Friday Classic (on Saturday): Billu, Shahrukh’s Vision of the Lonely Star

Finally getting around to writing about this very interesting and important movie! I hope I am not the only one who finds it interesting and important.

Shahrukh just mentioned, again, in the Letterman interview that he thinks of himself as an employee of the movie star “Shahrukh Khan”. He does things and acts a certain way to serve the myth, not because it is what he wants as a man. I think this film, out of the handful where Shahrukh played a version of herself, is most honest in showing that particular view of stardom as an average man caught in the middle of a myth.

Image result for billu poster

In most visions of stars, including the other films where Shahrukh played himself (Om Shanti Om, Fan, his various cameos), we see the stardom from the inside. The star moving around with his entourage, talking to close friends about his emotions, and so on and so forth. This film shows the star from the outside, and the inside at the same time. We see how everyone else talks about him, wants him, has expectations of him. And we see the calm unbreakable face he puts on for the world, the version that is always pleasant, effortlessly pleasant. And, when it becomes angry, is angry just the right amount for the situation. The audience is in the position of a personal assistant or bodyguard to the star, there to observe and know everything, but never really able to understand everything.

I imagine that is what it is like for Shahrukh, to observe somehow from the outside what is he is doing in those moments, to try to stand back from all the need around him and pretend it is happening to someone else. And to consider how much he needs to give to those needs moment by moment. This film shows the star dealing with the directors, the bodyguards, the local officials, the petty regular folks asking favors, and the way he responds to each of them with friendliness or dignity or (in only one instance) offended anger.

Fascinating that this movie uses actual Shahrukh film clips to build his character.

And, in contrast, we have our other hero Irrfan Khan. He is always himself, and no one ever wants him, or asks for anything from him. He is a small forgotten man living a small forgotten life. A hard life, with never enough money or time or hope. But not a lonely one.

This film doesn’t really ask the question of which life is better. It is more about acknowledging that every life has sorrows and problems, no one person is better than any other person. The movie star and the struggling barber are twins, under the skin.

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I did a quick fastforward through the film to prepare for this review and one thing I hadn’t noticed before is that the plot of the movie Shahrukh is making is the plot of the movie we are watching. His movie is about separated twins, one raised on Mars and one raised in a humble village. And then they find each other. That’s this movie, two twins of the heart who life on opposite planets.

It’s a simple story, taken from Hindu mythology. Krishna as a boy had a good friend Sudama. Years later, Sudama fell on hard times. He went to visit Krishna but was so overcome with happiness to see his friend that he forgot to ask for help. He returned home, worried about how to break the news to his poor wife that no help was coming, and discovered that his house was already transformed. Krishna was a good enough friend to understand his problems without being told, and fix them without being asked. It was made into a Malayalam movie with Mammootty, telling the story of a poor man whose childhood friend was a movie star. And then Priyadarshan remade it in Hindi with Shahrukh (here is where you make your grumpy comments about Priyadarshan selling southern remakes to Hindi film).

In this version, Shahrukh is a movie star and Irrfan is a struggling poor barber in a small village, trying to pay his children’s school fees and make life a little happy and a little easy for his wife Lara Dutta. He has a humble dignity to him, he accepts his lot in life, isn’t ashamed to beg for his children to be allowed to go to school. But he also won’t give in to despair, play the silly helpless type in order to gain favors. And then there is Shahrukh, surrounded by bodyguards, working on a film that he knows is silly. They have to film in a village, and he casually mentions one near where he grew up that he heard was beautiful. It is the village where Irrfan lives, and suddenly Irrfan’s little family joke about him being friends with Shahrukh becomes public knowledge. Irrfan is awkward about it, tells his wife he isn’t sure Shahrukh will even remember him. But his wife grabs at this small possibility of improvement and builds on it, borrows from neighbors, makes friends with women who used to ignore her, brings home food she bought on credit with promises of Shahrukh souvenirs, and tries to get Irrfan to be confident and just try, just once, to meet Shahrukh. Irrfan finally tries but keeps being unable to reach him. Eventually he and his friends are arrested and his friends turn on him and stop believing him. Even his family doubts him a little, although Lara believes him when he says it was true, but doesn’t matter. And only then, after all of that, does Shahrukh give a speech describing his childhood friendship with Irrfan, how Irrfan used to share his lunch, even gave him the money to go to the city.

This could have been a simple story, a comedy about a movie star upsetting a small town and the local barber who everyone believes is his friend. And yes, some of it is that. Om Puri, the local big man, suddenly gifting a new chair to Irrfan’s shop, the neighborhood singing a song to him, Lara describing how she “paid” for the food with promising autographs and handkerchiefs and so on, that’s all gentle comedy. But what is far more interesting is Irrfan’s internal journey. And most interesting of all is how the film holds back information about the characters from the audience, information which makes them suddenly appear in a new light once we know it.

That’s life. It’s not just movie stars that wear the mask, everyone does, everyone hides the biggest things in their lives from the rest of the world. We have to be kind to each other, to try to see each other as people even if we don’t know everything about each other.

Irrfan’s internal journey is interesting, going from a man who casually told his wife and children that he was childhood friend’s with Shahrukh Khan, to a man who is embarrassed when that is made public, and finally reveals to his wife that his embarrassment is because he doesn’t believe Shahrukh will remember him. He would rather keep his little memories and his little story than risk going for anything more. It is his wife that convinces him there is nothing to lose, he will always have his memories whether Shahrukh recognizes him now or not. He moves forward with a new spirit of fearlessness, only to find his way blocked again and again. A different kind of man would have dug deep, gone to extremes, done whatever it takes. But Irrfan has dignity. He accepts that no one will believe him, that he will never meet Shahrukh again, and he gives up. He doesn’t even get angry when his wife questions him, simply answers her that it was the truth, all along, no matter what else anyone things. Which leads us to the ending, when he hears Shahrukh’s speech, and simply walks away.

It’s such an odd reaction. Shahrukh is rich, famous, Irrfan’s family is suffering because everyone thinks he lied about Shahrukh being his friend. There are plenty of practical reasons for Irrfan to step forward and claim his position. Beyond that, Shahrukh wants him to come forward, is asking for him to come forward, Irrfan should do it just as a kindness. And, of course, to give himself a chance to be reunited with his own friend. So why does he just walk away?

If this had been the first scene of the movie, it wouldn’t make sense to us. But it is the end of the movie. Irrfan is a man who truly does not care what people think, except for his own family. He knew before this moment that his wife believed him, he doesn’t need to glory in anyone else believing it. And he is humble enough to not believe anyone truly needs him, even when Shahrukh is standing up there saying it, he will still just walk away. Irrfan cares about what Shahrukh says, it makes him happy. But he doesn’t ask for anything more than that. He is happy with the littlest thing in life, with an oil lamp instead of electricity, with an old broken wooden chair for his shop, it is all enough for him and he is not someone who needs more. This speech makes him happy, it tells him his friend cared, and then he has had enough and can walk away.

So now we have two things going on in this movie, the basic comic set up and set pieces, Irrfan’s fascinating character that we slowly get to know. But it is the third that I find most interesting, a structure which tells us the most important things about our lead characters (Irrfan, Lara, and Shahrukh) only at the end of the movie. Things that make everything we saw before suddenly make sense in a new way.

I love that we keep seeing Shahrukh in songs through out this film, the superstar fancy Shahrukh who has everything perfect versus the real Shahrukh who is quiet and silent.

This must be on purpose. It’s not a cheap twist for shock value, the reveals aren’t that interesting or exciting. In fact one of the most important is slipped in so you would hardly notice it. And it’s also not one of those “see if you can guess the mystery from the clues in advance” kind of twists. Instead the only purpose I can divine is to give the audience the experience that we have too often in real life, the people we think we can easily pigeonhole turn out to have completely unexpected tragedies driving them.

Shahrukh’s speech at the end reveals that, more than anything else, he is lonely. He has everything, but he has no one who loves him or knows him. That is the secret that makes us understand everything we saw before, the star who never seemed to really relax with anyone but was always so nice. Who was only insulted when a rich man tried to throw his weight around, but forgave even that for the sake of the children at the school he was sponsoring. He can never relax, never know for sure that someone will still like him if he says the wrong thing. We see him as this almost inhuman person for the rest of the film, charismatic and powerful and seemingly untouched by everything. And only at the very end to we realize he seemed to feel nothing because he was feeling so much.

But the little thing thrown into the middle of the speech is what means the most to me. He mentions that he returned home looking for Irrfan but couldn’t find him because Irrfan had fallen in love with a woman from the wrong cast and they were driven out of the village. Suddenly Irrfan’s humble happiness makes sense, as does Lara’s loneliness combined with her contentment in her marriage. Their love is such that just being together is worth everything else. And this was a choice they made, living as lonely poor outcasts if they could be together. For Irrfan, the excitement around Shahrukh’s visit is unlooked for, he had made his decision to walk away from the world in search of pure happiness. For Lara, she had spent her whole married life as an outcast, not even the minimal friendships Irrfan enjoyed. She was still grateful for the little life they had, but her eagerness to grasp at the small status the Shahrukh connection gave them now makes a new sense.

Shahrukh plays the movie star, but it is Irrfan who is the real hero. He gave up everything for love, and even before that it was his sacrifices that allowed Shahrukh to be a movie star. Shahrukh knows that, that’s why he is so quiet and kind and unassuming. He doesn’t believe he has done anything in his life, he is just a regular man who never even fell in love. There is no reason he should try to be special, if anything he should try to be effacing, less than special.

What this film reveals is that movie stars, most of the time, have to deal with low self-esteem not high. They have to believe themselves the least important person in the world because they are there to serve and bring pleasure to everyone around them. That is why I like this film to show people what Shahrukh’s real life is like, not the crowds following him or the pictures being garlanded or all the rest of it, but that he has to always put his wishes last and the wishes of everyone around him first.

17 thoughts on “Friday Classic (on Saturday): Billu, Shahrukh’s Vision of the Lonely Star

  1. Finally someone I read writing a review about Billu I can connect to.

    It seems to be such a small movie in ShahRukh’s filmography…and it is one of the important ones because it was – imo – a kind of turning point for how he dealt with his star persona in the following movies.

    In KANK he had played a character many could not relate to and Fans were protesting “how could he do this” (seeing the star, not the actor) and he ‘broke their heart’.
    In Don he mainly played an amoral character who even wins – interestingly not getting flack for the evilness but for having remade an Amitabh Bachchan cult movie. (still seeing more the star than the actor)
    Follows ChakDe where a lot of the real ShahRukh had been shown on reel…and the critics almost went head over heels to praise the actor (the star put in the background)
    OmShantiOm deals with both – actor and star – making a nevertheless sweethearted spoof of both, but it is the star who prevails.
    Then comes RabNeBanaDiJodi where we get the first strong whiff of the common man in ShahRukh counterbalanced by a Raj who doesn’t have a real but a reel life. So real common man versus fake film hero/star (I just try to imagine how Tani’s life would be with this Raj…) (still the star very much present in people’s mind but the actor gets his due). A juxtaposition where ShahRukh changes into somebody even his wife doesn’t recognize.

    Somehow Billu is a logical follow-up movie as it shows the common man in the moviestar (the common man he can’t be publicly) and the way a real common man doesn’t want to be a star (but still being the star of the story).

    There won’t be any movie from ShahRukh anymore – except Don2 (with no follow-up in seven years!) – where he gets the star persona people combine with him.

    MyNameIsKhan – he’s not only a common man, he is a common man with an handicap (and in no way a “Rainman” with a special gift) – the actor gets his due (the star still lingering in the background).
    The superhero in Ra.One turns out to be just a family-superhero…just to protect two people against the evil guy…and this even less as a common man, but as a computer game person. (one cries “midlife crisis”, bashes the star, but hardly sees the actor.)
    No star-role in JabTakHaiJaan, a weakling in ChennaiExpress, a not very nice man in an ensemble cast, No ‘star’ movie with Kajol (the 2nd one). Still people do concentrate on the star (although the not very heroic “hero” in CE doesn’t get tired to repeat “Don’t understimate the power of the common man”).

    Then Fan happenes. The second movie where ShahRukh clearly refers to himself (in Billu with the posters, in Fan with Mannat), even more intimate than with Billu. Again he juxtaposes himself to a common man. His behaviour as the star is such that he eventually drives the common man into death.
    What could ShahRukh probably do more to destroy his star persona in favour of the actor than by putting a doubled focus on the actor (it’s a double role but an intensification of the RNBDJ-juxtaposition as ShahRukh plays two different persons with only a slight similarity – no surprise that there were people seeing two different actors).
    Well, udiences don’t follow his whish, they just get disturbed (although the actor gets his due) – they want THEIR ShahRukh back.

    This wanting THEIR ShahRukh is what makes Billu in my eyes such an important movie in his career.
    I don’t know if they ever will get him back. We will see how he tackles their whishes with his vision.

    As for me,I admire the way he dismantled his star persona, every movie becoming a risk.

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    • I was watching Billu thinking it might be an even better way of showing his stardom than Fan. He is so average and normal in this film, while his Fan character is larger than life, has the star charisma and desires and angers and so on.

      On Sun, Oct 27, 2019 at 4:37 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I like what you’ve written, it rings true and deep.
    But strangely this is a movie I don’t revisit very often. Although the Irfan story and the ShahRukh story sit comfortably together the space age story of the film within a film seems a bit silly and merely an excuse to be able to throw any weird element or song in there. Perhaps a different film setting may have worked better – the parallel you pointed out of a search for a brother could have applied to any scenario.
    Strange that here is another example of ShahRukh buying into a space-fantasy. I would love it for his sake if he was part of the Star Wars franchise.

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    • Oh, I would love him to be in Star Wars!!!! Just a two minute cameo for fun would be such a kick.

      On Sun, Oct 27, 2019 at 10:09 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. “His movie is about separated twins, one raised on Mars and one raised in a humble village. And then they find each other. That’s this movie, two twins of the heart who life on opposite planets.” How on earth did you glean that. Those shots of the film always seemed just silly and send up of stupid movies!! I often watch the ending of this movie cause I love it so much, but now I’ll have to go watch again for the film inside the film. It would be interesting to put together all the films where Shah Rukh plays a version of himself, or at least a huge star to see the different ways he has done it. Have you ever put them all in one place?

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    • I don’t think I have put them all in one place. It’s really just this movie, Om Shanti Om, and Fan. But then also his cameos.

      On Sun, Oct 27, 2019 at 1:04 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • So we have OSO, Billu, Fan, Luck by Chance, Dulha Mil Gaya (he’s not an actor but he is a rich powerful man with body guards and planes etc. which is how he is imagined by fans) He plays himself in Love Breakups Zindagi but I don’t remember what he does.

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        • Actually I always confuse Luck and Love Breakups; in the first one he admonished Faran not to forget the friends who were there at the beginning and in the second, he is nice to the girlfriend…both are adorable and him pretending to be himself.

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  4. I always remember liking this movie when I first saw it (the majority of the people in the movie theater did not agree though) and your review made me notice on details I did not pick up on before. Did not make the connection that Lara and Irrfan were exactly outcasts because of their relationship and that the movie idea is a direct parallel to the Shahrukh-Irrfan story. These little details just made me like this movie a bit more. Maybe the reason why people found it disappointing was because it ended up being a small town drama about an every-man with odd bits of humor and there wasn’t a whole lot of shahrukh doing star stuff? Irrfan is great and I really like Lara so I personally enjoyed the small town village stuff.

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    • You should definitely swing back and watch it again! I suspect you would see more on a second watch, especially knowing what Shahrukh’s character’s inner life is like over the rest of the film.

      On Sun, Oct 27, 2019 at 4:03 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. I watched this for the first time early on in my SRK journey, and made the mistake of reading reviews, which were so negative. But I truly loved it, which made me question my own taste and understands. But Irfaan and Lara are so great in this, in fact the cast is all marvelous! It is a gem.

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    • I think the lesson we can learn here is that you should only read MY reviews, because everyone else is wrong.

      I know what you mean though, watching a movie and enjoying it and then thinking there is something wrong with you for enjoying it. I still feel that way all the time with southern films, am I write that this is a good movie and I should enjoy it or am I watching it wrong?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. So happy to see you review this one! Really underrated film, imo. Lara Dutta as Bindiya is such a stand-out performance by my lights ( :

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