It’s another Eid weekend and here’s another Salman Khan film. It’s also the first since his conviction on the hit-and-run case that was at the height of all news drama in May this year and therefore suitably amalgamated Bajrangi Bhaijaan. It’s all about the good natured Bhai – Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi aka Bajrangi here – who may have finished school only a couple of years short of 30 but possesses a heart of gold that’s in weight second only to the Mahatma. But how do you judge a Salman Khan film? Relative to his other films? How it stands up to his best one? How entertaining it is and how well are all the masala tropes reinvented, if at all? How much does it allow you to remove the man (to some of us) from the star (to many of them) and still enjoy the film? Maybe.
Unlike a couple (or more) of his previous films, Bajrangi Bhaijaan has quite a bunch of things going for it. For starters, Kabir Khan seems to be in some semblance of a form. There is nothing new to the story – it is all India-Pakistan Bhai-Bhai (see?) – but Khan manages to bring in a form of authenticity to it. He does this by creating moments that are organic to his story. He doesn’t insult your sensibilities in any way (that is once you’ve made peace with the fact that you are watching a Salman Khan film) and packs a healthy portion of his scenes with dollops of humour. Humour that works more often than not. He also maintains razor sharp focus on his story at all times. For one he doesn’t spend too much time on the love story. A lesser film might have. Kareena Kapoor Khan as Rasika may be the female lead but she takes a backseat to the second lead of the film – Harshaali Mahotra playing up the charms and innocence in equal measure as the geographically displaced Shahida. Kabir Khan also stays true to Pavan’s characterization and brings in fireworks only at the right time. This happens during a well calculated pre-intermission sequence. All of this works in the film’s favor.
What one may find offensive is that Pavan is a lot like Rasika’s father played by Sharat Saxena. Or possibly like a lot of parents of my generation. Effortlessly wearing a cape of casual and non-casual racism around them. They talk about Shahida being fair-skinned and conclude she must be a Brahmin. Pavan – son of an RSS worker possibly – thinks twice or thrice before setting foot in a mosque (To Khan’s credit this is used hilariously in the second half). He forcefully takes Shahida away from the Muslim family feeding her meat. The film in the first half is unabashedly saffron. That may even be the point. But then Thank God for Kareena Kapoor. Rasika is the voice of reason in these portions. In fact Rasika’s single purpose in the script is to drive some sense into Pavan’s head. She even begins the song singing glories of chicken on a plate. If Rasika is the voice of reason in the first half, we have Nawazuddin Siddiqui taking up that role in the second half set in Pakistan. He plays Chand Nawab, an independent journalist the name and introductory scene of whose are inspired from a viral Pakistani video. Quite a checkmate move there from Kabir Khan. There is a point after which one simply cannot buy into Bajrangi’s innocence and moral rectitude. It’s all too sweet and you need a little bit of sour humor to go with it. Siddiqui probably has never been a liability on screen and he’s just as wonderful and inventive here.
The latter half of the film can be a chore save for Chand Nawab and his patent quirks. Kabir Khan also indulges in too elaborate theatrics on the samjhauta lines. Again, how much you enjoy this film will probably be determined by how easily are you able to remove the man from the star. It sounds manipulative – all the goodness and humanness of Bhai – and can come across as a sanitizing process soon after the conviction. If this was any other creator of art, it is easier to separate him or her from their art and their off screen image and perception. But with a mainstream star like Salman Kham it is never as simple. His on screen image is so closely tied in with the off screen one. When he says something or does something on screen and people applaud, it is not because Pavan or Bajrangi is doing it. It is because Salman Khan is doing it. That’s the status he has built for himself. But that’s for another column. For now as film reviews go, Bajrangi Bhaijaan has a working heart.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)