Up for a Bollywood-style fairytale? One in which two bitter foes come together over a revved-up set-piece involving India and Pakistan, flag-waving patriots, bigots-turned-pacifists, an adorable little girl, and a superstar named Salman Khan? Phir bhaiyya, and behena, ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan
The fact that the film would be a highly-anticipated Eid releases was known. But no one could have anticipated that the stormy relationship between the two nations would be a Page One newspaper headline on the very day the film is out: the border is burning, and tensions are riding high. That’s in the real world. Just the right time for a film to tell us how it can be, in an alternate universe. Why not dive into the reel world in which the boil can be reduced to a simmer, and a simper-and-smile, piggybacking on the one and only Bhaijaan, who is in search of redemption himself
You can have all these very complex , very meta thoughts running through your head as you watch the Hanuman-worshipping Bajrangi (Salman Khan, his blue-stone bracelet replaced by the red-yellow ‘kaleva dhaga’), the simpleton with a large, loving heart, and the Pakistani Shahida aka Munni (Harshali Malhotra), the little girl who’s lost her voice but not her ability to charm, romp through a film which has been unabashedly constructed as a massy entertainer. It is also smartly aimed at the tear-ducts of those who sit on the fence in the matter of whether a performer’s real-life transgressions should affect the way we perceive his reel-life persona. Got an emotional jugular? Bajrangi Bhaijaan is coming for you, hammer and tongs
Or you can give in to the simplistic school-kid nature of the plot, and sit back and let it take you for a ride into an area whose existence we in India do not even acknowledge—Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. As Om Puri, playing a wise ‘maulana’ in the film, tells the hero: ‘thoda sa Kashmir hamaare paas bhi hai’. But those wryly delicious asides are far and few in between, because the chief purpose of the film is for you to surrender disbelief (and distaste, carried over from real-life court-cases and flim-flam judgements), and enjoy the familiar antics of a clearly-ageing Salman, played off against the freshness of a heart-stealing youngster
An old adage says ‘never act with children and animals’. You can also add Nawazuddin Siddiqui to that tiny list. His bumbling Pakistani TV scribe nearly steals the film, whose star is the little lost girl from across the border. When Bajrangi takes upon himself the task of reuniting her with her family which lives ‘sarhad-ke-uss-paar’, bringing up flashes of ‘Gadar’, we know that it will be done, not just because this is Salman, the star who can do anything
That the stoutly Hindu Pawan is played by a Salman creates some frisson, especially when risible scenes of meat-eating and horrified reactions come up. Do only `Mohammedans’ ( the word used for ‘Muslim’ : even a populist vehicle like this one can’t get away without using labels ) eat non-vegetarian food? Then how is chicken the `national bird’ of the national capital of India? Khan and Khan get away with that foul by bunging in a song about the favourite fowl of Delhi.And making our hero execute a perfect ‘adaab’, instead of his bending-from-the-waist ‘namaste’, after working both sides of the heavily-patrolled fence.
The director’s ability to create drama in large, inimical vistas is much higher than in homelier arenas, so the first half passes by with some amount of slackness, in which the will-speak-the-truth-at-any-cost character of Bajrangi Bhaijaan is created. It also serves as an introductory passage for his love-interest Raskia (Kareena Kapoor, making a strictly-by-the-numbers near-cameo appearance). The real film only starts post-interval, when the action shifts to Pakistan, with our trio on the run, with some fun-and-frolic, a quwaali-in-a-dargah, and a picturesque if rousingly unreal climax.
But who cares, right? ‘Dosti’ is always better than ‘dushmani’, right? And since when did borders separate hearts? ‘Aman ki asha’ is not such a bad thing, right? This film presses many red-hot buttons, even if the treatment is strictly in-the-clouds ‘filmi’. And gives us Shirtless Salman as a peacenik, speaking for all religions and mulqs. Believe it, or faint