Barkhaa’s attempt at a progressive depiction of Mumbai’s bar dancers is stymied by a terrible script and atrocious acting.
Shadaab Mirza’s Barkhaa begins with a dramatic book launch. It almost doesn’t happen; the guest of honour has had to rush to the hospital to admit an unnamed relative, and even the head of the publishing house isn’t really expecting him to turn up. But Jatin Sabbarwal (Priyanshu Chatterjee, sporting a full beard to signify how intense and brooding he is) is made of sterner stuff—all the arrangements have been made, invitations have been sent out with his name on them and the publishers’ reputation is at stake, how can he not?
At the launch, after making some generic remarks about how we should all read because books are friends for life, Jatin decides to read aloud from the book, Aks, written by a mysterious writer called Panchhi. Turns out he hadn’t bothered to read the book before agreeing to launch it, for he goes through a comically intense moment of realisation that he is a protagonist in Panchhi’s story. He grabs the publisher by the hand and walks out of the event, demands to know the whereabouts of the elusive author. Turns out she hasn’t read the book either—the only person who seems to have done so is the humble editor, not a great advertisement for the publishing industry—nor does she know who or where Panchhi is. She wants to know why Jatin is so agitated. He tells her to read the book. And so begins the inevitable flashback, the star-crossed love story of Panchhi and her khargosh.
It’s not exactly the most original love story. He’s the son of a prominent Mumbai lawyer (played by a hideously hammy Puneet Issar, who seems to be reading all his lines off a teleprompter, including this gem: “Ek chand asmaan mein hai, ek mere samne. Kya tum mere ghar ki izzat banogi?”), the intense beard replaced by a Rasta hat to signify how chilled out he was. She, Barkhaa (Sara Loren), is a bar dancer. He doesn’t know, of course, when he falls for her at first sight while holidaying in Himachal Pradesh. Nor when he stalks her, both in Chamba and in Mumbai—obeying Bollywood’s peculiar laws of probability, she seems to turn up wherever he goes—until he sees her at her workplace, the Romance Bar, owned by Anna, a client of Jatin’s dad.
As expected, Barkha’s background is a problem. “Yeh pyaar nahin, naadani hai!” Jatin’s mother wails. His best friend Gullu, who dragged him to the bar to begin with, is a little more analytical. “Yeh jo tu love samajh raha hai, woh uska jism hai jo tujhe attract kar raha hai,” he cautions. “Yeh bar-waalian tujh jaison ko apni blouse mein rakhti hain.” He reminds Jatin of all that he risks if he doesn’t stop this dalliance: his family’s reputation, mostly.
Of course, depicted as a freeloader and an alcoholic, it is Gullu’s job to make our hero look good in comparison, to say and do all the regressive things Jatin could never be seen to do but need to be said and done if this film is to have any tension. There he is a few scenes later, sitting down with Anna and trying to fix a price for Barkhaa to spend a night with Jatin. Only Anna turns out to be a progressive bar owner, refusing to pimp Barkhaa out, disgusted that people would assume that just because a girl is forced by circumstances to dance before men showering money on her, she is a commodity that can be bought and sold. If someone else had said this to him, he tells a quivering Gullu, he wouldn’t have left on his two feet.
Played by Ashiesh Roy to a degree of sophistication that is a cut above the rest of the cast—which consists of models trying to cross over and Puneet Issar, so that isn’t saying much—but still some distance short of a credible, flesh-and-blood performance, Anna is the director’s mouthpiece, railing (in an accent that alternates between faux-Madrasi and faux-Bambaiyya) against the 2006 ban on dance bars. You’ll never find a cop outside an ATM or a jewellery shop, he tells Gullu, but there will always be one here. Doesn’t the state machinery realise how many innocent lives are tied to this line? What would these girls do if establishments like his would close? Just because some people couldn’t satiate their greed and had to operate brothels and pick-up joints under the guise of dance bars, why should upstanding businessmen like him have to suffer? These are the politics of Barkhaa, the only subversion of a storyline that is as old as cinema itself: rather than dwell on the tensions caused by Barkhaa’s background in Jatin’s family, it tries to stand up for her background. At various points in the film, characters look into the camera and launch into a version of Anna’s rant. (“Roz do ghanta filoor pe paseena bahati hai, saala roz gandi-bhooki nazron ka balatkar sahti hai, tab jaake paisa kamati hai.”)
The attempt fails, however, not least because Jatin himself never really stands up to his own family for his true love, does little other than sob to himself while other people (again, the humble editor) put in the hard yards and track her down. The amateur acting and script don’t help either. But the primary reason Barkhaa fails to make its point is that in all this grandstanding—which seems borrowed from other, better, films or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City—the titular character herself isn’t fleshed out. How or why Barkhaa ended up in the Romance Bar isn’t mentioned. Neither are her emotions and experiences adequately explored, barring the dramatic monologues. All we get is her being swept along by the series of improbable events that makes up the film’s plot; the only penetrative insight we glean from it is that she is dumb enough to be married to someone long enough to be three months pregnant and not know what he does for a living. When your bar owner elicits more sympathy than your tragic bar dancer, your film is in deep trouble, I’m afraid.