I did not want to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Why? How about drunk actor drives over four people sleeping on a pavement one night and allegedly pays his driver to take the blame? When he gets convicted 13 years later, half of Bollywood descends on him to pay their “condolences”. Because, of course, the right to personal tragedy belongs to Salman Khan, film star, not an anonymous man sleeping on a footpath.
Within days, the sentence is suspended. He is back on a shoot. The shoot turns into a blockbuster. Happy ending.
Lots of rogues make movies. But Salman Khan is a rogue who’s been trying to insinuate himself into your goodwill through his movies. Thuggish but loveable Chulbul Pandey in Dabangg. The R&AW agent in Ek Tha Tiger. The do-gooder ex-army officer in Jai Ho.
Mostly characters who belong to the state or security apparatus, that is, on the side of the angels. Slightly brash at times, maybe, slightly gullible, but dil ka accha. Men on a bull-headed pursuit of grand old things like honour, decency, truth. One look at those gym fresh shoulders, and you know you can lean on them.
But I did
But I did watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan out of interest in how he single-handedly ends conflict between India and Pakistan and sorts out the Kashmir question while he’s at it.
Simple but adorable Pavan, also called Bajrangi, takes time off from japes in Kurukshetra to return a mute Pakistani girl to her family in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. On the way, he crosses the International Border without a visa, charms the Pakistan army and teaches everyone a thing or two about the Line of Control. All kinds of syncretism going on here, but Bajrangi Bhaijaan has been hailed the most for its cross-border message of peace. This is good news. Bollywood movies haven’t exactly been known for cross-border messages of peace.
Bollywood and the border wars
They are thick with the same sort of hero, pursuing truth and honour with time enough to stop at the gym on the way. It might have something to do with Sunny Deol’s habit of starring in them. Last time he crossed the border, he took on the Pakistan army with one hand-pump (Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, 2001). There is also the JP Dutta brand of films, Border (1997) and LoC Kargil (2003), which trade in highly coloured accounts of border wars, centred on the Indian soldier.
Perhaps because of the armed insurgency in Kashmir, the Kargil war and the terror attack on Parliament, the 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise of an angry, jingoistic Bollywood. Pakistan must be cast as the enemy, and Pakistanis in the films must be made to recognise the moral and physical superiority of Indians, embodied by the avenging heroes of Bollywood. The land across the border must be an upside down world, where all the values of this side are inverted.
Shaped by this conflict, Kashmir, once the destination for Indian pleasure seekers, became a ravaged paradise -- for Indian tourists, that is. The newly married couple in Roja (1992) go to the Valley looking for the lakes and chinar groves where lovers of earlier decades had danced. They get a nasty surprise instead.
Or else, it becomes a picturesque backdrop for the heroism of the armed forces. It’s where Hrithik Roshan goes to prove himself and win back the girl in Lakshya (2004). Years of civilian deaths, reports of human rights violations by the army are not allowed into this frame. Mission Kashmir (2000) comes close. But the army officer who goes out hunting terrorists, and kills the young hero’s parents, is redeemed in the end.
The broad shoulders of Bajrangi Bhaijaan
So Bajrangi Bhaijaan has a minefield to negotiate. It chooses to approach this disturbed landscape with a deliberate innocence. The Samjhauta Express is shown travelling through the check posts, and you expect it to blow up any minute. But it never does. This could be a world where the blasts of 2007 never happened. The violence that turned the land across the border upside down never happened.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan leaves Bollywood’s comfort zone of Srinagar to enter PoK. The film accepts, quite simply, that the region owes its allegiance to Pakistan. But this is a Kashmir drained of politics. It is a place of unreal beauty — somebody mistakes a picture of distant Switzerland for PoK. The people here tend their flocks and gather around a community TV to watch cricket matches. No militants disrupt this scene. No shelling or gunfire breaks the calm.
The checkpoint where the movie’s final scene apparently takes place is an uneasy frontier in real life. Ceasefire violations are reported every now and then. Newspaper images show soldiers patrolling the wire fences.
The movie’s closing sequence erases these images of conflict and replaces them with images of reconciliation. The scene is all the more emotionally charged because viewers on both sides will know it is wish fulfilment.
But as the crowds chant his name, the frame narrows to Bajrangi Bhaijaan tossing the little Pakistani girl up in the air. This was to be a democratic peace, brought about by a surge of goodwill on both sides. Now you become aware that it was built around the figure of the hero all along. Even the chanting Pakistanis acknowledge it as they gather at the frontier. Bajrangi Bhaijaan is not quite the avenging Sunny Deol of older movies. But the movie has not travelled so far from its predecessors either. Peace on the frontier still rests on the broad shoulders of the good-natured Indian hero