The deification of Salman is the only discernible objective for Kabir Khan's ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’.
Director: Kabir Khan
Starring: Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Harshaali Malhotra, Sharat Saxena
The first cheers—not counting the obligatory applause and whistling at Bhai’s first appearance on screen, of course—only came near the end of the first half. It wasn’t because the multiplex crowd was too genteel to hoot; Bhai is Bhai, no matter what you paid for that ticket. It didn’t seem, either, that Bhai’s conviction had turned the audience against him. And it certainly wasn’t because they were too engrossed by the story; the film’s plot was about as rudimentary as it gets, requiring little from its audience by way of concentration, and even lesser interpretation.
No, the reason this first-day-first-show crowd for Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan hadn’t whipped itself into a frenzy of adulation, seeming almost subdued, was because the superhero they had come to watch didn’t seem to be as invincible as usual. Forget invincible, it turned out that despite being a massive Hanuman bhakt and a regular at his local akhara, Salman Khan’s Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi, urf Bajrangi, was too ticklish to wrestle. There were no baddies being dispensed with, no pithy lines of dialogue, no moment of pure badassery—our hero was a simple ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold, something that was driven home not through demonstrative scenes but by endless repetition, by either him or the people around him going on and on about what a nice guy he is, as if they were still giving soundbites to journalists.
The cheering, when it did come, was for a reversion to the mean, for Salman remembering who he is and laying the smack down on a prostitution ring. They whistled as he charged into the room after having searching high and low for Munni (Malhotra), a six-year-old mute girl he’s supposed to be taking care of, and finding her in the midst of being traded, assumed battle stations. They cheered as one by one, the toughs responsible for the brothel’s security charged him and were disposed of with Salmanian ease. They laughed as the travel agent who was making the sale panicked in the face of his inevitable butt-whooping, returning the money, only to be launched out of the window.
Our hero was a simple ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold, something that was driven home not through demonstrative scenes but by endless repetition, by either him or the people around him going on and on about what a nice guy he is, as if they were still giving soundbites to journalists.
Munni’s journey to the brothel, however, isn’t a great advertisement for our hero, or, for that matter, his country. Hailing from a village in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, she comes to India with her mother in order to make an offering at the Nizamuddin Dargah in order to regain her voice, the local shrines presumably being ill-equipped to perform such a miracle. On her way back, she strays off the train just before it re-enters Pakistan, distracted by a baby goat, and can’t shout out when she sees the train leaving without her. She gets on a goods train going the other way, and soon finds herself in Kurukshetra, where she is drawn to Pawan, presumably because he’s got great moves whenever his love for Hanuman moves him to dance.
Pawan, on the other hand, isn’t particularly drawn to her, and keeps trying to palm her off. No one is willing to take custody of a lost little girl, however, and he must take her with him to Delhi. He lives there with Dayanand (Saxena), a family friend whose daughter Rasika (Kapoor) is betrothed to him, conditional to him sorting himself out in the next few months. Dayanand isn’t keen on having her under his own roof either, but doesn’t stand in the way of a Good Samaritan. For as long as he thinks she’s a Brahmin, anyway.
She’s not, of course. Our philanthropists find this out when she displays a pathological distaste for vegetarian food, for what self-respecting Muslim can resist the smell of chicken? As Pawan and Rasika mull over how to keep this secret from Dayanand, a card-carrying, khaki-shorts-wearing Sanghi, Munni outs herself by daring to cheer for Shahid Afridi as he smashes Ravichandran Ashwin to all parts in that dramatic match from last year’s Asia Cup.
She’s not, of course. Our philanthropists find this out when she displays a pathological distaste for vegetarian food, for what self-respecting Muslim can resist the smell of chicken?
The revelation puts an end to Munni’s welcome; “Mo’medans”—especially those from our “pissu jaisa padosi desh”, to quote Nana Patekar—aren’t allowed to set foot in Chez Dayanand, even if they are physically-challenged six-year-old girls. Pawan is told to get rid of her, and after a failed attempt at getting the Pakistani High Commission to step in (she doesn’t have papers proving she is Pakistani, and therefore, their problem), tries the travel agent, paying him Rs 1.5 lakh to take her off his hands, trusting a complete stranger and his trusted network of people smugglers to comb through 18 crore Pakistanis and find her parents. Shockingly, the agent turns out to have ulterior motives. After dishing out some vigilante justice, Pawan decides the only way he can get Munni home is by taking her himself, and the second half begins with the two walking hand in hand in the hot Rajasthan desert, walking due west with nary a document on them, let alone a valid visa, or passport, or even Pakistani rupees.
I cheered only once during Bajrangi Bhaijaan, early in the second half. It wasn’t for Bhai, but for Nawazuddin Siddiqui. No, it wasn’t because his arrival would elevate this film from being unbearably saccharine to barely bearable. I was cheering for Chand Nawab.
For the uninitiated, Mr Nawab is a correspondent for Pakistan’s Indus News who became a YouTube sensation in 2008 after an attempted piece-to-camera from Karachi station kept getting interrupted by passersby. His Sisyphian attempts at completing the sentence that begins with that high-pitched “Karachi mein…” made for the Mother Of All Gag Reels, earning him notoriety on both sides of the border. Most people, however, weren’t laughing with him. “[The] YouTube video had spoiled my reputation not just in Pakistan but also in India,” The Hindustan Times quotes Nawab as saying. “People would point to that video and say, ‘Look, this is the quality of Pakistani television journalism.’”
The second half begins with the two walking hand in hand in the hot Rajasthan desert, walking due west with nary a document on them, let alone a valid visa, or passport, or even Pakistani rupees.
Even as I applauded in glee, I could feel a couple of pangs of dread—was this a taste of things to come? Would the second half be a series of dated jokes about Pakistan and its people? Mercifully, it wasn’t; the film’s portrayal of our neighbouring country plays out the current Bollywood stereotype: friendly people with a dysfunctional state, as much a victim of official apathy as we are. Also, Nawazuddin’s introduction provided soul to a film that was threatening to be too transparently manipulative.
I tried watching this film without the additional baggage of Salman’s legal saga. I’ve dealt with that elsewhere, and in any case, a film should be critically examined independent of the criminal records of the people involved in making it; God knows we don’t think any less of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski films now than we did before. But whether it’s a continuation of the PR overdrive or simply the rules of the game for Salman Khan films, the combination of his innocent buffoonery and endless reiterations of Harshaali’s impish smile make a cloying continuation of the “But Bhai’s a Good Guy” broken record that has played ad nauseum for the last few months, if not years.
Either way, there seems little else of substance that the film is trying to say, no discernible objective other than the deification of Salman. Pawan, we are repeatedly reminded, is honest to a fault, too innocent for the world he lives in, which would be comical, or sweet, if it didn’t repeatedly endanger the life and well-being of the six-year-old in his care. (Or was even remotely believable.) The two-nations-one-people Aman-ki-Asha theme would qualify as substance if it hadn’t already been done to death, and hadn’t been undercut by a refusal to overtly confront Dayanand’s xenophobia. Sure, Rasika reprimands Pawan for thinking like her father, but despite having stood up to him when he was about to marry her off—albeit with a sanskaari naari version of the Electra Complex—has nothing to say to him when he’s exiling a child because of her religion. In fact, the film’s great lesson isn’t an end to communal hatred, but the necessity of moral relativism, as even Pawan learns to lie in order to save Munni’s life.
Sure, Rasika reprimands Pawan for thinking like her father, but despite having stood up to him when he was about to marry her off—albeit with a sanskaari naari version of the Electra Complex—has nothing to say to him when he’s exiling a child because of her religion.
No, there’s no point expecting courage, or subtlety, or coherence, or believability in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. There’s no point expecting a mature, self-aware film, or even one that entertains you without raising uncomfortable questions in your mind. Or any politics other than the milquetoast incrementalism that passes off for social commentary in this commercial film industry. In fact, going to the cinema bereft of all expectations might be the only way you will be pleasantly surprised. You might even, as one reviewer was, be moved to tears. But I wouldn’t count on it.