(An edited version was published in The New Indian Express)
Salman Khan’s films release around Eid with such certainty that the latest from Kabir Khan-Salman Khan stable, Tubelight, has TubelightKiEid as its Twitter handle. Salman Khan was Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Playing a Brahmin who wouldn’t be out of place in an RSS office, Salman and his director Khan surprised everyone with the way they subverted the shackles of their own conceit. Kabir Khan is both shrewd and calculative. He probably knew that he’s hit the jackpot long before Bhaijaan began filming. Here he is again, with Tubelight, focusing on another neighbour of India (it was Pakistan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan) where Salman Khan is Lakshman. His brother – in the film played by his real-life brother Sohail Khan – is Bharat. Bharat gets drafted into the army and is sent to the Sino-Indian war of 1962, a war India suffered huge losses in. There is no Ram. It’s Lakshman who must rally himself for deliverance. Of the kidnapped Bharat. Or, should we say, India?
Tubelight is third in line of the Great Salman Khan Image Cleansing Project. Kabir Khan the mastermind behind two of them now with this film. We followed Salman as the South Indian archetype “mass hero” for more than a decade – the violent thug who is really a cop or an economically corrupt, morally sound small-town police officer or a bodyguard or even the super spy belonging to the Research & Analysis Wing. Since Bajrangi Bhaijaan, we have the kind-hearted Salman who possesses the physique of a wrestler but the mind of a non-cynical, harmless 10-year-old. Or he is a real wrestler gone sideways trying to find himself in both professional and personal life. You cannot fault these Khans for the people they are. You root for them. You want them to win, not because they smash the brains out of a terrorist or a gangster but because if they win, good wins. The continuing saga and philosophy of the Great Salman Khan Image Cleansing Project.
But in that regard, Tubelight is dull. It’s almost lifeless and nothing moves. The word yakeen – trust or faith – is used a lot but one gets the feeling that the makers had no trust or faith in their script (screenplay credited to Kabir Khan and Parveez Shaika). Everyone seems disinterested. Tubelight also cannot decide if it wants to be a film about brotherhood or about Lakshman’s coming of age (if you watch the film you’d chuckle at this line. Trust me.) or friendship. Kabir Khan is a director who can tap into the prevailing political atmosphere and pull something interesting out of the hat. But in Tubelight, they remain as ideas and the execution never takes it to the level of Bajrani Bhaijaan. He wants to talk about forced patriotism, the thrusting of Indianness or nationalism, racism and immigrants. But he is not able to muster the forces that would package these into a coherent film that’s both eye-opening and entertaining. It’s as if Tubelight is bristling with ideas and people are chanting jal ja, jal ja (like the kids who bully Lakshman chant) but it just refuses to switch on. At one point, Tubelight becomes an ELI5 (Explain Like I’m Five) on Gandhi’s philosophies. The difference of course is that Salman Khan actually plays a 5-year-old trapped inside an adult (It’s curious that his condition is never defined, explained or its history tracked. The makers want you to believe that this is just how Salman Khan of Tubelight is). It’s not a bad idea but we already have a film that did it better – Lage Raho Munna Bhai. And let’s face it – Kabir Khan may have borrowed well from Rajkumar Hirani’s school for Bajrangi Bhaijaan but can lightning strike twice?
Tubelight feels inconsequential at every step and we are also forced to brave what is possibly Salman’s worst performance in recent times. Not to mention that the other Khan, Shah Rukh, cannot catch a break. Even for a special appearance, he has chosen the least promising Salman Khan film. Zhu Zhu and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub comprise a spirited presence albeit belonging to different ends of the spectrum. A performer like Ayub deserves better and should be seen in greater works already. The same, maybe with lesser yakeen, is applicable for Kabir Khan. The template has run its course.