Sunday, February 7, 2010

Billu Barber


I had a poem in one of my school text books that asked rhetorically: Has the brave Krishna ever cried? Dheeranaya chentamarak-kannanundo karanjittulloo? Krishna as we see him in the Mahabharata is full of emotions – he can cry, he can pull his hair apart in frustration, and he can dance for joy, laughing uproariously. But Krishna as we see him in the Bhagavata is different – he cries only once in his life. That is when he meets as an adult and as the Lord of Dwaraka his childhood friend Sudama.

Tears come to some people easily, and to others not so easily. I belong to the first group. This is particularly so when I watch movies or a dance performance. I remember watching a Yakshagana performance based on the Bhasmasura story on the evening of 31st December last year and as I watched the dance of Shiva and Parvati there, I remember tears welling up in my eyes. On a recent stay in Mumbai, I remember becoming equally emotional on a different occasion, for reasons that are too personal to share here.

These are always tears of joy. It is feelings of love, friendship and so on that bring up the tears.

Watching today the final moments of the movie Billu Barber [Just Billu after the renaming of the movie], where Sahir [Shah Rukh Khan] meets his childhood friend Billu [Irfan Khan], it happened again.

I haven’t seen the entire movie. A few days ago I saw some half an hour of the movie – from the earlier part – and today I saw some half an hour of the end part. So I have missed much of the movie, but I knew enough of it to understand what exactly was happening.

Love and friendship can be so beautiful.

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Here is the story of Billu from Wikipedia:

Billu (Irfan Khan) is a poor barber who lives with his wife Bindiya (Lara Dutta) and their two children, Gunja (Mitali Mayakar) and Ronak (Pratik Dalvi) in the village of Budbuda. He also spends time with his close friends Budbudiya (Rajpal Yadav) and Naubat Chacha (Asrani). Though struggling, Billu lives an uneventful life until Bollywood superstar Sahir Khan (Shahrukh Khan) comes to the village for a film shoot.

Billu has mentioned to his family that he knows Sahir from the past but has never elaborated how he knows the star. When his children talk about their father's friendship with the star, word spreads throughout the village. Virtually overnight, Billu, who had previously been scorned by most due to his lowly state, becomes the center of attention. People who had spurned him only the week before now call him a close friend so that he will introduce them to Sahir. Billu refuses and downplays the friendship. Even so, the powerful businessman Sahukaar Daamchand (Om Puri) demands to see Sahir and offers Billu expensive gifts in order to gain such a meeting. When Billu consistently fails to introduce the people of the village to Sahir, his situation changes once again. He is accused of lying about his friendship and everyone — including his wife and children — begins to doubt his character and integrity. Rather than defend himself, Billu remains quiet about the nature of his and Sahir's friendship.

On Sahir's last day in the village, the star speaks at a local school. He tells the children about his own impoverished childhood when he had nothing but a special friendship with another young boy, named Billu. It was Billu who took care of Sahir [including sharing his tiffin with him] and eventually helped him travel to Mumbai [by giving him his gold earrings, his only possession] where Sahir became a star. Billu, who is standing at the back of the event, leaves during the talk without revealing to Sahir that he is there. But the village people, realizing their error, take Sahir to Billu's house. Billu's children come home and apologize to their father. Then, Sahir appears, and Billu and Sahir are reunited.

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As I watched the final scenes of the movie, I could not help recalling the story of the meeting of Krishna and Sudama [In the South Sudama is more commonly known as Kuchela, meaning the man in rags.]. It is one of the most moving stories from the Bhagavata and it has been an inspiration for men and women ever since the story was first told.

In the Bhagavata story, of course, Kuchela reaches Krishna. Here Billu fails to reach Sahir – he does not have the courage to. Or maybe, it is his humility, mixed with his insecurities. And it is Sahir that eventually comes to Billu – like Krishna coming to Sudama, rather than Sudama reaching him. I find Krishna coming to Sudama more beautiful than Sudama reaching Krishna. It is God that comes to the devotee, and the devotee never reaches him on his own. As the Upanishadic literature puts it, it is only to those He chooses that he reveals himself: yam eva esha vrnute tena labhyah; tasya esha atmaa vivrnute tanu’m svaam. I was happy to learn later that others have observed the similarities between the stories – or maybe that the original story was inspired by the Krishna-Sudama story.

The Hindi film is a remake of the super hit Malayalam film Katha Parayumbol [When the Story is Told]. The Tamil version of the movie is called Kuselan [Kuchela].

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I love such friendships and loyalty to friends. Which is perhaps the reason why I loved the movie The Scent of a Woman so much, apart from the fact that I love Al Pacino as an actor. Pacino’s performance is brilliant in the movie, but what I loved more than anything else is the loyalty to friends that the young schoolboy in the movie displays and Pacino’s standing by him against the power of authority that wanted to crush that loyalty and punish the boy for it.

As the movie Billu reached its climax scene, I felt Sahir should give a slap to his childhood friend as they meet. Billu, for all his goodness, deserved a slap for his cowardliness and unassertiveness.

Or maybe, I am mistaken. A man in Billu’s position will see the superstar so high above him, he just wouldn’t be able to gather up the courage to approach him and reveal himself to him.

Though I have not yet seen the full movie, my feeling is that Billu makes no attempt to defend himself when the people of the village, and his own family too, question his integrity.

Which brings to my mind a beautiful Zen story.

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A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who the father was. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter's accusation, he simply replied "Is that so?"


When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. "Is that so?" Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.


For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. "Is that so?" Hakuin said as he handed them the child.


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A great master like Hakuin accepts whatever life brings with gratitude. Speaking of such people, Krishna says in the Gita: yadrcchaa-laabha-santushtah – he is happy with whatever ‘chance’ brings him. He does not reject anything that life brings to him, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. Accepting everything, he lives like an ordinary man.

Zen is the philosophy of ordinariness. Awakened ordinariness. Billu the barber is not awakened, which makes all the difference. But for that all important thing, Billu has every quality of a Zen master. Perhaps Billu is an unawakened Zen master, whatever that means.

Ordinariness can be so beautiful – incredibly beautiful.

The Tibetans have a word that cannot be translated into any other language. An incredibly beautiful word. Drala. Drala means the beauty of ordinary things, the magic of ordinary things.

The magic of extraordinary things is ordinary magic. It is the magic of ordinary things that is extraordinary magic. The magic of ordinary things is the only true magic.

Billu is the celebration of ordinariness. Or, the celebration of the magic of ordinariness.

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