Director: Ali Abbas Zafar

Cast: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Sunil Grover, Sonali Kulkarni, Jackie Shroff

Note: Every time the term “Bharat” is used in this review, even I am not quite sure about whether I’m citing the character, the film or the country. This may work in the reader’s favour.

Salman Khan fans are spoilt for choice in Bharat. At least six films spread across seven decades scuffle for space within one 167-minute narrative. Forget double roles, you get 6 Salmans for the price of one. A part of me – one that mildly agrees in writer-director Ali Abbas Zafar’s (Sultan) ability to camouflage his superstar’s image – would like to believe that each of Bharat’s avatars is a Khan-ified homage to the symbolic Hindi movie hero of a particular decade. You have a 24-year old Khan in ‘60s Bharat customizing Raj Kapoor as a daring stuntman in a Russian Circus. You get a 30-year-old Khan in ‘70s Bharat customizing Amitabh Bachchan’s working-class hero as an oil-rig warrior saving the Middle Eastern day. The 30-year-old Khan simultaneously customizes Rajesh Khanna by romancing his superior, dancing badly and breaking societal barriers by her side. The ‘80s are appropriately ignored. Then you get a 56-year-old Khan in ‘90s Bharat customizing Shah Rukh Khan’s sensitive masculinity as a man unafraid to cry on camera. Finally, you have a 70-year-old Khan in today’s Bharat customizing Salman Khan’s legacy by defying genetics (a 44-year-old Sonali Kulkarni is 53-year-old Khan’s mother) and physics and logic to athletically beat up goons quarter his age. You also see shades of this decade’s Akshay Kumar in the way Bharat’s national anthem (or birthday song?) is sung in the most random situation. Or in the way a socially conscious Bharat inspires a trade union to boost the country’s economy by defying foreign investors.  

Finally, you have a 70-year-old Khan in today’s Bharat customizing Salman Khan’s legacy by defying genetics (a 44-year-old Sonali Kulkarni is 53-year-old Khan’s mother) and physics and logic to athletically beat up goons quarter his age.

But that’s just me willing Bharat to be a clever, self-aware film. The only thing it gets right is the choice of source material: a 2014 South Korean melodrama called Ode to my Father. You’d imagine a plot that depicts a country’s history through the journey of an ordinary man might be naturally suited to a Bollywood film’s penchant for excesses. In Bharat, however, the focus is somewhat reversed: We see a story that depicts the journey of an ordinary actor through a young country’s history. Most actors challenge themselves by revealing different mental dimensions of the same character; Khan uses the physical dimension of time to reveal different characters of the same actor. By being Bharat, he spares no age, genre and location to produce a Greatest Hits medley of his own 30-year-long Bollywood journey. He goes from age 8 to 70 in an awkward, episodic narrative that tips its hat to Khan’s transformation from Prem to Chulbul to Tiger to even the sanskaari Barjatya patriarch of the family that Prem once occupied. 

He goes from age 8 to 70 in an awkward, episodic narrative that tips its hat to Khan’s transformation from Prem to Chulbul to Tiger to even the sanskaari Barjatya patriarch of the family that Prem once occupied.

The entire film unravels in flashback, with an (allegedly) old, bearded Khan – whose birthday obviously coincides with India’s Independence Day – generously narrating his story (and by extension, his career) to multiple generations of his family. His voiceover hastily weaves national milestones – Nehru’s death, the Emergency, the 1983 World Cup win, globalization and the rise of Zee TV – into his endless experiences. Except for Mirpur’s Partition-themed opening scene in which a son is torn away from his father (Jackie Shroff), almost every subsequent segment of Bharat uses sociocultural commentary as a ruse to celebrate its famous superstar’s vanity. In fact, Khan attempts to adapt his own legacy by injecting each mini-film with self-reverential eulogies. For instance, you can almost hear the star address his fans when Bharat quits his circus gig because “I don’t want to inspire the nation’s youth to do dangerous stunts”. You can see him wink at us when Bharat convinces a supervisor to misrepresent his modest height during a physical exam. You can almost hear the man assure his adorers when Bharat shuns marriage in favour of familial responsibility and proclaims himself to be the “first free Indian whose mother has approved of my live-in relationship”. The therapy continues when partner Kumud (Kaif) tells him that he should not act like God because “He made you human.” There’s more, when Bharat throws back to the noble Bajrangi Bhaijaan by befriending a light-eyed little girl on the ship.

I suspect Khan’s reel-persona might not have needed a sprawling real-life backdrop to save Bharat’s family store. As a result, the writers try to merge tones by modifying real (history) to suit reel (hero) instead of vice versa. The result is ridiculous. Every phase is graced by an excuse to dress up and flaunt bodies. Disha Patani croons about “slow motion” at the circus; Diwali is celebrated at the oil-rig camp so that Katrina Kaif can dance in a sari amidst dunes and bite into jalebis as if they were mangoes in the Aamsutra ad; a wedding is held at Bharat’s residence so that Kaif can repeat this; Bharat saves his Muslim sidekick (Sunil Grover) repeatedly so that he can declare “Bharat ne bacha liya”. Bharat even joins the Navy so that the crew can travel to Malta, shoot an exotic song with Nora Fatehi and conclude a Somali-pirate hijacking with a sermon on racism and the African villain practically parodying Captain Phillips by bonding with Bharat on Amitabh Bachchan dialogues. Perhaps the most surreal part is the film’s take on the “Aman ki Asha” campaign – a hopelessly manipulative mining of Partition tales that might make Manto resurrect himself and scold Gandhi for producing Bharat. 

The reason a similarly episodic narrative worked in, say, a Forrest Gump is because its stilted nature is consistent with the storytelling skills of a mentally diminished protagonist. One can believe that someone like Gump would narrate his scarcely believable story in careless installments. The magic realism goes with his personality. There is no such excuse for Bharat. The greed to be relevant, at any cost, overhauls the desire to craft a modern-day fairytale. An example is the moment where, as mentioned earlier, Khan abruptly belts out Jana Gana Mana to win over an employment officer. It works on him, of course. Bharat goes to great lengths to outline the importance of individualism and secularity. But tell that to the unfortunate few who were heckled for not “standing” during the mid-movie anthem. A scuffle ensued in my hall. Expletives flowed. Films – as well as characters and countries – like Bharat are defined by this irony. 

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