bitti claims she is no longer a virgo intacta, just to get a rise, and out he goes, off to find a more chaste maiden while Bitti’s mother cries.
This is Kriti Sanon, who plays Bitti. Looking at Kriti, a tall slim toned starlet with well moisturized hair and skin, it’s a clear as the nose on my face that this young woman has had the kind of regular access to dairy, vitamin d, regular training sessions and kale that no village maiden can claim. There is no way this girl has lived on a staple fricking diet or done anything like 20 years of housework. She sticks out of this movie in much the same way, say, I would. If she’s a small town girl, I’m a small town goat.
Lesson number 2, there is a subset of small town/city people who have all the larger urban amenities, and you can tell who they are by their height and beauty!
ANYway. Bitti with the good hair who is a pretend villager decides to run away, but has no reading material for the train to nowhere, so she buys what is clearly a self published novel. Bitti, first of all, I carry at least three books with me on any given trip, prepare, lady! And second of all, you grab this nonsense when you could be reading about Malala? Get it together, Bits. But she LOVES it, you see, because it’s all about a rebel, a loner like herself, who watches English movies with her friends and wont be tied to yesterday’s morality, man!
So Bitti is, like, in love. With herself? Maybe sort of? This is actually kind of weird. No, she’s in love with the author because she thinks he wrote about her, or someone like her, or maybe because it’s proof that someone else likes her exists in the universe, although again, this is like a theme in Bollywood now so she could like, know this from other sources? I don’t know, it’s the film’s premise, just go with it. She wants to meet the writer! He knows her soul!
Lesson number 3, your sense of discontent in the world is probably because you’ve never met anyone like you or heard that they exist. Once you find your doppelgänger, you will be A-Okay!
So she goes looking for Pritam Vidrohi, the novelist. But TWIST! He wasn’t the novelist at all! In fact, the real person who wrote the novel is a guy named Chirag Dubey, played by Ayushmann Khuran, who wrote the novel about his bad breakup with Bubbly. Chirag, her name was Bubbly. You had a lucky escape. Be grateful! But no, instead he went all emo, drank a bunch of whiskey, and wrote a first draft of a novel, which he published. If you ask me, this is reason enough to assume Chirag is a total idiot because if you think your first draft is worth publishing then you don’t deserve to live.
Ayushmann also looks like a person who has had the benefit of a varied nutritional palette and dental care, but at least he backs up his fitness by working out in random low-rent local gyms. Way to keep it real, Khurana. Lesson number 4, just because you live in a small town is no excuse not to keep it tight! Get huge, Chirag!
But whatever, Chirag wrote his little diary entry of sadness for Bubbly, and then made his friend Pritam, played by Rajkummar Rao, publish it, because, well, he says it’s because he doesn’t want to ruin Bubbly’s reputation with his work, but like, what’d you write in there, buddy? Is this a burn book? Or do you just know your first draft sucks because FIRST DRAFTS SUCK? Lesson number 5, it is perfectly acceptable to publish your first draft of something in India. This might account for the current state of Indian fiction. BURN.
Anyway, Rajkummar is my father-in-law’s name! And like my father in law, Pritam is lovely. He’s also a coward, unlike my father in law, so he runs away from the town because, again, wow, you know, this movie is enjoyable to watch but when you start really looking at it the logic just falls apart like a cashmere sweater that’s been visited by logic-moths. Wikipedia describes this plot point as “Vidrohi agrees but gets so scared of the possible future scenarios, that he leaves the city without telling anyone.” I…have no idea what that means. ANYway, he leaves and becomes a sari seller, sorry, mom, he’s sari.
So Bitti finds Chirag, who runs a printing press, and hangs out with his buddy, Munna, the bookseller, played by Rohit Choudhary, who wears a series of increasingly ugly sweaters, all the time. Bitti tells him she wants to meet Pritam. Chirag explains that Pritam is shy, but tells Bitti that she can write him letters, which she does, and he responds, blah blah Cyrano blah.
So Chirag obviously falls in love with Bitti, because they are the two best looking people in this town. Bitti…seems fine with Chirag. I’m going to be honest here, Kriti Sanon really adds very little to this role. Look, she’s fine, she’s very pretty, she sticks out like a giraffe among deer, but she’s just executing it, she’s not bringing anything amazing to the table. So it’s sort of hard to tell if Bitti likes Chirag or not, because Sanon runs around this movie in perfectly tailored kurtas over jeans, doing her best village girl Holly Go Lightly, and whatever her thought process is it has taken a backseat to looking the role.
Anyway, these two run around the town and have an amount of freedom to drink and smoke alone and wander around old shrines at midnight just the two of them that I had always heard was wildly restricted in small town India, but I guess that’s all an urban myth?
Lesson number 6! Small town India is WAY less restrictive than, say, Delhi, where a young woman would think twice about rolling around after dark with a dude she hardly knows.
But Bitti still wants to meet the writer of her favorite novel (Bitti, you know what, maybe if you read a SECOND novel you might see there’s more out there. This is a girl who like, reads The Fault in Our Stars and wishes she had cancer, know what I mean?) and becomes angry with Chirag because he wont connect her to the Pritam of her dreams. Additionally, Bitti’s bummer parents are unhappy that this novel has made their daughter feel that her behavior is normal, sigh, so Chirag decides to kill two birds with one stone. He will produce Pritam but make sure he’s a total asshole so the parents will be vindicated and Bitti’s feelings crushed. That way she will turn to her good friend Chirag, who has loved her all along! Wow, this is some toxic masculinity right here, my friend. Lesson number 7! In order to make someone fall in love with you, you should crush their dreams and feelings for someone else, and then stand, waiting, for them to accept you as a decent fallback plan.
Chirag and Munna (I think Munna might be into Chirag, guys, I think he might be pulling a Chirag on Chirag! I would love to see this movie through his perspective, it’s all ugly sweaters and longing for his friend) go looking for Pritam. Here is where the movie takes a turn, because as we learned, Pritam is played by the adorable Rajkummar Rao, not to be confused with my father in law, who is also adorable.
So they bully Pritam into coming home with them and becoming a douchey bully himself. Hmmm, I wonder if this is going to backfire on them? Nope, like everything else in this movie, it’s clearly a foolproof plan. Munna and Chirag are total dicks to Pritam, threatening his nice job at the sari shop, intimidating him into submission, and given that they’ve already sort of derailed his life once, this seems like outside of enough, but I guess we are supposed to find it lovely and charming because it’s in the name of love? Sort of? Even though Chirag clearly sees Bitti as a Bubbly substitute? Lesson number 8! You can literally do anything in India if it’s for love. Maybe later in the movie they will murder someone. Doesn’t matter. It’s for love!
So they change Pritam’s hair and get him a leather jacket because lesson number 9, you want to be cool? Look no further than the Fonz.
Look at Munna’s sweater! Maybe he’s Barielly’s sole hipster? I don’t know, he’s an enigma, I love him.
So they bring Pritam to meet Bitti, who is totally offput by his dickish behavior. Her friend Rama is into, though, oh, honey, no. But then, just when Chirag, who I at this point genuinely have begun to dislike, thinks he’s free and clear, Pritam meets Bitti’s parents. And they love him! He’s confident, he gives great shoulder massages, he isn’t the perpetrator of an active deception, what’s not to love?
He know’s how to tie a sari, he lends people his cool glasses, he’s great! And look at that, Bitti got another book, maybe now she can…nope, she’s not moving on, cool.
So Chirag does the reasonable thing…nope, no he doesn’t, he tells everyone Pritam is a divorcee, which is a big no no in small towns, and big cities, in India. Lesson number 9, divorce in India is still taboo which COME ON INDIA GET IT TOGETHER. Pritam tells Chirag that he’s into Rama, but when he tries to make a move on a group boating trip (Oh, Pritam, no) Bitti and Rama reference his shameful divorce, and he realizes Chirag is sabotaging him (Honey, he’s BEEN sabotaging you, he sucks! Get the net!) And he vows to steal Bitti from Chirag for real for real. Guys, Bitti is a human person, not an umbrella. You cannot steal her. She is a human.
Lesson number 10, in India, women live in medieval Europe and can be “won” be feats of strength in competition. Sigh.
So Pritam brings his A game. And once again, Pritam is adorable, so it’s A+.
They eat snacks! They fly kites! Bitti seems happy! Chirag is angry and resentful and a total doche, and Munna stands by his man, and there are like, five scenes where Chirag and Pritam confront each other and Chirag is worse every time. Is the point of this movie for us to really hate one of the protagonists by the end? Because if so, that is WORKING!
Oh, there is also this like, weird moment that gets cut off, pay attention to that, it’s going to have a major implication on the end of this story.
Don’t you hurt Rajkummar Rao, you douche! But he DOES.
So ANYway, we FINALLY get to the end of this movie, Chirag decides that if Bitti really loves Pritam, he will allow her to marry him. REAL NOBLE, CHIRAG! He keeps trying to tell her how he feels and then…not doing so, because she’s like, pretty and happy with Pritam?
Okay, once is fine for that sort of thing, but it happens like four times. I don’t even know.
But he writes a letter for Pritam to read to her at their engagement ceremony, I guess? I don’t really know. All the logic has fallen away, now, its all gone. This movie has spent it’s logic budget. Lesson number 11, there is only so much logic in any given Indian story. You gotta spend wisely!
Pritam claims his voice is too hoarse to read the letter, so he makes Chirag do it. I really wish that Pritam was actually an evil genius and that this was payback for Chirag’s eons of douchery, but alas, it is not. It is a highly contrived way to show that OH MY GOD BITTI KNEW THE WHOLE TIME PRITAM TOLD HER! She knew that Chirag was deceiving her, and she was…cool with it? The whole time? And presumably she knew what Chirag said to Pritam about how pathetic and worthless he was? Because while Pritam was fooling Chirag, Chirag was…being 100% honest! And really thought the guy he forced to run away from home, then run back home, then pretend to romance his sort of girlfriend, is a pathetic loser who deserves nothing? Cool. Cool cool cool. Great guy you’re getting, Bitti. Whatever, man, you two deserve each other. Lesson number 12, while choosing a mate in India, pick the person who has actively treated you and others around you in the worst way possible. They’ve probably got all of it out of their system, now, right?
And then they dance!
Actually I think this dance scene happens earlier but NEVER mind, assume they dance, it’s the end of a Bollywood movie, they dance. Lesson number 13, everything, from court cases to marriage plots, will end with dancing. It just does.
And there you have it, a glimpse at small town life with a set of actors who have clearly lived their entire lives in large cities, with a side of torture porn for Rajkummar Rao, if you like that sort of thing. I’m not going to lie, it’s a deeply charming and engaging movie, as long as you can turn your brain off while you watch it.
But it does beg the question, what happens the NEXT time Bitti likes a book? I can’t wait for the sequel where she follows William Dalrymple around the Jaipur Lit Festival!