A film that throws up a feminist reading may not necessarily be a slogan-raising, flag-flying attack at ALL MEN EVERYWHERE by an angry group of screaming women, young, old and middle-aged who wait with guns drawn ready to shoot down the first young man who dares to ask them their name! It can come through a solid entertainer with a generous dose of rip-roaring entertainment with a first-novel-that-has-failed-to-sell-a-single-copy taken as its title. I am talking about a laugh-riot of a love triangle called Bareilly Ki Barfi.

A woman, who smokes, drinks and lives life more or less on her own terms is not necessarily a rebel or a “loose cannon” ready to fire. Bitty Mishra (Kriti Sanon) works at the electric supply office in the complaints department and has her response by rote. She zooms to office on a scooty and spends most of her time on the terrace of their home, smoking away to her heart’s content when she is not downing a peg of beer or something stronger. She comes home very late at hours considered ‘unearthly’ for women. She does not have a boyfriend but spends her spare hours at best friend Rama’s boutique where they watch English films on their laptop and is constantly spoiled by her adoring father. In other words, she is far from ideal bride material. But she loves her parents dearly; and is not prepared to marry anyone her parents do not approve of.

She sits for a ‘dekko’ not quite as demurely as expected, when a would-be groom arrives with his parents to take a look at Bitty as a possible bride. She is rejected right away because the boy does not quite care for a gutsy, plain-talking girl like Bitty and feels women should lead life differently.

The story then goes on to weave a funny love story with twists round every corner that cleverly interweaves understated messages on love, friendship, betrayal, selfishness, falsehood all coming not from glittering Mumbai or Swachcha Bharat Delhi or charismatic Chennai or cackling Kolkata but from hum drum Bareilly. But the strongest message that comes across is that girls, never mind if they are from Bareilly, Burdwan or Jhoomri Talaiyya, should live life the way they choose to and let those shocking eyebrows remain raised or collapse on their own!

The film projects a lovely image of a U.P. family rooted in cheer and happiness where the mother, behind her primary school teacher’s mask, is constantly worried about how her daughter will get married. The adoring father on the other hand, asks his daughter for a cigarette and spoils her rotten and talks to the ceiling fan at night about his worries because his wife beside him is snoring loudly.

Bitty runs away from home but comes back almost at once when she lands the novel in which the heroine is her split image in word pictures. The film is backed by a voice-over of a narrator who is none other than Javed Akhtar who uses generous doses of tongue in cheek humour to add a pungent touch to the proceedings.

Bareilly Ki Barfi is set in the North Indian town of Bareilly. This backdrop crosses the barriers of big city romances and introduces us to real people with real stammers, real crushes and real go-betweens to make it a delightful Bareilly romance. It also shows leading ladies as aggressive, smart and bold to try and lead life and make love on their own terms, belying, almost counterpointing the ‘cute and shy’ myth of the small town girl once and for all. The common thread that binds these two films, apart from the small-town ambience is Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana) who is a modern-day Devdas pining over his Bubbly who got married to someone else.

“Chirag cried more than the bride and five years along the line is still pining for her,” says the narrator. He writes a novel and afraid to use his own name as the author, finds a timid, naïve and simple ‘friend’ named Pritam Vidrohi (Rajkumar Rao) to lend his name and his picture on the back cover of the book. He practically bullied into this manipulation which reveals the negative shades in Chirag who can go to any extent to get his new lady love Bitty. The book creates such a riot among women readers that poor Vidrohi is forced to leave town and take up a job as a sari salesman in a shop selling women’s apparel. The scene showing him trying to convince his female buyers by draping each sari around him is incredibly funny yet convincing.

Once Rajkumar Rao enters the frame, the film becomes a rip-roaring, laugh-a-minute intelligent comedy that has a universal appeal structured into it via the dialogue, the sparkling and spontaneous performances by every single actor with Rajkumar Rao as Vidrohi – note the satire in the name –taking top place. His character, like Chintan’s character, which develops negative shades in the middle and then suddenly threatens to become Devdas all over again, grows over the film.

From the vulnerable, simple, straightforward and ready-to-be-bullied Pritam, he slowly, almost unwittingly begins to identify with his second name “Vidrohi” and throws the “rangbaazi” they trained him to become right back into their shocked faces. The fun in the name, “Pritam” meaning “lover” and “Vidrohi” meaning “the rebel” is a wonderful piece of ingenuity, intelligence and imagination. There is not much change in Bitty, and Kriti comes off so naturally that all her ‘unwomanly’ habits make her that more acceptable and attractive to all of us.

Most of us are not aware that according to the Mahabharata, Bareilly, the region earlier known as Panchala is said to be the birthplace of Daurpadi who was also referred to as 'Panchali' as she is from Panchal by Lord Krishna. The camera takes us on almost a wild goose chase through the colourful streets and lanes and shop banners in Bareilly as Bitty whizzes past on her scooty, helmet in place, or, Bitty’s home borrowed from an elderly couple who allowed the film crew to shoot in their house.

In spite of the colours, there are grey areas the magic camera pans across such as Bitty sharing a bottle of booze on the parapet of their terrace with her new friend Chintan; or, Bitty sitting pensively on a bench, waiting for her train in an empty platform in the middle of the night; or, Bitty’s father carrying on a monologue with the ceiling fan while his wife snores away beside him, offering us a fresh and wonderful diversion from the pomp and show done to death with Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and even Shimla being the favourite haunts of Bollywood filmmakers.

When her mother is reading her note before she ran away informing her that she had picked a couple of thousands from her mother’s blouse and would never come back, because she is tired of their failed attempts at groom-hunting, there is Bitty, who has come back because she has found the novel that will find her the man who wrote it!

The film speeds at a deadly pace, leaving the audience breathless and filled with suspense about what is going to happen next but the director keeps her focus in control and never allows the script to run away and do something awful. The music is a bit too on the louder side but the lyrics are great fun and the loud colours, the noise and the bustle define a city like Bareilly in lucid detail.

The film spills over with tiny slices of humour. During a fight between Chintan and the rebellious and angry Vidrohi, Munna (Rohit Chaudhary), Chintan’s langotiya dost, comes forth to attack Vidrohi, the angry young man retorts – “be careful, it is written in my hand that I will kill a bearded man,” and Munna, who wears a beard, takes a few steps back, surprise written all over his face.

In another scene, when Chintan makes an acid comment on Vidrohi’s looks, his repartee is hilarious. He says, “if all girls fell for a boy’s good looks, half of the girls in India would remain spinsters.” In another scene, Vidrohi is directed to respond in “rangbaazi” style when Munna call him from behind. But Vidrohi does not turn back. Nor does he respond. When they ask him why he did not answer, he says, “rangbaazis neither turn back when called nor respond.” His training is complete!

Ashwini Iyer Tiwari who amazed us with her debut feature Neel Battey Sannata last year, brings one more subtle feminist statement in Bareilly Ki Barfi, said to be the first Bollywood film to have been shot entirely in Bareilly. The two films are polar opposites of each other that testifies that we now have a gutsy director among us who is versatile, ready to experiment with the mainstream and the off-mainstream and also make a powerful political statement about girls and women not given the choice to live life their own way.

Since life is a delightful mix of fact and fiction, we really do not know where one ends and the other begins. This line appears before the film opens. When the film comes to an end with a slightly market-compromised and melodramatic climax – it could hardly have ended differently, we know why that prefix was added at the beginning of the film.

Don’t miss this delectable “barfi” that is doing extremely well at the box office given that it does not have top stars, is not shot on a big budget and looks like having been crowd-funded. The feminist statement is so subtle, that if you do not follow the naughty but open pranks of Bitty, her parents included, you might miss it completely.