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Film review: ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ has two stars, neither of whom is called Salman or Kareena

The knee-high Harshaali Malhotra and the redoubtable Nawazuddin Siddiqui steal the show in Kabir Khan’s seriocomic cross-border drama.

Salman Khan conquered the box office a while ago, and even he probably cannot stifle a yawn at yet another turn at sending villains flying into the air with a single punch, exposing his perfectly sculpted chest, and wriggling his hips in something resembling a dance move.

This doesn’t mean that Khan is going to stop saving India from itself – his legions of fans demand nothing less from him. But since the nation is already in the bag, Khan turns his eyes towards Pakistan, an undeniably difficult neighbour but also a lucrative film territory. In Kabir Khan’s seriocomic Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which the superstar has co-produced, Salman Khan plays the peace dove whose flight over the barbed wire that separates India and Pakistan melts the hearts of citizens on either side.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which is based on a story by Telugu writer Vijayendra Prasad, presents Khan not as an action hero with god-like powers but an ordinary mortal with an extraordinary dedication to social service. The opportunity presents itself to Khan’s Pavan when Shahida, a mute six year-old girl from Pakistan-administered Kashmir, lands up in India. Pavan is a failed student and a failed wrestler. He has been successful only in love, with the immaculately dressed Rasika (Kareena Kapoor Khan), and his resolve to restore Shahida to her home is also a mission to prove himself to Rasika’s strong-willed father (Sharad Saxena).

The movie’s geopolitical concerns and peacenik bent are laid out in the taut and moving opening sequence. Shahida has travelled to India with her mother, but on the way back, she wanders out of the Samjhauta Express and fails to get back on board. Borders once closed do not open easily, especially when they are between nations that have gone to war. Thus it is that Shahida finds herself in Kurukshetra, where Pavan is dancing for the consumption of real bhakts and Salman Khan’s bhakts.

This is a movie that consciously and unconsciously appropriates cultural signs and symbols. Hence Pavan wears a locket shaped like a mace, is the vegetarian son of a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh member, greets everybody with “Jai Shri Ram”, and never passes a Hanuman idol or a monkey without genuflecting before them.

Pavan is also pure of heart despite being clueless about communities that are not like his, and when he learns through a series of amusing circumstances that Shahida is neither a Brahmin nor a Kshatriya but a Pakistani Muslim, he decides to take her back home by hook or crook.

All you need is love

Every fairytale has its princess, and the honours in this film go not to Kapoor Khan, who is content with a strictly ornamental role, but to Harshaali Malhotra, whose expressive face and irresistible charms steal the show all the way.

Rasika is relegated to the background as Pavan and Shahida smuggle their way into Pakistan and run into an assortment of large-hearted Pakistanis as well as nationalists who are convinced that Pavan is a spy. The water cannons that were turned on in the opening sequence are in full flow in the manipulative three-hanky climax, but before that, Pavan has another scene-stealer to contend with. The redoubtable Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Chand Nawab, a small-time reporter who helps Pavan and Shahida reach their destination.

The complete lack of logic in the way people behave and events transpire on the other side of the border gives the movie much-needed levity, and is perfectly summed up in a line tossed by Chand Nawab to the deeply religious Pavan: “Will Bajrangbali helps us in Pakistan too?”

Given the cock-eyed manner in which Pavan navigates Pakistan without so much as a map and unerringly makes his way to Shahida’s home, the question answers itself.

Kabir Khan’s attempts to foster bonhomie and empathy between the great subcontinental rivals are as touching as they are earnest. Since the movie is often seen from Shahida’s knee-high perspective, it follows that the complexity of the Indo-Pak question and the business of the status of Kashmir are boiled down to the simplest of thoughts and emotions: the flags are different but the people are the same.

Although this approach still does not solve the Kashmir problem, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is refreshingly free of jingoism, and tries to navigate difficult truths, such as the bigoted reaction of Rasika’s family towards consuming meat and renting out to Muslims, through comedy. The message doesn’t as much sink home as it is rammed in.

Although the movie is as handsomely produced and glossily shot as Kabir Khan’s previous productions, the director’s track record of sluggish pacing, be it New York or Ek Tha Tiger, is unbroken with his latest release, which stretches on for 159 minutes. The post-interval bits in Pakistan are an unruly jumble, and Pavan’s self-declared lack of intelligence makes him the unlikeliest of heroes. Salman Khan will regard Bajrangi Bhaijaan as a career redefining moment, but his limited acting skills show up in every scene.

Luckily for Pavan and the viewers, he has Shahida and Chand Nawab by his side. One communicates through her smile, while the other nails every line he utters.

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