If you asked for a one-word review of Tubelight, I would say – underwhelming.
I went in with great expectations. After all, Kabir Khan is the director who converted me to the cult of Salman Khan. Ek Tha Tiger and especially Bajrangi Bhaijaan were high points in the narrative of this mythical superstar whose persona was so large that it cannibalized his films. But in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Kabir used that to tell an entertaining, astute story and Salman was pitched perfectly as the morally upright man-child who teaches us that humanity stands above religion, borders and politics.
Tubelight is Bajrangi’s brother from another mother. He too is an endearing simpleton – think of him as Indian Forrest Gump, a man whose naiveté allows him to have the faith to move mountains – literally. Tubelight’s real name is Laxman Singh Bisht – he is maliciously called Tubelight because he is slow to catch on. The film is based in a picturesque small town in Kumaon in 1962. The Indo-China War has erupted and all able-bodied men are asked to enlist in the army. When Laxman’s brother Bharat goes to the border, Laxman must do what he can to bring him back alive.
Tubelight is based on the 2015 American film Little Boy. There, the protagonist was an 8-year-old boy who is maliciously called Little Boy because he is physically small. When Little Boy’s father is sent to World War II, he takes it upon himself to find the faith and bring him back. There it was teachings from the Bible. Here it’s Gandhiji’s principles. And Kabir replaces the child with a child-like man. This is the film’s weakest link – both Salman and Sohail as Bharat are miscast. At one point, a character looks at Laxman and says, ab kya kar raha hai yeh ladka. But this is not a ladka.
These are middle-aged men trying to create the illusion of being young strapping lads who live in a small town that seems straight out of a folk tale. Everyone is friendly and unfailingly nice. Yes, Tubelight is bullied for his slowness but even that has little sting – Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub plays the local rabble-rouser who beats up Laxman on a few occasions. Mostly, this feels like Disneyland with a town hall and a village square where everyone gathers to dance and watch movies. The textures stay candy floss – even when war breaks out.
The gorgeous locales are expertly captured by cinematographer Aseem Mishra. Even the war scenes have a stark beauty. You can see the sweat and the sincerity on screen – especially in Salman Khan’s performance. Here he sheds the superstar mantle. He weeps unabashedly. He gets hit. He plays the village idiot who can’t even remember to keep his zipper up. It’s an admirable attempt but it doesn’t land. In the more demanding scenes, his emotions and expressions falter. He looks dazed and confused. Very quickly, Laxman’s purity becomes cloying and overtly sentimental.
Salman is also saddled with a character without a graph. And when a character doesn’t evolve, you need the plot to move. But here it grinds at a ponderous pace, especially in the second half. The highlight of the film is child actor Matin Rey Tangu who plays Laxman’s friend, Guo. Their scenes together are among the best in the film. The Chinese actress Zhu Zhu is lovely looking but she makes little impact. The opportunity to comment on racism is squandered. Instead we get saccharine exchanges between her character Liling and Laxman.
Basically, Tubelight is cinema as a sermon. Which makes the film flat and emotionally unconvincing. The good intentions and lectures on yakeen don’t translate into a gripping narrative. However, I did enjoy seeing the late Om Puri on screen again. Pritam’s Radio Song is still playing in my head. And the scenery made me want to immediately escape to the hills.
But this could have been so much more.