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Tubelight Review: A Self-Righteous Film That Makes You Feel Like The Real Tubelight

It's impossible to look beyond Salman Khan’s problematic interpretation of a mentally challenged person - you can feel him coax fans to feel sympathy

Rahul DesaiRahul Desai

June 23, 2017 | 09:06 AM

FC Rating

★★★★★
film-companion
Salman Khan, Tubelight, Kabir Khan, Sohail Khan, Om Puri, Matin Rey Tangu, 1962, Sino-Indian War, Zhu Zhu, review

Director: Kabir Khan

Cast: Salman Khan, Sohail Khan, Om Puri, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Zhu Zhu, Matin Rey Tangu

After Shah Rukh Khan’s Asperger’s afflicted Rizwan in My Name Is Khan and Aamir Khan’s autistic Samar from Dhoom 3, the Khan triumvirate’s cinematically puzzling tryst with mental disability reaches its absolute nadir with Salman Khan’s Laxman Singh Bisht in Kabir Khan’s Tubelight. Those are a lot of Khans in one sentence. And perhaps that’s the point. You Khan-not escape them. Salman alone is a lot of Khan. So much Khan that his gullible character’s behavior here isn’t even a medical condition. Khan doesn’t enact illnesses; illnesses enact Khan. It serves as a perfect excuse to disguise his trademark stiffness, awkward Wall-E-type physicality, embarrassing dance moves and patronizing descent into philanthropic caricaturing. 

It’s as if Bajrangi Bhaijaan were told to do his best Simple Jack impression of poor Samar. And if all else fails, just cry. A lot. Scrunched-up, heavy-duty, constipated, ugly crying. Uncontrollably. Out-weep Shah Rukh. Let so many tears flow that it fills Bandra lake and overflows onto the streets to make hapless cars skid onto dark pavements. In short, if method legend Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder) were watching Laxman, he’d wince and repeat his iconic line, “never go full retard, man.” 

Instead of sounding like a simpleton, Salman sounds like a man desperate to humour simpletons. As a result, the wafer-thin storyline – that of a village idiot winning hearts by willing his protective younger brother to return from war – is injected with wannabe-Hirani elements.

The Khans’ problematic interpretation of mentally challenged personas often overshadows the films they occupy. As is the case with Tubelight, it’s impossible to look beyond the sorry performance. It involves so much dumbing down (of inherent slowness, no less) and such a truckload of painfully visible acting that you can literally hear them coaxing their fans to feel crippling sympathy instead of empathy. 

It’s as if they’ve decided that being “special” is nature’s greatest manipulative device, and that it inevitably requires the emotional intelligence of an infant combined with the intellectual capacity of a puppy. It’s even worse when, unlike Shah Rukh and Aamir, one was never a decent actor to begin with. 

Instead of sounding like a simpleton, Salman sounds like a man desperate to humour simpletons. As a result, the wafer-thin storyline – that of a village idiot winning hearts by willing his protective younger brother to return from war – is injected with wannabe-Hirani elements. 

You see repetitive crowd expressions, consciences altered, attitudes changed, overloaded Gandhian principles (the term “yakeen” is abused more than a press conference involving Vivek Oberoi), impressionable town folk, naïve montages, smatterings of the mythical, superstar cameos, oversimplified war politics and ‘liberal’ nationalism gallivanting around in a cauldron of Bollywood’s moral-science potion. 

In one narrative that appears as conveniently as it disappears, brother Bharat (Sohail) is being bombed every few seconds – as if the acting Gods were throwing their wrath at him for daring to occupy an entire film. And in another narrative, Laxman is teaching his narrow-minded jingoistic town a lesson by befriending a Hindi-speaking Chinese mother-son duo during the Indo-China war. The film is torn between these parallel payoffs, ending up making a mushy mess out of both. 

I’ll say it again: history doesn’t need to be simplified because it’s being looked at through the lens of a modest protagonist. And it definitely cannot warrant the presence of a scene that has an Indian “fool” bonding with a Chinese kid – same mental age and all – by playing a ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ chanting game. That’s the current-government version of Wonder Woman seducing ordinary men into chanting for her island of Themyscira or P.K. tricking humans into singing his planet’s anthem. 

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Director Khan must have realized midway that overusing the Bajrangi formula might not be the brightest idea today, especially if the cute little Pakistani girl (her being mute contributed immensely to the film’s charm) is replaced by an annoying little Chinese boy who speaks and his mother who sounds like a Google translator, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s talent has to be replaced with Sohail Khan’s face. 

Hence, he uses music – a lot of it – to compensate for the overbearing 1960s setting, which can best be described as Shimla on a bad hair day. Consequentially, the sheer quantity of piano themes and heavy strings is inversely proportional to the acting flair on screen. There’s a genre of song scoring almost every mood of Laxman’s – from his mourning to his sulking to his grieving to his sleeping to his excitement to his joy. 

Sure, belief moves mountains. But Khan’s penchant for public penance through every new film has always been designed to move only the box-office. He has single-handedly privatized redemption by making profits out of doing roles that speak down to – and not about – people like him. I want me some of that sweet-smelling forgiveness, too. There’s no point playing Laxman, or any of the other image-conscious heroes, with sincerity but without an ounce of sensitivity. 

What’s worse is that Kabir Khan, a seemingly sorted filmmaker and Khan’s ambassador of Kwan, has made a tired template out of this crusade. He seems to be bending his own voice to make a business out of his star’s cleansing ritual. If anything, we’re the ones who might feel like the real Tubelight after watching this calamitously self-righteous film.