Billu (2009)


So. If you are considering a leap onto the “original is best” Malayalam bandwagon and insist that I must see Kadha Parayumbol, please take a moment, breathe, perhaps go make a cup of tea instead. I’m perfectly happy with this film! What makes Billu work so well for me is that I have a high degree of awareness and appreciation of Shah Rukh’s career so the references and sly jabs at and by SRK really resonate. I wouldn’t have that to the same extent with a different regional cast, even if it is Mammootty in the big star role.

Priyadarshan directs a deceptively simple slice of life drama. Billu (Irrfan, in no surname mode) is a barber in picturesque Budbuda. Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan in King Khan mode) is a massive movie star. Sahir suggests Budbuda as the location for the village scenes in his current project. Filming in the village was essential to the story as otherwise how would the Martian brother find his long lost sibling who was wearing a matching locket that beeped. I liked the interplay of real life and filmidom, in scenes when Sahir was enduring the plot narration, or when the villagers watched the shooting as though they were seeing life on Mars.

Mayhem erupts in Budbuda once the villagers find out that Billu and Sahir were childhood friends. Everyone wants to get an autograph, to get their brush with fame, and all the bigwigs demand that Billu introduce them to Sahir. But Billu repeatedly dodges the issue, even when his wife Bindiya (Lara Dutta) and annoying kids keep asking. Eventually the villagers start to believe he lied and accuse him of defrauding them of the gifts they had willingly pressed upon him.

Irrfan relies on his slightly oddball, rumpled, everyman persona for Billu and it works a treat. He comes across as good hearted but a little cynical, proud in himself but overwhelmed by the difference in status between himself and Sahir. Billu has told his family of a childhood friendship with Sahir, but is totally unprepared for how his village reacts when they find out. He is reluctant to contact Sahir, citing bygone time and the difference in their positions. But Billu’s inarticulate objections fall on fallow ground. It’s interesting that when Billu was negotiating with the school or others he could be quite glib, if apparently simple. Billu did go to the shooting and marvelled at the spectacle of Kareena’s duckface in Marjaani along with everyone else, but he flubbed all opportunities to speak to Sahir. I think he just wanted fate to intervene and take care of the logistics so he could see his mate without forcing himself upon Sahir.

Lara Dutta is beautiful but not too filmi glam as Bindiya. I could feel her frustration, not at being poor, but at having to be subservient and cop all the crap that comes with being seen as a beggar. Bindiya dreams of meeting Sahir and of the benefits that knowing a big star could give her family, but isn’t greedy. She just knows how things are when you’re the outsiders, and wants to take opportunities where they arise. Bindiya obviously thinks the world of Billu and it took a lot for her to actually ask him if his friendship was real. I thought it said a lot that there was no rancour in the conversation, and Billu still walked her to the school to hear Sahir speak. They had a solid relationship and as more of their backstory was revealed I had more appreciation for her.

Sahir is often absent from the action, but his presence permeates everything. I like SRK as a bad guy, and as a hero, but I especially like him as a hero who still has a healthy reservoir of cynicism alongside the cheesy entertainer reflexes (I also loved OSO). I enjoyed his character’s observations on controversy, and expectations audiences have, and his little encounters with Chaubey the guesthouse manager. Some dialogue sounded very similar to things Shah Rukh has said himself so I found the added element which may or may not be a reflection of his own views very appealing. Apart from That Speech he keeps Sahil quite sensible and vaguely amused by all the shenanigans unfolding around him, with occasional flashes of crankiness that may be caused by chafing from all the bedazzled outfits.

Sahir’s moment with Billu is quite beautiful, and so much better than the big build up that preceded it. It’s a performance I enjoy both for the overt manifestation of star power and the glimpse under the glossy veneer, and the expert manipulation by a master of crowd pleasing.

Shah Rukh’s own career is referenced extensively in posters on village walls, old movie stills and promo pictures, a montage celebrating Sahir’s stardom. The film within a film device also allowed some spectacularly silly and blinged out song concepts as they didn’t have to fit in with the plot as such, and could also use a parade of Shah Rukh’s recent-ish heroines. In every song there is a moment when he gets a goofy grin and he can’t help uncle dancing a bit despite the choreographers’ best efforts. I love it. Plus I think Evil Anthony makes an appearance.

Each shot serves to express the focal character’s universe, from set design to lighting to the framing. It’s a pleasure just to look at this film. Pritam made Billu’s songs and background music more organic than the filmi stuff, and they were accompanied by lush “real world” visuals lovingly captured by V Manikandan.

“Jaaun Kahan” is a bewildered meditation, while “Khudaya Khair” is a sweetly romantic dream that could star either your husband or Sahir Khan, mood depending. The village setting was glorious and while I’m pretty sure it was in Tamil Nadu I chose not to overthink the geography/language mash up.

The standouts in the support cast were Asrani as Naubat Chacha, a rare voice of moderation and always seeing Billu’s side, and both Om Puri and Manoj Joshi throwing their weight around as self-important and self-proclaimed VIPs. I also liked Rasika Joshi as the long suffering principal who turned out to be not such a bad old stick.

Would this film make you a Shah Rukh fan if you weren’t one already? Maybe not. But it is a departure from his Rahul shtick and there is enough of a gleam in his eye and a quirk to those famous eyebrows to make me think he had a bit of fun playing with his own image. And I’m a sucker for both sublime and ridiculous visuals. 4 stars!

Don 2

Don 2 was so much fun! I really like the 2006 film, and this is a great second chapter. Don 2 is not a police procedural or an examination of the drug trade. It’s one man’s fight to get his life back and live on his own terms. Does it matter that his life is based on drugs, murder and mayhem? Not really. You don’t have to like him or his business to wonder how he is going to do it.

Looking bedraggled and scruffy, it seems life on the run since the first film has been hard on Don (Shah Rukh Khan). He is tired and wants to go back to the high living he is accustomed to. He will have to eliminate his enemies and outwit the law. But if your cash flow depends on trade of some sort, how can you kill everyone and still be in business? And what to do about those pesky police? The gleefully improbable plot rolls on with a cast of human dominoes set up and knocked down as Don wreaks havoc. Farhan Akhtar clearly didn’t invest as much in his writing as in the visuals, and while that does lead to some WTFery, it is so entertaining that I didn’t care one whit. The double crosses and manipulation drive the plot along at a cracking pace.

SRK started his career as a baddie and that is my favourite kind of role for him. He brings a reptilian coldness to Don that is usually masked by a twinkle and a smirk, and his charm is used deliberately to seduce or scare. Don is an enigma and I like that. I find it tiresome to have every villain given a tragic back story so we can see how they went bad and feel sorry for them. Don is unapologetic and he is not looking for moral redemption. He’s also quite irritating, as though he is so bored by always being 3 steps ahead that he acts up just for fun. Actually, he reminded me a little of a much loved pet, my tiny Chihuahua who always acted like he was a big scary dog – they share the same self-belief. Don may seem smaller and less impressive than his opponents, but he has supreme self confidence, and no sense that he may appear to be ridiculous. The dual roles of the first film have been transposed into two sides of his character. Shah Rukh shows a playful side when he is taunting adversaries or flirting with Roma, but he also shows implacable rage when he is thwarted. Don never gives up on himself and that’s why he outlasts his enemies. Considering the number of people he hired or could afford to hire, Don was very hands-on and a control freak. What a nightmare boss! No wonder he struggled to find good help.

Don’s wardrobe lacks the flamboyance of the first film which is, perhaps, a shame. I suspect some of the drug lords’ attire in an early scene was inspired by him, so there are a few choice shirts on display. Don has a predilection for leather, but usually keeps it simple. The characters don’t look like tourists in Berlin – there’s no blinged up denim in sight. They dress to blend in and to suit their role. It’s a small facet of the great attention to visuals throughout the film. Shah Rukh does get some very bad hair in the first section of the film.

I hoped his microbraids may have housed an ingenious MacGyver style mechanism for a jail break, but no, it was just another bad wig. Maybe in the next film!

Priyanka is good as Roma, although her role is less prominent this time. Roma is a driven career cop, as obsessed with Don as he is with himself. Their love/hate attraction is still there, and Don knows it. Roma has a strong but lowkey presence, feminine but not girly. Sparks fly in her verbal encounters with Don and the dialogue crackles and flows between them. But what has Priyanka done to her nose? It was quite distracting.

Ayesha (Lara Dutta) is not just Don’s piece of fluff, she executes some important tasks, and Lara played Ayesha as smart. But there was little for her to do and she is a better actress than this role allows her to demonstrate. Sadly the one big dance number was picturised on her and she looked badly dressed, awkward and out of time.

Boman Irani was in scene stealing form as the former kingpin Vardhaan. He is such a good actor that I sometimes forget he is acting – I just see nice, likeable Boman and then he turns evil. He is the ideal counterfoil to Shah Rukh’s preening Don, adding a heavier energy to the ensemble. He also scored some of the biggest laughs with a scene involving a scientist who was so boring you could almost see Vardhaan aging as he listened.

Kunal Kapoor looks set to inherit the franchise as son of Don or something. As hacker Sameer, he seemed to spend more time spray painting vans and the like than actually hacking. He is decorative enough but I don’t think he has come close to recapturing his acting form in Rang De Basanti. Om Puri makes a return as Malik, who is on his way to retirement. His role seemed to set up Roma as his successor in the force rather than actually doing anything. The European support cast are surprisingly not completely terrible so that was nice to see.

The music by Shankar-Ehsan-Lloy is unimpressive, and the couple of dances were also underwhelming. What on earth was Hrithik Roshan doing  when he was supposed to be waltzing? All that tippy toeing round in circles was ridiculous. How much cooler would it have been if the character ‘impersonating’ Hrithik had ripped off a prosthetic thumb instead of a mask! The closing number over the titles was fun for the Bond flavoured visuals.

The action is brilliantly executed. Matthias Barsch did a fantastic job of maximising the impact of the star talent and seamlessly integrating doubles for the tough stuff. Shah Rukh was Don fighting for his life, waiting for his break and ruthless when it came. Priyanka’s action scenes are as physical as any of the men, and she gives the effort and intensity that makes Roma a ‘junglee billi’.

Don borrows liberally from Bond and Mission Impossible etc, but the whole genre is built on one-upmanship. A stunt in one is pushed further and faster in another and so it goes. It’s not the style for delicate psychological insights and introspection as it is about what happens next. The pace is perfect and I never felt that things dragged or went too fast. The locations are used well, and really add something to the flavour of the film. I like a big glossy action thriller, especially when the anti-hero is having as much fun as Don.

For me, Don 2 builds on the 2006 version and gives great bang for your buck. It’s pretty clear the way has been paved for another adventure. Roll on Don 3!

Heather says: The problem with sequels is that they often try too hard to be bigger and better than the original and end up failing rather spectacularly. Don 2 doesn’t. It is bigger, better and more spectacular than the first film and I loved it! Farhan Akhtar’s previous Don was one of my favourite Shahrukh Khan films and this is the first film since Om Shanti Om where I have wanted to watch the film again right away. Shahrukh Khan is so very, very good at being bad. I much prefer him in a negative role where he can be totally evil and chilling and yet in the blink of an eye change and schmooze with his leading lady or charm his erstwhile enemy into taking part in his latest scheme. Yes, there were parts that didn’t work as well but once Don was back on-screen these faded from importance. Priyanka was great in the action scenes although I still find the plot point that has her attracted to the man who killed her brother and sister-in-law to be a little strange. More believable is her obsession with capturing Don and this was well captured in the story. I also really enjoyed Lara Dutta’s Ayesha who was very capable and clever, and also had the best outfits apart from the dreadful dress in the dance number Temple has mentioned.

The whole film looked very slick and polished with great cinematography, in particular for the scenes in Europe. The action  was excellently choreographed as Temple said and I liked that there were plenty of good old-fashioned beat ’em up fights rather than too much reliance on guns and other weapons. Although there were enough explosions to keep me happy but nothing beats the crack as Don breaks yet another bad guy! There was plenty of variety in the action shots, helped by the different locations, but each action scene was set up and played out uniquely which was impressive for a movie with so much happening. I did think that Boman Irani’s Vardhaan was a little underused and would have liked to see a little more interaction between him and Don, but that may have made an already convoluted plot just a little too much to follow. I liked Kunal Kapoor as Sameer and appreciated the fact that his character was given a little more depth and empathy, although I think that counts him out as being a Don protégé as he was just too nice.

This was such a fun film to watch, with a really excellent performance from Shahrukh. I totally agree with Temple – Don3 next!