Do you believe in miracles? Here is one: a 51-year-old movie star at the peak of his career decides to play a character previously portrayed by an eight-year-old boy in Hollywood.
In Little Boy (2015), of which Kabir Khan’s Tubelight is an official adaptation, the diminutive hero desperately prays for a miracle that will bring his father home from the trenches of World War II. A visiting magician (Shah Rukh Khan in a cameo in the remake) makes the boy believe that he has the power of telekinesis. The boy scrunches up his face and gnashes his teeth and waves his hands like magic wands in the hope that his father will return unscathed.
A Christian parable about faith, hope and personal courage, Little Boy did not impress many people in the US, but it seems to have hit the button at Salman Khan Films, the burly hitmaker’s banner. Produced by Khan and his brother Sohail Khan and starring them too, Tubelight has twinned ambitions: an image makeover for its hero and a hopeful attempt at proving that he can carry off character-driven roles like his peers (and weep as copiously as a chef peeling an onion).
The orphaned Laxman (Khan), a child trapped in a man’s body. is devoted to his younger brother Bharat (Sohail Khan, struggling to make his presence felt). Laxman is heartbroken when Bharat enlists in the Army to stave off a Chinese invasion. In one of the movie’s best lines (the dialogue is by Manurishi Chadha), Laxman observes that alcohol consumed their father and grief their mother, just like Independent India swallowed up Mahatma Gandhi. The year is 1962, the war is one that India lost, and by the end of Tubelight, it becomes clear that Kabir Khan and co-writer Parveez Sheikh are going on about another kind of battle altogether, one that is being waged on the idea of India itself.
On paper, at least, that appears to be the intention – to weave into a military defeat a celebration of Gandhian thought, love-thy-neighbour sentiment, and the values of tolerance towards all races and nationalities. When the Indian-Chinese single mother Lilin (Chinese actress Zhu Zhu) and her adorable son Guo (Matin Rey Tangu) move to the town at the start of the war, Laxman becomes their only friend and protector. The Indian-Chinese yesterday, Muslims and Dalits today, and some other target tomorrow – Tubelight is noble and high-minded even at its clunkiest.
There are times when the deadly earnest 136-minute movie feels like a civics lesson, especially in the scenes when the town elder Banne (Om Puri) exhorts Laxman to embrace the enemy and stay on the path of truth and non-violence. There is also an attempt to address historical wrongs, such as the shameful incarceration of Indian-Chinese residents during the war, but this is eclipsed by the sluggish pace, Salman Khan’s risible performance, and the untenable idea that faith can make anything possible.
Salman Khan’s attempt to shed his burly action hero image is courageous but Quixotic. He fared far better in his 2016 hit Sultan, in which he played a wrestler trying to patch up his failed marriage. In Tubelight, Khan is in Bajrangi Bhaijaan mould – the innocent who makes history because he is beyond petty politics and the chicanery of grown-ups. Kabir Khan was responsible for Bajrangi Bhaijaan too, but in Tubelight, he is unable to recreate the personal-meeting-political encounter. Tubelight does not have as many layers as Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and Laxman is far too passive, lachrymose and one-dimensional to evoke empathy or identification.
The handsome production, which is beautifully lensed by Aseem Mishra, has not spared any expense to recreate period detail, and it makes good use of its locations in Manali and Ladakh. The filmmaker has surrounded Khan with far more talented actors in an attempt to cushion the inevitable fall. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is impressive as Laxman’s prejudiced friend Narayan; Yashpal Sharma is typically solid as Army major Tokas; Om Puri is charming as Banne (played by Tom Wilkinson in the original); Matin Rey Tangu steals every scene he is in.
The biggest similarity between Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Tubelight is eventually the presence of children who teach the adults a thing or two about unselfconscious acting. Bajrangi Bhaijaan had Harshaali Malhotra, whose expressive face and spontaneity made Salman Khan’s performance appear even more laboured than it already was. In Tubelight, two children compete for the lollipop, and only one of them deserves it.
Tubelight might actually have worked better if it had centred on a child and his knee-high experience of war and death. What if Kabir Khan had stuck more closely to the original plot, cast Salman Khan as the missing father, and allowed Tangu to do the heavy lifting? Tubelight might have been more lustrous than it currently is. Kabir Khan’s sincerity and his belief that humanity still has place in a divided and violent world have never been in doubt, but Tubelight isn’t the best platform for his ideas. Despite some genuinely affecting emotional moments, the film struggles to convey its message that “Self-belief makes anything possible.” The 1962 war was a lost cause for India. Laxman gestures hypnotically ever so often, but he emerges as one of the episode’s biggest casualties.