Bajrangi Bhaijaan has a story. It has characters and good actors. It’s beautifully shot. Is immensely entertaining. Has lots to say. And here Salman Khan plays a character in the film. He’s a paatr in a kahani. He’s not just giving darshan. He is creating a character.
Salman’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan is less chamkeela than Chulbul Pandey, but it’s a character that’s endearing and will endure.
Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a thoroughbred commercial entertainer that takes us on an emotional journey — India-Pakistan — while seamlessly weaving in commentary about things we debate these days.
The film, while making us laugh, cry, swoon to the qawwalis we love, is a masterclass in the power of commercial cinema and its reigning superstar. Watch it to see how a consummate melodrama can be used to comment on current politics.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan is the story of two vulnerables — six-year-old Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra) from Pakistan who is lost in India and can’t speak, and Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi (Salman Khan), a Bajrang Bali bhakt who can speak, but is always out of tune with the reality around him.
He always says stuff that injurious to his health.
The film begins with an India-Pakistan match being watched in Sultanpur village that sits picturesquely in a piece of Kashmir that’s with Pakistan. Every time the commentator says, “Shahid Afreedi ne balla ghumaya aur yeh…,” there’s either jubilation or frustration.
Among the group of engrossed villagers is a pregnant woman who plans to name her child after her favourite player.
We meet her six years later, as she’s taking her angel-face daughter Shahida to Nizamuddin Aulia’s dargah in Delhi, hoping that the sufi-saint’s blessings will give her daughter voice.
As their Samjhauta Express, from Lahore to Delhi, nears the border, soldiers on horse back appear, to escort them into India. The way this scene is shot, solemnly, is both stunning and telling. The hoofs falling on the ground tell a tale of hostility and forecast that this will be a journey with epic proportions.
Salman Khan’s entry, that comes a few minutes later, is much like it has been for a while: Exuberant singing and dancing.
In Kurukshatra, on a carpet that’s red and powdery and under a shower of marigold, he’s singing Selfie le le re . A sea of happy, jumpy Hanumans of all sizes and shapes encases him.
It seemed like Kabir Khan was conjuring the Bajrang Dal in Rohit Shetty style and pandering to our selfie king.
But, as soon as the song finishes, someone asks Pawan, “Bhaiya, yeh selfie kya hota hai?”
“Jab khud ki lete hain na…,” he say, and after a significant pause, adds “tasveer”.
The quiet, distraught and scared Shahida, with her adorable pink bangles, who got separated from her mother, spots Pawan and clings to him. He decides to take her to Delhi, en route telling us his story.
Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi’s father, a postmaster and gyani of the four vedas, had plans and dreams for his son. But Pawan disappointed him over and over again, in studies and in the akhada. Pawan got slapped routinely, but he could never cheat or lie.
So father dispatched Pawan to his friend (Sharat Saxena) in Delhi, hoping he’ll be put to some good use there. The uncle, a staunch brahmin, had a daughter, Rasika (Kareena).
In between a standard no-touch romance comes another worrying scene. Sitting around their shakahari dinning table, Pawan smells meat, and his uncle, crinkling his nose, says it’s from next door, from the house of a Mohammedan family. Uncle’s face is contorted into revulsion, as if his air, his values, his sabhyatahave all been violated by the wafting aroma of chicken.
Again I wondered, is this the world we inhabit now, where our biggest stars, our blockbusters have to create situations to gratify?
This happens often in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The film boldly introduces a prejudice and then lightly, lovingly pokes at it and turns it on its head.
This time, chomping on chicken and singing “Thodi biryani bukhari, thodi phir nalli nihari, le aao aaj dharam bhrasht ho jaaye…,” it cutely cajoles acceptance, celebrates difference.
This sniper style writing (the film’s script is by K. Vijayendra Prasad) and direction — confident, cocky and political — is rare in Bollywood.
It’s almost an hour into the film, after Pawan has handed over Shahida to an agent who has promised to take her to Pakistan, that the Salman Khan moment comes. He follows the agent and sees that Shahida’s been taken to a brothel.
Simple, gentle Pawan is so ashamed, so sad, so enraged that this one he won’t walk past. What ensues, to rousing chants of Jai Hanuman gyan gur sagar…, is not stylish violence, but a pacifist’s rage. It’s dhishum-dhishum, but with tears.
This is the scene where, in a split second, Salman Khan exudes so much rage and power that the screen can’t contain it. He grabs us by the collar and tells us, “If you were wondering, here it is: the power of Salman Khan. I know how to turn it on.”
Some whistled. I bowed.
Pawan resolves to return Shahida to her parents himself and the journey across the border is tense, funny and made fabulous the instant we sight that glistening creature — Chaand Nawab (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a freelancer TV reporter in Pakistan.
With his arrival, the film shrinks to human size. We don’t have to look up any more; we are now at eye level with the film.
Nawazuddin, an incredible performer, makes regular scenes crackle. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him. He and Irrfan Khan are in a game of musical chairs for two and I can’t quite decide which one of the two is the greatest actor we have in Bollywood today.
With the police chasing Pawan, an Indian jasoos, and his tiny partner, and Chaand Nawaz helping them while filming and posting their journey to Shahida’s home, we are charmed and overwhelmed by warm characters, powerful symbolism and lovely moments of connect and disconnect between our two countries, cultures.
Nawazuddin and Salman have great chemistry. When they have to act as a couple, Salman retires into a burqa, letting Nawaz carry the film for a bit, till he takes it back. But not with his quintessential ripping of shirt stuff.
The film’s climax, resonating with cries of Jai Shri Ram, isn’t there to pander, but to make a simple point: There really is no competition. Shri Ram ki jai ho. Butjanab, aaj Eid hai. So, Eid Mubarak to Shri Ram.
It’s a moment to savour. And the box-office, I’m stupid enough to predict, is all set for record-breaking eidi.
Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan is so well thought through, written and directed that while it entertains and makes us invest heavily in its story and characters, it also tickles our hypocrisies and prejudices. Thankfully, it doesn’t follow that up by waterboarding us with screechy sermons. But, in a hang-loose, light-footed way it says, come on, be human.
Over the past few years so many of our favourite gods, colours and festivals have been appropriated by the right-wing. The film smilingly returns Hanuman and saffron colour to us. It’s okay, it says. You can enjoy them.
Forget all this. Just the fact that the film uses “Mohammedan” instead of Muslim is so fabulous. It’s a word from the India we loved before we began to hate.
Little Shahida is a Pakistani. And it was a smart move to keep the child quiet. Silence retains the mystery and creates a deep emotional connect. It helps, of course, that Harshaali Malhotra is very good and cute as a button.
Since Baby Natasha Chopra in Qurbani (1980), I have not fallen in love with a girl on screen. I want to request a play date with her.
In the world conjured up by Salman’s tight close-ups, when he’s in communion with his fans, to awe and seduce, his fans will be one part Pawan, one part Shahida. They are the abandoned and they are the hero. That’s how it is.
Salman Khan can’t act. When he has to, he distorts his face and squints, as if trying to push out potty. But, he can hold a close-up for as long as he wants, and he can project primal emotions like few others can — power, love, hurt, anger. And here, it’s a pleasure to watch him, together with the help of the story, the director and his co-actors, weave a character.
I’m firm in my belief that of all our Bollywood stars, Salman is the most confident, least insecure. If an actor of Nawazuddin’s calibre doesn’t rattle him, nothing can rattle Salman Khan. He knows his power. He knows that this Eid is his.