Sunday, February 15, 2009

Billu Barber is full of lessons in star power (but it's not how you think)

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.


Pitu said...

Nice review! I do think the timing of the release was odd though. Like for me, I just saw Luck by Chance at the theaters and I am definitely seeing Dilli6 on Friday nite. So yet another movie sandwiched in between. Meh, rather catch it on dvd. Do you think its release date made sense?

Anonymous said...

Didnt like it.....srk s getting boring n predictable now...with already so many of these kinds of movie under his belt..its bout time he does stuff like swadesh n chak de.....!!!

Anonymous said...

i agree, that the production and sets have done a real good job! But again you stat watching for the recessed lights and the bulbs all lighting up together once you are bored of the movie and can do nothing else but count the bulbs!
As for the story, I agree the friendship part has worked for him to catch a audience, but why the same poor friend rich friend plot SRK could have help make a better plot than that ghisa pitta roti khilana..I do wonder though what will re chillies do for "khan" his next production.

musical said...

Great review! It's nice to see that you always find something positive in any movie/music you review!

I have to say, though, that i liked Priyan's earlier movies like "Hera Pheri" and even "Hulchul" :). It's kinda' rare to see a hero named "Dayashankar", isn't it.

Unknown said...

Anon, I watch for production values even in the most interesting of movies. Its just part of enjoying the movie for me. But I know what you mean - that movie drags quite a bit.

I know people across the world will disagree with me - but this was my first time watching Irfan. And I was singularly underwhelmed by his performance. I think he is one of the reasons the movie died on the vine. This is not to say he isn't a good actor. He is - you can see that. But he's either miscast or he misinterpreted his responsibilities in the movie. Can't tell unless I see him outside his movies.

Unknown said...

Also just to bring Cinderella and Pitu's discussion here: I think the scenes with Lara pulling water from the well are wonderful. She is clearly struggling to get that balti out of the well in a way no experienced gaon ki gharwali should. But man, can she jut out her hips and strike a pose while she's doing that.

Billu - Starring Lara Dutta's hips.

But I loved her in that dream sequence.

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen the movie so my 2 cents have no value but am getting bored with SRK doing the same "I am the biggest star in the world" routine.

Looking forward to Dilli6. Although after RDB am expecting a let down.

Aspi, I like Irfan but their is something about his acting. It is so understated that it becomes monotonous. Watch Rog though. He was fabulous in that movie.

Poor Lara, I wish she would get roles that portray her talent better. She was the only good thing in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

Anonymous said...

Well I cannot critic like Aspi, but to me Irfan, did pretty good. He is shown as a person who wants to explain himself but doesn't believe people will understand his thoughts. So, he goes about his way of life, finding ways not to explain himself. It was better than an over emotional acting, I think I like it unstated.
As for Lara, I am sorry, I have yet to see a movie that shows her talent, and no I didn't care much for the hip swaying or the balti pulling..

Another Kiran In NYC said...

I cant wait to see this movie, especially because of your praise for production values. A factor so often forgotten. For all other shortcomings SRK just has to take off his shirt and smile at me with his puppy dog eyes. Please tell me he does that too in the movie!

Unknown said...

Sorry to say SRK doesn't take his shirt off. But he has a stylin hairdo. He gets wet a lot. And if you really like him, take four hankys with you and get ready for the bhashan scene.

Anonymous said...

Nice review! I saw the muvie forwarding through a lot of the scenes, and kept telling people that the movie isnt good except for the first and last thirty minutes.

Also, I thought Lara Dutta looked good and Irfan Khan acted well in it.

And you're totally right in saying "its real star is the production design."

And about Red Chillies - didn't it also produce Phir Bhi Dil Hain Hindustani?

Anonymous said...

A new talent show in India to select cheer leaders. SRK production and Purab Kohli (the cutie from Rock On) is hosting the show. This should be fun.

Anonymous said...

Forgot the link

Unknown said...

srk amazes me. So he's essentially saying: "hey, I have to through auditions for my IPL team anyway. How about I make a show out of it and make some money on the side"

He has to act in all his movies. He already made a reality show out of that (its called Billu).

What will he come up with next?!

Sarah said...

I love your writing, man, and thanks for this post, but you have GOT to learn how to use "its" and "it's".

and now I'm feeling bad that my first comment had to be something like this. sorry!

Unknown said...

sarah, welcome! No need to apologize - I have entirely outsourced "its" to the Blogger spell/grammar checker. In other words, I rely on it to tell me if I have it right or wrong.

Not that I'm outsourcing the blame. But now I'll check manually. Especially since the checker doesn't kick in on titles. Given enough time, love and patience I will get its right.

Unknown said...

kusublakki, good catch on Phir Bhi..

It was SRK's first production company - Dreamz Unlimited, the one he did with Juhi Chawla - that produced that. It is in Red Chillies backcatalog I think. But its not technically a Red Chillies production.

Anonymous said...

I loved Billu's mastery of the perfect Uttar Pradesh accent. He reminded me of the regular Hindi spoken by Big B, who has a natural Allahabad and UP accent.

Wish the script were a little stronger to show SRK's affinity for the underdog before the big speech.