Jai Ho was earlier named Mental – and that was actually a good title, given this story of Jai (Salman Khan), who, ousted from the army, seeks to do a bit of public good. And he turns Samaritan to an almost pathological degree. He restores a kidnapped infant to its parents. He helps a handicapped woman write exams, sitting beside her as she dictates answers that she cannot write herself. He stands up for a beggar, a little girl, on the road as she is hurt by a car. Even in the army, his discharge came about because he disobeyed orders in order to save children from the enemy side. And at a dinner conversation at his home, we’re told that he’s donated his eyes. Late in the film, Jai cries out that he appears to be the only one who sees that there are people around him that need help – and you could make a case that he needs a little help himself. It’s not accidental that his sanity – maansik santulan, as the film puts it – is called into question by the end. Jai does seem somewhat… mental.
This is an intriguing premise for a film – but not a Salman Khan film, and certainly not one directed by Sohail Khan. For a minute, it’s tempting to step into an alternate universe and see what Rajkumar Hirani would have made of this material, with Sanjay Dutt or Aamir Khan or Sharman Joshi playing Jai, whose zeal to help others results in a plan where the person who was helped pays it forward, helping three others, and those three help three others each, and so on. That film might have focused less on the action aspect and more on the drama, which this really is. That film might have found an organic way to unite, in the climax, all the people helped by Jai, so that each one ends up helping Jai when he needs them. That film wouldn’t have sprung on us the scene where Suniel Shetty, playing an army officer, pops up suddenly – on the road – in an armoured tank, as if it were a bike or a car.
But in this film, the one with Salman Khan, the latter scene is perhaps inevitable – and the reason it doesn’t fit in is not because it is illogical but because the film cannot make up its mind whether to be the high-minded pay-it-forward movie or the lowbrow hero-versus-villain movie. This confusion wrecks Jai Ho (which is adapted from the Telugu film Stalin. Gaudy sunglasses, Gujju stereotypes, a sappy love ballad that would have made Celine Dion hesitate, pink underwear, kidney donation, a washout of a heroine (Daisy Shah), Sana Khan breathing fire as a scheming minx with a disproportionate sense of entitlement, twocharacters without hands (one of whom can apparently climb over railings) – and in the middle of all this, the exhortation that you don’t have to be in the army or in politics to serve the nation, that one man can make a difference. How did they even think this would work?
There are a bare handful of effective masala moments – the Home Minister-in-the-circle moment, the tomorrow’s-newspaper moment, the Salman Khan-takes-off-his-shirt moment, and the moment where Jai (literally) kick-starts a vehicle. And Naman Jain – the young star of Zoya Akhtar’s short in Bombay Talkies –shows that he can camp it up with the best of them in masala mode. But the emotional moments fall flat. There is so little to root for in the film – despite such an emotional hook, of man helping fellow man – that we look for scraps that, however corny, leave us with a sense of having felt something, like the scene between a drunk and an auto driver.
The action scenes are nothing special either. In one sequence at a railway station, Salman, on a bike, finds his path blocked by an oncoming train, and he reverses and heads for the over-bridge. He goes up the stairs, drives through the bridge, then down the stairs – we should feel the bone-rattling shudder of a two-wheeler coursing past this uneven terrain, but the scene has been cut to suggest that the bike just glides up and down. There’s no effort evident anywhere. Then there are the action scenes where Jai bites an opponent’s arm and roars and slashes his fingers across a cheek, leaving behind marks like those by a claw. Finally, we get the line, this film’s conceit: Aam aadmi sota hua sher hai. The common man is a sleeping tiger. I can’t vouch for the tiger bit, but as the film went on, this common man was definitely close to sleeping.
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