Reading the Salman Act

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Harshaali Malhotra (left, bottom) as the speech-impaired- Pakistani girl is impressive
Harshaali Malhotra (left, bottom) as the speech-impaired- Pakistani girl is impressive

Bajrangi Bhaijaan, that tries to be politically correct about Indo-Pak ties, has hit the jackpot at the box office. But it's more a triumph for Salman Khan - the superstar with limited acting prowess - than its theme

By Khalid Mohamed

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Published: Fri 31 Jul 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 7 Aug 2015, 9:11 AM

It was a no-brainer. Since the festive Eid season has become synonymous with the Invulnerable Khan, Bajrangi Bhaijaan was bound to be a whopper commercial success - albeit with a difference.
Salman Khan is not assigned Dabangg-style one-liners; nor is he is smarter than any Alec you can imagine. Rather, the script presents his character, Pawan, as a simpleton, a yokel of sorts. And as the title emphasises, he is a devout follower of Hanuman, the classic mythological protector.
An overtone of secularism is more than apparent, then, as Pawan sets out to rescue a Pakistani speech-impaired, knee-high girl who, as circumstances would have it, must be ferried back to her home across the border. Curiously, the script chooses to call Muslims "Mohammedans" consistently.
Indo-Pak relations may not be at their most politically correct stage at this point. Director Kabir Khan, who seems to be more clued into the need for pacifism between the two nations, demonstrates that at least his heart is in the right place. Make peace, not war, is the loud and clear message, albeit presented within the hyper-fantasy framework of populist entertainment.

Needless to emphasise, the director couldn't have articulated that pacifist statement without Salman Khan, who guarantees a wide audience globally, besides facilitating an extravagant budget. Indeed, star power propels a story which, at several junctures, is pure baloney and far-fetched.
If, say, an actor like Manoj Bajpayee or even Irrfan Khan - far superior actors than Salman - had portrayed the eponymous protector, the ticket sales would have been hardly worth gasping about. But then, that's Bollywood or even Hollywood: if it's the numero uno Khan or Tom Cruise, the mercury rises at the box office. No point lamenting that.
The plot is as simplistic as they come, of course. The simpleton's instincts compel him to carry out a mission impossible: the obsessive theme of every mainstream film which deals with the schism between India and Pakistan ever since the days of the Partition in 1947. The Randhir Kapoor-directed Henna (1991) and Yash Chopra's Veer-Zaara (2004) logged into the romantic mode. Anil Sharma's Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) indulged in no-holds Pak-bashing (despite its jingoism, it went on to become a huge hit).
PRE-RELESE PUBLICITY: Bajrangi Bhaijaan director Kabir Khan (left)-who has made a film batting for better Indo-Pak ties-poses with Salman Khan and Salman's father Salim Khan(centre) at a promotional event
For years now, Gulzar has been nurturing a dream project, with literary underpinnings, on a cross-border romance. Only, he hasn't found financial backers - perhaps because his oeuvre tends to be subtle and gentle. Indeed, the most effective and unforgettable films about the gut-wrenching impact of the Partition have been made by MS Sathyu (Garm Hava, 1974) and Govind Nihalani (Tamas, 1988), impelled by the need to tell realistic stories rather than toting commercial profits. Garm Hava is a must-see for every cinema connoisseur, not only for its thematic concerns but also for the career-best performance by Balraj Sahni, who must choose between his home in India or move to Pakistan.
Now, one doesn't expect Bajrangi Bhaijaan to attain the cinematic quality of Garm Hava. The point is that it skims the surface, foisting in unnecessary interludes - like the moments with the mandatory love interest, filled in by Kareena Kapoor, whose role is purely for decorative purposes. In fact, it's strange that Kareena agreed to be a fringe-dweller. After all, hasn't she been screaming from the rooftops that she will only accept roles which give her equal status as the hero's? Aah, but then teaming up with Salman Khan isn't an offer that can be refused, is it?
The speech-impaired girl (impressively enacted by Harshaali Malhotra) is assigned scene-stealing moments. Plus, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a Pakistani TV reporter (based on real life journalist Chand Nawab) who is moved by Bajrangi Bhai's mission adds some heft to the thin material. For the rest of the way, the lavishly-mounted thriller is a one-man Salman show.
How you wish you could say that Salman is evolving as an actor. Sorry, he isn't. He has a limited range of expressions, dialogue delivery that's uniformly flat and, emotively, he springs no surprises. Sure, he has a flair for featherweight comedy. Most crucially, the camera loves him. The about-to-turn-50 face is creaseless and glowing, that too without dollops of make-up. He's a superstar alright, an actor he's not.
Whether he snarled savagely in the Dabangg series or goes extra goody-goody in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the audience adores him, like they do Rajinikanth. So why cavil?
Even film reviewers are overwhelmed by his market equity and go rah-rah over Salman Khan (some even call him 'Sallu' in the reviews as if he is a personal buddy). Alas, that never happened with Dharmendra, the original Invulnerable Man. The public loved him, film reviewers didn't. However, the 1960s' and 1970s' were another era. In this millennium, 'Sallu', by comparison, has received his dues - from the mandarins as well as the masses.

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