“Tubelight”… A lethargic drama where the director seems as “miscast” as the hero

Posted on June 25, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

You heard it here first: In a forthcoming film, Salman Khan will play Sita. In Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, the character he played hailed from Ayodhya. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he played a Hanuman devotee. Now, in Kabir Khan’s Tubelight – an adaptation of the American drama Little Boy, transposed to Kumaon during the 1962 Indo-China war – Salman plays a character named Laxman. Where else will the star go after exhausting all the male characters in the great Hindu epic? (Tangential thought: What explains the attraction? Is the golden deer really a black buck?)

Little Bhai… sorry, Tubelight is part of the ongoing series where the star brings about world peace. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he befriended an adorable Pakistani girl and smoothed over Indo-Pak tensions. Here, he befriends Gou (Matin Rey Tangu), an adorable Indo-Chinese boy, and stops the Indo-China war. (At least, that’s what the people around him seem to believe.) You heard it here first: In a forthcoming film, set in the 1980s, Salman Khan will find himself in Sri Lanka, befriending an adorable Tamil-speaking child and ending the civil war. (Suggested title: Ek Tha Tiger: Part III.) Where else will the star go after exhausting the narrative possibilities of conflicts in our neighbouring nations?

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All our mainstream heroes, especially the ones in Telugu and Tamil cinema, seek out scripts that position them as saviours, but Salman’s recent films suggest something more. It’s personal, a combination of what the star is perceived as and what he wants to be perceived as. What was Sultan if not the story of a hugely successful man who makes a mistake and atones for it? (By the end, is it Sultan asking for forgiveness, or Salman?) Tubelight, which could be called Bajrangi Bhaijaan Heads North-east, takes the wide-eyed innocent Salman has been playing of late to the extreme. He’s slow-witted – hence the title – and though no medical condition is explicitly mentioned, he’s practically a child. He doesn’t even get a leading lady. In other words, no sex. If he turned vegetarian, avoided bad company and welcomed spiritual thoughts, he’d be the poster boy for the Ministry of AYUSH.

That said, the first half-hour of Tubelight is very enjoyable. Laxman’s voice-over guides us through his life, from pre-Independence times to 1962. The tone is sweet, the lines sharp and funny. I laughed when a young Laxman, during a Ram Lila performance (what else?), asks for a baby brother, and we see his father being yanked into the house by an unseen mother. Cut to nine months later: the birth of Bharat (played as an adult by Sohail Khan). Note that name. It isn’t just about the Hindu epic. It’s about India itself.

The bond between brothers is genuinely touching – as in the scene where Bharat, who becomes Laxman’s protector, tries to soften the blow of Laxman’s rejection by the army. Also unusual. It’s not surprising for an actor (even if this actor is a star) to play a passive innocent, sheltered by a loved one. Kamal Haasan played one in the Telugu drama Swathi Muthyam (Eeshwar in Hindi). It’s less common to find a Salman-like “mass” star in these shoes, because these films aren’t based on the traditional journey a “mass” hero undertakes, which could be a literal journey (Bajrangi Bhaijaan) or a character arc that he traverses (Sultan). While Bharat goes off to fight the Chinese, all Laxman gets to do is… wait. Imagine a version of The Odyssey where the camera lingered on Penelope instead of following her husband’s thrilling adventures. It’s something like that.

And in this most pacific of premises, we are nudged towards our patron saint of pacifism. The Mahatma makes an early appearance in Laxman’s school, and later, his teachings — written out on scraps of paper by Banne Chacha (Om Puri), who raised the boys after the death of their parents — become behavioural goals. Gou and his mother, Li Leing (Zhu Zhu), are Indians of Chinese descent, and they’re looked at with suspicion when they move into this neighbourhood, at a time Indians are being killed by the Chinese. But because “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind,” Laxman befriends them, and by the end, the local shopkeeper is refusing to accept money for the ice-creams Gou orders.

In other words, we are watching Lage Raho Salman Bhai. Unfortunately, Kabir Khan is no Hirani, and he is simply unable to tune into the good-hearted whimsy this story needs – and after the initial portions, Tubelight begins to drag its feet, becoming almost unwatchable. It doesn’t help that Salman, who was so effective in that breakdown scene in Sultan, appears almost comical every time he attempts to display any kind of emotion. It’s like watching a claymation face being pulled in different directions by mischievous children.

There are too many problems to list out. The point made by a scene with a secret guest star everyone knows about (You should have faith in yourself!) is the exact point made in a subsequent (and equally long) scene with Banne Chacha. There’s one delightful Yeh dosti-type song early on (“Tu Aladdin / Main tera jinn”), but the other numbers (by Pritam) aren’t just unmemorable but also taxing in the way they are used. In the second half, we get two songs barely minutes apart. Scenes that Hirani would have aced — one where Laxman tells the truth; one where Narayan (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), Laxman’s tormentor from childhood, attempts to move a bottle telekinetically — end up flat, though the syrupy (and non-stop) music keeps jabbing us in the ribs.

Eventually, even the Gandhigiri turns pointless. In order to implement “the enemy is fear,” Laxman decides to address his fear of heights and water. He jumps off a cliff into a river deep down – but what, exactly, does this accomplish except ticking off another teaching from the list? It’s a great conceit that if we have faith, we can even end wars – but the way this plays out, through a song, it comes across less like magic, as if the universe tuned into our thoughts, than another page of the screenplay being dutifully turned.

The most interesting parts of Tubelight are what appear to be the director’s commentary on the country today. Laxman tells Gou, “If you are Indian, you must say, Bharat Mata Ki Jai!” Gou doesn’t just say the phrase, he shouts it out. “I said it louder, so I am more Indian than you.” The mood is playful, and the scene gently mocks the prove-you-are-a-patriot mood around us today. And when Laxman tries to convince others that Gou can speak Hindi (and is, therefore, “Indian”), the boy launches into a torrent of Chinese. He tells Laxman later that he’s no parrot to do what someone else wants, and his mother echoes this sentiment when she says she doesn’t need a certificate from someone else to prove her patriotism. She feels she’s an Indian, and thus she is one. How you wish these much-needed words had been in a much-better movie.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi