In a particularly hilarious moment in Bareilly Ki Barfi (among all its hilarious moments), Bitti’s mother asks her friend Chirag Dubey to be “Hanuman” and set her daughter up with Pritam Vidrohi, since their jodi is that of Ram-Sita. Chirag (played by Ayushmann Khurrana) is the actual Ram here and the friend he’s bullied into pretending to be the writer Pritam Vidrohi (Rajkummar Rao in his most comical role yet), was supposed to be his Hanuman.
This confusion — Girl thinks she is in love with charmer Boy B but it’s actually behind-the-scenes Boy A — is the underlying theme of this film. It’s a variation of the Cyrano de Bergerac/Hitch theme that has been played out and perfected in lots of Indian movies. From Saajan where Madhuri Dixit thinks she is in love with the dashing Salman Khan for his poetry, but the poems have been written by the poor orphan with a disability, Sanjay Dutt. Or the ‘90s Tamil movie Duet where an effervescent Meenakshi Seshadri falls in love with who she thinks is Ramesh Arvind, his poems and his beautiful saxophone playing when it’s actually the fat and awkward Prabhu who is the talented musician keeping her up at night. In Minnale, Madhavan pretends to be Reema Sen’s fiancée (who’s actually played by Abbas) and successfully lands the girl. Sapney (Minsaara Kanavu) had a thread of this theme where Aravind Swamy hires Prabhu Dheva to make Kajol fall in love with him. Or even Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi which takes it to #peakdrama where a dull SRK is married to Anushka Sharma and adopts a secret, glamorous identity to woo his own wife.
In Bareilly Ki Barfi, Bitti (Kriti Sanon) searches for the writer Pritam Vidrohi thinking he’s the one who’s written a novel that describes her to a T. A restless young woman, she thinks the man who’s authored the book and who really gets her, will fix her life. Except it’s her friend Chirag (Ayushmann Khurana) who’s actually written the book, is in love with her and gets her.
Rebellious Bitti, who asks random men on motorbikes to drop her off at her destination, who shares her cigarettes with her daddy, who break dances at whim, who runs away from home and comes back, who tells a prospective groom that no, she isn’t a virgin, is at odds with the small town she lives in. And when she comes across a book (also titled Bareilly Ki Barfi) where the protagonist resembles her so much, she’s determined to track him down and see where it goes. (Sidenote: I’ve been collecting unusual professions writers have given heroines in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films, Bitti’s is by far my favourite; prosaic, yet not: She works at the electricity board.)
Chirag doesn’t tell her the truth (for if he did, would we have the movie?) and instead says he knows the writer. Bitti, persuades a smitten Chirag to find Pritam who agrees, because he wants to eliminate the competition. Chirag and his friend go to Lucknow to meet and convince the mild-mannered, stammering, shy and hesitant sari salesman Pritam to turn into a paan chewing tharki. Pritam goes overboard with his transformation and brings fear into Chirag’s heart, especially when Bitti and family fall for him. This forcing Boy A to act as Boy B is a theme seen in Saajan as well.
In Saajan, after Sanjay Dutt’s character Aman’s poems get published (under a pseudonym) and he becomes famous, Madhuri Dixit’s Pooja corresponds with him. But Aman’s brother Akash (Salman Khan), falls in love with Pooja. And because Aman was a disabled orphan who was adopted by Akash’s parents, and because he thinks a woman would never love someone with a disability, he helps Akash pose as Sagar to win Pooja. It reminds me of a line Chirag spouts while drunk: “Pyar kiya hai, qurbani toh deni padegi“. The same qurbani is shown by Aman. And in the end, Pooja has to choose between the person she fell in love with and the poet she was entranced by.
Duet’s Guna and Siva — two brothers who run an orchestra — too fall in love with the same girl, Anjali, their choreographer-neighbour who cannot resist the saxophone music playing out of their house. Guna, played by Prabhu, is fat and awkward and doesn’t have the courage to confess his love for her, while the younger Siva makes a beeline for her and impresses her. The twist? Anjali thinks it’s Siva who is a skilled saxophone player, when it’s actually Guna. But here, there’s no qurbani, there’s no meetha barfi. Siva simply uses his brother’s insecurity to his advantage until Anjali comes to know of the truth — many arguments, some convincing and a fight late, Siva dies. Guna and Anjali unite.
What is so irresistible about the shell games of these movies? It’s partly because the heroine’s conflict becomes our own, and we’re suddenly taking sides. In Saajan, Sapney and Duet (and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, if dancer SRK was played by someone else), the heroines picked the underdogs, the nice boys, the ones who usually get left behind. In Minnale too Madhavan’s character is the underdog, but he doesn’t let us sympathise with him one minute, because the very next, he’s impersonating his loved one’s fiancée, especially one who happened to be his ‘enemy’ in college. Here, the heroine doesn’t have any real choosing to do; her dilemma is why should she pick him even after he lied to her. Each of the men on opposite sides usually represent a particular life, a way of fulfilling bigger dreams, especially when marriage = life as in the case of Bitti of Bareilly, who has been turned down by many, many men because of her carefree but somewhat claustrophobic existence.
The pleasures of the Hitch version of the love triangle are manifold — there’s the tension of the unfolding drama even if you do know who will end up with whom, there’s that rush you get when you’re rooting for the loser and then there’s the unabashed mounting competition.
As I said before, the two men on opposite sides represent particularly different lives and Bitti picks Chirag, the one who didn’t quite sweep her off her feet, but one who offers her companionship, one she can share her small-town idiosyncrasies with. But what would’ve happened if she picked the other? On the face of it, the other is not an attractive choice: He’s a gullible, affable timid soul who’s been harangued by his mother all his life, resulting in the hopeless case that he is. Here’s a guy who has been bullied by Chirag tirelessly, whether it’s posing as him for the author photograph or getting doused in water for making a mistake. It’s hard to imagine Bitti with Pritam but boy Pritam does look like he needed a true vidrohi (rebel) like Bitti in his life to save him. Luckily for Bitti, she doesn’t share my soft spot for the real underdog in this story. She gets the last laugh and the last barfi.