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‘Tubelight’ film review: Salman Khan plays a little boy in a low-wattage Hollywood remake

A child actor steals the thunder from the burly hero in Kabir Khan’s movie, which is set against the backdrop of the China-Indian war of 1962.

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).

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Tubelight (2017).

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.

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Tinka Tinka Dil Mera.

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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.