Monday, July 20, 2015

Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Sometimes we do get the Hero we need.

As the parade of trailers before Bajrangi Bhaijaan amply demonstrated Bollywood is no longer making films for Heroes, honest-to-goodness capital “H” heroes. There are only a handful left in Bombay and not one under 40 with the strength to challenge the 3 Khans. I’ve written about this many times before but, to my mind, what separates a real Hero from just an actor is us, the audience. A Hero’s career is a dialogue with the audience. Sometimes a Hero makes a film for us, sometimes he makes a film for himself, and sometimes he makes a film as a favor for a buddy. The point, whether or not a Hero intends to convey anything at all with his film choices, we, the audience, are going to see a linear progression. We see films sequentially, as they are released, one frame following the next.

Although the past is never past these days, with old mistakes lingering online like Raj & DK’s globalized zombies, nobody can deny that Salman Khan has spent much of the last few years trying to put something good into the world. No matter what the “critical consensus” was on the quality of a film like Veer, it was clearly made with a lot of love and joy. The same with a film like Ready or Bodyguard, films intended to delight audiences, to provide a little hit of pleasure. Not everybody likes everything Salman has made over the course of his career but most of us can find at least one film to enjoy in his recent filmography. Because Salman is just that kind of Hero. He may not be the greatest actor who ever lived but he’s a superb Hero and his on-screen image is subtle, supple, and flexible enough to handle almost any type of persona, infusing each character, no matter how cheeky they’re written, with a sense of real goodness.

In Bajrangi Bhaijaan Salman is reunited with new Bollywood director Kabir Khan (Ek Tha Tiger) in a story from the great South Indian masala screenwriter K. V. Vijayendra Prasad (Baahubali, among others). And the result is pure filmi magic, a melding of the modern neo-Bollywood aesthetic with pure, unironic masala dil. The film follows a few thematic trends of the last few years but with a real Salman Khan spin. There’s a bit of that Rajkumar Hirani message to beware religious dogma from PK but in Salman’s hands, to Salman’s audience, the message is warmer, and much less glib. (For all that I love Aamir, at times, watching PK felt like being lectured by one of those douchey Nu Atheists.) Bajrangi Bhaijaan also picks up a few threads of the type of “realism” one finds in films like, especially, Highway but the bleakness of that “realism” is softened by what seems to be Salman’s driving message these days: Human beings are mostly good people. Being human means trusting other humans, no matter what race, creed, gender, or nationality. And although there are definitely elements of gender and religion at play in this film, it’s the last one that is the most important to Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Yes, this film is full of India vs. Pakistan and not just in cricket, although cricket does play a role. Our little leading lady, the adorable Harshaali Malhotra, plays Shahida, a six year old Pakistani girl named after the great Pakistani cricket player Shahid Afridi. The film begins in a gorgeous, mountainy part of Pakistan where Shahida and her family live a peaceful, rural life herding sheep. But Shahida cannot speak and her parents, at a complete loss for what to do about it, decide to bring her on pilgrimage to a holy place… in India. Shahida is accidentally left behind, across the border from her parents and everything she knows.

But Shahida is lucky; this isn’t one of those ugly films in which a girl must be wary of sexual violence from every man she passes on the street. Our lost little lamb is able to turn to a man for help, to the best man of all, in fact: the earnest, simple, good Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi aka Bajrangi (Salman Khan). Bajrangi takes her in and promises to get her home--never wavering even when he realizes that “home” is across the border.

Pre-interval takes place in India and post-interval sends the unlikely duo into Pakistan, hunted by the Pakistani police, who are convinced that Bajrangi is an Indian spy. Thankfully the pair run into a local journalist, Chand Nawab (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who finds their story so touching that he decides to help. Will Shahida ever get home? Are strangers just friends we haven’t met? Will the tiny Harshaali Malhotra win over avowed child-hater Filmi Girl? (Spoiler alert: Yes, yes, and yes.)

Watching a film isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems but I think it’s far better thing when our collective fantasies are about loving and trusting our neighbors rather than dishooming them into the next life.

The overriding feeling in Bajrangi Bhaijaan was one of gentleness but, circling back to Salman’s Hero image, that gentleness was not weakness. It was powerful because we know Salman and his team could unleash a massive amount of force, sound effects, broad comedy, cameos, and items but have chosen to restrain themselves for this film to make a point, that Salman, that masala, that popular films can be this way, too. Kind and gentle. And we, the audience, can be trusted to understand and appreciate that.

And it was also really nice that the filmmakers trusted that we, the audience, didn’t need to be hammered with the fact that violence against women exists for two hours to understand that the world can be dangerous. At a certain point it looks like little Shahida might be sold to a brothel and the horrified gasps of the woman sitting beside me at what might happen to Shahida were proof enough of that. Mixed in throughout the film were subtle reminders that the system, our democratic institutions are unkind. Police, as an institution, can’t be trusted. The government throws red tape at you until you give up. Even the old generation has trouble seeing through the biases of their age. Although the specifics are South Asian, many of the messages rang true for me as an American, as well.

I especially enjoyed the cricket thread running through the film. We were never hit over the head with it but the idea that nationality is important only in the sense that it gives you somebody to cheer for at the World Cup. That nationality is no more important as an identity, in the grand scheme of things, than being a fan of the Washington Nationals baseball team. At the end of the day it’s just a different set of team colors to paint on your cheek.

Lastly, I want to say a few words about the excellent cast and casting job of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Salman’s character is a naif. Pure-hearted and earnest. So, he needed supporting actors who could play off of this without seeming mean or going too broad. Kareena Kapoor and Nawazuddin Siddiqui were perfect foils for this Salman. Kareena’s sharp wit kept the action moving in the first half and Nawaz’s sly jokes kept the momentum going post-interval. In fact, Nawaz’s introduction scene, in which his attempts to film a bit keep getting stepped on by passers by, got some genuine bellylaughs from all over the theater. And I particularly appreciated Kareena’s utter lack of maternal warmth. Not every woman gushes over children. And it was delightful the way Kareena and Salman interacted with their tiny child co-stars (shoutout to the kid playing Kareena’s little brother, who was cute as a button) as if they were tiny people instead of some rarified heaven-sent moppets.

Not only the main cast but the minor roles were filled with interesting faces. Meher Vij, as Shahida’s mother, all rosy apple cheeks shining under her hijab. Khushaal Pawaar, as Nawaz’s cameraman, had the perfect aura of gormless tech guy. The Pakistani border officer on his camel who couldn’t believe anybody would be so dumb as to cross over from India. The wrestlers at Kareena’s father’s gym. The tubby police officer who got his handcuffs stolen. So many wonderful faces whose names I don’t know and a few I do: the great character actors--gruff uncles Om Puri and Sharat Saxena and kindly auntie Kamlesh Gill.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a pleasant film, kind and gentle like the titular character. I’m glad I saw it and I hope its success will lead to other kind and gentle films. As Nawaz says towards the end of the second half, bad news and hatred are what sells… but maybe we want a chance to buy something nice once in a while, too.


Stuart Martin said...

GREAT review! The only thing I'd add is that I was delighted and surprised to learn that Nawazuddin's character is named after a real Pakistani reporter and that the whole intro scene at the station for Eid really happened. :D

Filmi Girl said...

That was HILARIOUS!!! "Karachi se log... " Ha ha ha!!!!

Yunus Perveez said...

I love this line "this isn’t one of those ugly films in which a girl must be wary of sexual violence from every man she passes on the street."

sue said...

Btw, you do know that the story of Bajrangi Bhaijan is written by KV Prasad, the father of SS Rajamouli, and who also penned the story of Baahubali ... don't you? :)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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