This movie gives us a Bareilly that is cute, but doesn’t really exist anymore. Small town India has moved on, and though films with middle class characters in towns like Aligarh, Kanpur and Bareilly have been working well, they are in danger of being overdone. Here we have, as leading lady, a rebellious single child of a ‘Halwai’ in Bareilly, stuck in a government job, where all she does is answer the phone.
Why do ‘Halwais’ have such pretty daughters? It is a rhetorical question. Kangana Ranaut played the daughter of a ‘Halwai’ from Delhi’s ‘Rajouri Garden’ in ‘Queen’, and statistics show that the girls are much in demand as brides in North India. Perhaps it evokes the association of sweetening, an ambience, usually, of an auspicious event; or perhaps it is simply the notion of rootedness in Uttar Pradesh; the sweet shop being a landmark and social fixture of a small town or housing colony.
Bitti Mishra (Kriti Sanon) is understood well by her father, a man who can’t go to the toilet in the morning without a cigarette, and bums one off his daughter when he runs out. She also likes to drink, and Papa (Pankaj Tripathi) sniffs her with some distaste when she comes home late, but focusses on the man who drops her home, with the professional air of checking out a future manager of his sweet shop. Clearly, she is Daddy’s little girl, and the relationship is quite charming.
Bitti also likes to breakdance and practices on her terrace, which then becomes the centre of male attraction in the locality. Frustrated by these small town attitudes, and bored by her job, Bitti decides to run off from home one night. She gets as far as the railway station, but after buying a pulp novel called ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’ from the platform kiosk, she comes back home. The book jacket says that it is printed in Bareilly, and she needs to find the author, because, apparently, in the etching of his protagonist, he has uncannily described her own character exactly.
Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana) turns out to be the owner of the Press. He wrote ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’ himself some years ago, but not under his own name. Which was a good thing, because the novel turned out to be a disaster, and most of the first and only edition was picked up by the ‘raddiwalla’. A few existing copies are now displayed at the railway platform, and that too because the novelist and printer has arm twisted the bookseller. The marked price is Rs.150, but the store had happily sold it to Bitti for Rs. 30.
'Pritam Vidrohi' is the pseudonym that Chirag chose for the author of ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’ and it so happens that the name belongs to a real guy, a loser friend of his, now a sari salesman in Lucknow. So Pritam (Rajkummar Rao) is fetched, trained to speak like a man about town, and introduced as a celebrity author to the impressionable Bitti.
It is an unlikely story, because no one ever did fawn over a Hindi romantic fiction writer, because something that can’t be googled is never read these days, and because even a breakdancer from Bareilly knows that writers make no money, unless they are song writers and double up as choreographers.
The casting in the film is excellent, but the performances, except for one notable exception, do not have that luminosity that can make you gasp with delight. The bits that shine are the scenes when Rajkummar Rao, playing the otherwise timid sari salesman, puts on an exaggerated swagger of what he imagines a celebrity author to possess. Contrarily, the reader's imagination had pictured a humble writer, with a poetic flair for the Hindi language. The irony of perception, the gulf between image and actuality, the disappointment of Bitti when she encounters such bravado in the sensitive writer she was looking forward to meet; these are all very well done in the movie.
Rajkummar Rao switches effortlessly between the personae he is given, but the other actors in this romantic comedy, especially the excellent Ayushmann Khurrana, are trapped in roles that are not entirely credible, and are unusually subdued as a result. At the end of the film, you have to ask the obvious question - why was this elaborate ruse necessary? Wouldn’t Chirag confess to being the author right away, once he saw Bitti so smitten with his writing?
The film is watchable, but the setting and situations look increasingly passé.