Why is Billu such a great vehicle for Shahrukh Khan's second shot production shingle - Red Chillies Entertainment? Several good reasons.
Red Chillies is a production house that's got a lot of momentum, but not most of it is financial. In terms of revenue, its still in its infancy. Its produced four movies before - Main Hoon Na (2004), Kaal and Paheli (2005) and Om Shanti Om (2007). Outside of Main Hoon Na and OSO, none of them have been major money spinners. (Red Chillies has also acquired rights to another eight movies bringing its back catalog to 12 movies.)
At some point an actor collapses under his own box office weight. And strange things start happening. Remember back when Tom Cruise hit his $20m paychecks and filmmakers felt compelled to put him in virtually every frame in order to do paisa vasool? Great projects passed him by because he was just not affordable. Similar stuff started happening to people like SRK and Aamir a while ago.
At this point you are left with two options: cut a back end revenue deal - like say SRK taking all the overseas profits on Kal Ho Na Ho. This allows you to drop your price and make yourself financially viable for a number of projects without resorting to acting for scale. Or you start producing your own movies, which as it turns out is not only a really good tax shelter, but great for hiding all that cash from the Chhota Shakeels of the industry.
Red Chillies is SRK exercising option 2, not that he wasn't straining at the leash on this before. When you go this route and are successful enough, eventually you come to a crossroads. You want to start expanding by producing more flicks - but SRK can't act in all of them. At the same time, you can't drum up the kind of cash you need if you make a movie and ignore your hottest property - SRK himself.
Billu is a happy marriage of both. You get SRK, but the movie doesn't revolve around his performance. You get the financial viability and built in marketing that comes with an SRK junket, but you are getting your feet wet with other actors. Its one of the two most striking things about this movie when you watch it. I'll get to the second in a bit. But in Billu, SRK appears fleetingly in the driving narrative of the movie, he is only called on to deliver by director Priyadarshan in one of two scenes at the end, the first of which I am happy to say he nails with facility.
I'll summarize my impression of Billu with this line: its a clever story but its a clunky script. First a brief synopsis. In Billu, the titular um, hairstylist (Irfan Khan) may or may not be friends with superstar Sahil (SRK). SRK comes to Billu's village to shoot his movie. The entire town, drawn into SRK's celebrity, puts Billu on a pedestal.
So why is that a clever story? Because it makes a larger statement about the perils of fame and the deeper meaning of friendship. And the movie makes its point by constantly referencing the shallow interactions that accompany celebrity. Taken against the content of SRK's recent guest scene in Luck By Chance - you can tell why this story must have drawn him in.
But the problem is that every one-trick pony - like the plot of Billu - needs a bunch of really nifty subplots and conflicts to keep us entertained until the big Hail Mary happens in the end. And Billu, sadly, doesn't have any.
The second thing of note that kept me entertained in the movie was the jaw dropping production design. Billu takes place in a village - and we all know how hard it is to film in those. You either get over-staged sets - which make rural backdrops a little too sanitized, or you get the rough and tumble that prevents the camera from framing the shots with the care they deserve.
But in Billu, the amount of detail to set design and construction is so intricate and its been pulled off so exquisitely, that it makes the entire movie pop. In one fleeting shot of the bustling town square at night, the village is lit up with bulbs that must have taken hours to place in the exact right spots. The village temple had been lit with recessed lighting, making it stand out against the night.
Some shots are inserted in place - but most of the action is in a prepped rural setting. Colors and colorful extras are sprinkled across shots expertly, giving the entire backdrop of Billu a very vivid, immersing sense of place. Sure its a little odd that the team washed down the streets to simulate recent rain, but left everything else dry - yet the fact that they went through all that effort was heart warming. Add to that the sweeping, gorgeous photography of V. Manikandan (a man who's not afraid to wield that crane and has the patience to build his shots) and the entire thing looks fabulous.
Billu might revolve around a superstar, but its real star is its production design.