Bajrangi Bhaijaan surprised me in a lot of ways. For one, the flavour of masala here isn’t the flavour we usually associate with a Salman Khan movie. This isn’t outlandish – though that, when done well, can be worthwhile too. There’s a sense of sobriety here. The director is Kabir Khan. To say that this is the best work of his career isn’t saying much, considering his resume includes New York and Ek Tha Tiger. I’m inclined to think the writer KV Vijayendra Prasad – father of current national sensation, SS Rajamouli – has a lot to do with it. (There are traces of the Telugu hit Vikramarkudu, which Prasad co-wrote.) The genre is treated with respect, not just as an opportunity for a few winks – and the approach isn’t defensive, where you can practically hear the director say “I know this isn’t logical, but…” Even when we get the obligatory shirtless scene with this star, it’s in context – he’s being tortured by the police, he would be shirtless.
The story is about Hanuman-devotee Pawan (Salman Khan), who runs into a little girl (Harshaali Malhotra, just cute enough, and more than expressive enough) who cannot speak. He names her Munni. He discovers she’s from Pakistan, and he decides to take her back. Given the peaks-and-valleys nature of the passions between the two nations, this is a strong one-liner – a sort of reversal of Henna, where a Pakistani woman took it upon herself to help a lost, amnesiac Indian get back home. (This is probably pure coincidence, but there’s a character here named Chand, which was what the Rishi Kapoor character was called in Henna.) And the story is made stronger by the detailing. Consider the scene where Munni, who has come with her mother to Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi, is left behind. The train to Pakistan makes a stop. Munni looks out of the window and sees a lamb. Her mother is asleep. Munni steps out and begins to play with the lamb, and she doesn’t notice the train is beginning to depart. It sounds flimsy – an excuse to strand Munni and get the story going. But earlier, we’ve been shown that Munni’s father is a shepherd. It’s only natural she’d be drawn to the lamb. The film would work even without this knowledge, but now we see the care with which it has been made.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan is filled with bits like this. When Munni, at a police station, picks up a pair of handcuffs and slips them over a wrist, it isn’t just a cute moment – it points to her fascination with bangles, which comes up again, and it also prefigures an important scene with another pair of handcuffs. When Munni’s mother sighs that she wishes Munni could speak and go to school like other children, it isn’t just a sentimental moment – it tells us that Munni is unlettered, which is necessary to sustain this film’s conceit. (If she could read and write, there’s no story.) Even the action scenes aren’t just there so that Bhai fans can explode in orgasm. The first one comes about when Pawan hands Munni to someone who says he’ll take her to Pakistan and takes her elsewhere. This is where the film’s tone changes, because this is when Pawan realises that he’ll have to do the job himself. And the second action scene comes about when a Pakistani policeman manhandles Munni. This isn’t about servicing the star. This is about servicing the story. The story is about the little girl, and hence the action scenes are written around her too.
The mythical undertones are another surprise. Masala movies have always been built on layers of myth – the super-caring son from the Ramayana, the mischievous but good-hearted flirt from the Mahabharata, and so forth – but Bajrangi Bhaijaan does something that most modern-day masala movies don’t: it makes these references explicit, the way the movies from the 1970s and 80s did. After Munni (whose real name is Shahida) is lost, someone from her family says something like, “Koi to khuda ka banda hoga Hindustan mein jo hamari Shahida ka khayal rakhega” – and next thing we know, we meet Pawan, the khuda ka banda they were praying for. And he’s singing and dancing around a giant statue of Hanuman when Munni finds him, the man who’ll carry her back home – literally, in a sense, the way Hanuman carried the mountain. And where does this first meeting occur? In… Kurukshetra. I wonder if the scene where Munni’s mother is pregnant with her and feels a kick when Shahid Afridi hits a six is an echo of Abhimanyu in the womb – only, this time, the “war” is between India and Pakistan. (And between their cricket teams; an Indo-Pak series is a running motif.) Later, Pawan’s fiancée Rasika (Kareena Kapoor, burnishing a trivial role with star power) gives him advice based on the Mahabharata.
The great twist in Bajrangi Bhaijaan is in how it renounces the masala formula of good-versus-evil, especially given its incendiary plot built around hostile neighbours. This is no Gadar, and the Pakistanis are not the Enemy. One of them is Chand Nawab (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a reporter who helps Pawan. Just how good is this actor! He can be subtle. He can be loud. He can play serious. He can play the fool. He can sell punch lines with the best of them. (Just wait till you hear him address Pawan as “Begum.”) Chand is a journalist and he’s trying to sell the Pawan-Munni story to Pakistani television channels, but no one is interested. He tells Pawan, wryly, that it’s easier to sell hate than love. That’s what Anil Sharma did, with Gadar. Kabir Khan, on the other hand, chooses love. There are Rajkumar Hirani levels of goodness in this movie. (And a bit of his sly satire too. When Pawan says Hanuman will help him, Chand asks, “In Pakistan too?”)
The film is so good-natured that there are no conflict points. When Rasika tells her father (Sharat Saxena) she wants to marry Pawan, the issue is resolved instantly, without thunder, without lightning. Even after Pawan ends up in Pakistan, there’s very little about the hunt for him by the army/police top brass, accompanied by a jangling score that alerts us to the danger. The music, most of the time, is light, jaunty – the emphasis is on the goodness in both nations, the sameness between them. (In a way, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a more masala version of Filmistan.) Rasika’s bigoted father may throw a fit about sheltering Munni – he’s found out she’s “Mohammedan” (wouldn’t these people say “Musalmaan”?) – but he doesn’t throw her out. There’s still some innate goodness in him, under all those calcified layers of custom and culture.
The film keeps switching between Hindu and Muslim, the sense of India and Pakistan. If there’s a scene at a dargah, it’s balanced by one in a temple. Both nations are shown to be similar, filled with wrestlers and monkeys and buses with the most congenial passengers. Even Munni’s reunion with her parents is a joint Indo-Pak Hindu-Muslim venture, accomplished by Pawan and Chand. (And note how particularly connotative of their religions these two names are.) Munni wears a Hanuman pendant, while Pawan slips into a burqa. Pawan learns to do a salaam, and Munni is shown folding her hands in a namaste. The only sour note is that Muslims are shown saying “Jai Shri Ram,” without a reciprocal vocal gesture from Hindus. In an Anil Sharma movie, we wouldn’t dwell on this. Here, given the equitable nature of everything else, we do.
The only major complaint I had with Bajrangi Bhaijaan is its pace. While it’s nice to see a film unfold, without frenzied cuts, you wish, sometimes, that they’d get on with it. And yet, this is a very focused movie. Despite its languorous rhythms, it doesn’t ramble. The Pawan-Rasika romance is quickly (and convincingly) dealt with, so that we can return to Pawan and Munni. And I liked the Indianness of this movie. Most masala movies manage to sustain the illusion only when rooted in India, the way Dabangg was. Fly away to a foreign location for a dream song, and the mood is gone. The one time we see Switzerland here is, again, in context. The only parts that yanked me out of this almost timeless narrative were the ones that make it feel contemporary – a protest outside the Pakistani embassy by saffroners, the line “Kashmir thoda sa hamaare paas bhi hai,” all the talk of visas and passports, the clichéd portrayals of the media. With the latter, why not go Hirani all the way and show the media as “good” too?
Speaking of Hirani brings to mind his long association with Sanjay Dutt, his deep-rooted belief (evident from his interviews) that Dutt is a good man. There’s a lot of that in Bajrangi Bhaijaan too, which has at its centre another star plagued by legal troubles. (I was startled when the titles showed someone credited as “Salman Khan Films – Legal Counsel.” It took me a second to realise that this was probably the person who handled the legal affairs related to the movie.) If the film is about Pawan being a good man, the meta-film is about Salman Khan being a good man. Every action is calculated to make us think that this man just couldn’t have done the things he’s supposed to have done. Pawan is innocent, aka Salman Khan is innocent. Pawan is not very smart, aka Salman Khan does not have the smarts to manufacture false evidence, et cetera. Pawan’s father was in the RSS but he chose to stay away, aka Salman Khan is not interested in political games. Pawan is religious, aka Salman Khan is god-fearing, and a god-fearing man wouldn’t, you know… Pawan is so righteous, he asks the Pakistan Army patrollers at the border permission to enter their country, even though he’s sneaked in through a tunnel, aka Salman Khan would never do something against the law. At one point, newspapers carry this headline after Pawan is captured: Maseeha ya jasoos? Is Salman Khan guilty or innocent? The film ends with a mass movement to save Salman… uh, Pawan. Rarely have truth and fiction rubbed so uneasily against each other.
But as an actor, Salman Khan puts up one of his more convincing performances – though this is really a writer’s film, a director’s film. I’ve talked about Hirani, but fans of masala cinema will also find echoes of Manmohan Desai. It’s all here – the child separated from parents, the coincidental meeting with the mother at a place of worship, the qawwali (Adnan Sami does the honours) and the rewards of prayer, the “good Muslim” character (Om Puri is just wonderful), and, above all, the miracle at the end. I wonder what today’s younger, cynical audiences will make of all this, because this cinema is from a more innocent India – but older viewers are likely to find their eyes going moist at scenes such as the one where Pawan enters a mosque near his home, looking for Munni. The scene is funny, but the subtext isn’t – here, she is at home, and he is in an alien land. It’s been a while since corn has been sold with such conviction.
- “Koi to khuda ka banda hoga Hindustan mein jo hamari Shahida ka khayal rakhega” = Some man of god will take care of our Shahida in India.
- Filmistan = see here
- Dargah = see here
- “Kashmir thoda sa hamaare paas bhi hai” = A bit of Kashmir is with us too.
- Maseeha ya jasoos? = saviour or spy?
- qawwali = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.