By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Often Salman Khan’s films have a hard-to-miss pattern. He is the hero in every sense of the term. He would flex his ripping muscles provoking the girls in the auditorium to scream in adulation. He would of course win his girl on the screen, vanquish the villain and finally walk away into sunrise as a samaritan. It is no so much the character Khan essays that is sought to be put on a pedestal but the actor himself.
Now Khan has been doing it for a long time, ever since those days when he was termed “Baddie of Bollywood”. There were many instances that nailed this unenviable title to Khan. He was reportedly abusive to his former girlfriend, Aishwarya Rai, and, later, even threatened Vivek Oberoi when he was dating her.
Not just this. Khan went hunting blackbuck in Bishnoi land in Rajasthan, a community that held the deer in sacred reverence. Blackbuck is also an endangered species that cannot be killed under the Indian Wildlife Act.
If all this was not enough, Khan got drunk and ran over sleeping pavement dwellers, killing one and injuring some others. He has been convicted of this crime, and is now out on bail.
Khan needs to stay out of prison. He wants this. His producers too want this, for there is huge money riding on him. His traditional superman image might not ensure this. He needs to garner sympathy, both political and popular.
So, it did not surprise me to notice that Khan sinks into a character called Pawan Kumar Malhotra or Bajrangi in Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan. He is a Hanuman devotee, so pious that he would never lie. And when he crosses the border and walks into Pakistan without a visa in a noble attempt to unite Shaida (played with extraordinary cuteness by Harshaali Malhotra) — a six-year-old girl, who cannot speak, but can hear — with her mother, he begs Pakistani soldiers to give him official authorisation to be in their country. Only for a short while, till he finds the child’s mother. It is hilarious to see the soldiers tickled and vexed as they see Pawan pleading for “permission”.
Earlier, Shaida, who comes with her mother to a shrine in Delhi, gets off the train that is taking them back to Pakistan. Lost, she somehow finds her way to Kurukshetra and into the life of Pawan, a dumb guy, a loser in life, who however manages to win over Rasika (a largely ornamental part played by Kareena Kapoor). But Pawan’s loyalty is clearly with Hanuman or the Monkey God, a devotion that even excels his love for Rasika.
Helped by a Pakistani television reporter, Chand Nawab, (a brilliant portrayal by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, whose earlier roles in Gangs of Wasseypur, Lunch Box, Miss Lovely and Badlapur were equally awe-inspiring), Pawan finally manages to take Shaida to her mother — dodging the Pakistani cops who presume him to be an Indian spy.
With a plot that is fairly novel and productions values impressive, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is enjoyable, though in a largely believable plot there are messy sequences. The climax is one.
What is most pertinent about this movie is the kind of interpretations it lends itself to. Is Khan trying — through the garb of Bajrangi — to mollycoddle and placate rightwing, Hindutva forces in India? He would certainly need their help if he were to stay out of jail.
There is another way of looking at Bajrangi Bhaijaan. In times such as these when culture is under attack in India, is the film meant to be Bollywood’s way of conveying ridicule. There is a scene in Pakistan where Nawab on seeing Pawan bow before a monkey says that he would have to do this many times because there are several of these simians around.
Balaji Mohan’s Maari has been written and scripted for Dhanush. Or, so it seems. Son-in-law of Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, Dhanush is often seen in Maari copying the older man’s mannerisms. Watch out the way he smokes the cigarette or flicks it across the air. Watch out the way, he delivers his dialogues. How often we have seen it all in Rajinikanth.
Essaying a local rowdy, Maari, Dhanush is indeed cut out for the character. His lean physique and unimpressive looks lend themselves to an anti-social element who lives by demanding his “hafta” from shopkeepers and generally playing “dada”.
When Kajal Aggarwal’s Sridevi sets up a boutique in Maari land — a lowly Chennai locality — he demands not just “protection money” but also a share of her profits. “We are partners”, he tells a hapless Sridevi — who despite all the humiliation and harassment she faces from him, begins to get fond him. Sometimes, it gets pretty difficult to just suspend disbelief in a Tamil movie; one has to perhaps stop thinking at all!
With a cop, Vijay Yesudas as Arjun in uniform, challenging Maari on his turf, the pendulum begins to swing wildly from what is righteous to what is absolutely no no. In a scenario such as this, why would any decent girl gravitate towards Maari and not Arjun. It foxes me the way stories are written in Indian cinema.
Yesudas appears too conscious of his dashing good looks to sink into a policeman out to cleanse the rotten area — where Maari breeds and nurtures pigeons for racing. Huge money is involved, and in some ways, he conveys the impression that he is no less than the rich Arabs whose passion for falcons is well known. But Maari’s faded lungi and vest snatch us out of this fancy picture.
Yes, Dhanush has to guts to play a man with many shades of grey, his physique blending with the character. Perhaps, he knows that it may not be easy for him to be the conventional hero. But this is the hero the masses appear to adore, and the movie cherishes and celebrates the anti-social in society — a disturbing trend though in Tamil pictures.
Gautaman Bhaskaran has been writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades, and may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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