By Maya Palit
It’s a little ominous when the good-hearted hero taking on an aggro jingoist in a film is big on the phrase ‘Bharat mata ki jai‘. It’s even direr when the hero asks his friend, an Indian-Chinese child, to repeat the phrase to prove he is Hindustani at heart. When the child yells it so loudly and proudly that he scares away the grazing sheep, there isn’t much to do except perhaps check your watch and gulp as you realise that the interval is still a good way away.
Kabir Khan’s new film Tubelight, starring Salman Khan, tries to showcase a friendship between a man with the brain of a child, and a young boy who is apparently from the ‘enemy’ camp. It’s an adaptation of Little Boy, a 2015-war drama, where a child from a small town cultivates a friendship with a Japanese-American man who is ostracised by the rest of the town’s inhabitants because World War II is on and tensions are sky-high. It’s infused with Christian moralism because it shows the child trying to follow the corporal acts of mercy to persuade God to bring home his soldier father. And making friends with the outcast Japanese man is an instruction from his local priest.
Replace the Catholic god with Gandhi, the setting with the Indo-Sino war, and the young boy with Lakshman (Salman Khan) yearning for Bharat — his soldier brother — to return and you have the set-up of Tubelight. After his benevolent uncle (Om Puri) suggests that following Gandhi’s tenets about loving your dushman will bring home his brother from the front, Lakshman is adamant to befriend Guo (Matin Rey Tangu) and his mother Lilin (Zhu Zhu).
Kabir and Salman have already ‘done’ Pakistan and cross-border friendship with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where a young mute Pakistani Muslim girl makes friends with Salman, a rabid Hanuman supporter and the son of an RSS member, who saves the day (and her) by putting aside political differences. And this film might have had the same ‘transcending state enemies’ mould, except that it goes to a huge amount of pain to make it gobsmackingly obvious that Lilin and Guo aren’t dushmans at all. They might look different, sure. But what’s a little ethnic difference when you speak impeccable Hindi, estrange yourself from all Chinese family ties, cry copiously at the funerals of slain Indian soldiers, and scatter hungry ewes from their pasture with your patriotic bleats? “Hum Hindustanti hai,” say Lilin and Guo, and boom, you have a picture-perfect conversion as seamless and non-threatening as the Kumaoni landscape of the film.
Does the film have a more nuanced take on its other friendships? Not really. Bechdel test toh bhul hi jao, because apart from Lilin there’s only one other woman character Maya, whose role in the little screen time she gets is to cry often and watch out for Lakshman (she’s instructed to do this by his uncle). At the heart of both the film and its public appeal is the unshakeable bromance between Lakshman and Bharat, who adores his brother and patronises him only a little for being slow. (A photo series posted by Salman of the bhaigiri on the sets has gone viral on Twitter.)
This dynamic could have been sweet and genuine, if it didn’t look — as this amazing review points out, and my friend bellowed at the screen — like two “grown ass men” rolling around the countryside in shorts, doing goofy dances to pretty good songs, horse riding, and perfecting a Calvin-and-Hobbesesque jump off a cliff into a river. That’s because Salman Khan is wholly unconvincing in the role he’s trying to pull off as someone with developmental disabilities (so much so that this reviewer isn’t being ruthless when he says it looked like Salman aimed for a Forrest Gump and ended up with worse than Hrithik in Koi Mil Gaya), and looks and sounds constipated most of the time.
It’s only towards the end of this very long film (just shy of 3 hours) though, that you gauge exactly how much of a sham the friendship between Lakshman and the ‘outsiders’ is, especially when Lilin and Guo accompany him, for no reason at all, to the front where he reunites with his soldier brother (whom they haven’t even met before). As the camera cuts between them and a jubilant Salman, they cry when he cries, they look elated when he does, after realising his brother isn’t paralysed from the war. The actors are great, but they ultimately become flat mirrors to bhai’s emotions. The bad Chinese soldiers are nowhere in the picture, and the solidarity between the Indians and these Chinese-but-not-really duo who is Hindustani at heart is set in stone.
Salman Khan’s character isn’t that bad, you could demur. No, he doesn’t want to decapitate lakhs of people for not saying ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai‘ (the only violent instinct he shows is during a derailed attempt to set Guo’s house on fire at the beginning of the film). But his unwavering love for the Indian Army (never mind that it conflicts just a little with the ‘pacifist’ ideology he’s also striving to follow) and the fact that he lets Narayan (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub), the jingoist bully, get off lightly despite his attempts to murder Guo’s family, say something for a film hinged on clear-cut symbolism. They create an unspoken but apparent feeling that wearing nationalist pride on your sleeve is a precursor to establishing any common ground, and so, set up strange and terrifying prerequisites for friendship.
The small mercy? That there’s only one competition in the film about who can yelp “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, louder. If there had been another, the sheep wouldn’t have been the only ones sprinting the scene.