Bharat Movie Review: Salman Khan Revisits Indian History In An Underwhelming Wannabe-Saga, Film Companion

Director: Ali Abbas Zafar

Cast: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Disha Patani, Sunil Grover

Well into the second half of Bharat, the eponymous protagonist (Salman Khan, at his muscliest) finds himself on  a merchant navy vessel. Before you can say Captain Phillips, they are attacked by Somali pirates. The crew turns on the water cannons, but nothing works. The pirates are soon on board, and they want the stuff theatre owners hope to make a lot of with an Eid-release Salman Khan starrer. Pleading doesn’t help, so Bharat does the next best thing. Learning that the pirates are Amitabh Bachchan fans, he begins to dance to a medley of Bachchan hits — and the pirates join in. It’s a supremely silly scene (and not the good kind of silly, like the ship’s captain, played by Satish Kaushik, speaking in a gibberish tongue), but it’s there for a reason: to demonstrate Bharat’s (i.e. the nation’s) soft power. Even in Africa, there’s apparently no resisting the… naach-Ghana.

The country’s burgeoning soft power (and not just the odd Raj Kapoor film being celebrated in the former USSR). Ties with the former USSR (or perhaps the Great Russian Circus that comes to Delhi is more of a Raj Kapoor nod, with a young Amitabh Bachchan in the audience picking up a career tip or two). Nehru’s death. The unemployment crisis documented in popular films like Mere Apne. The advent of Doordarshan. The 1983 World Cup win. Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms. The Gulf-worker boom. Maybe even the spread of malls and live-in relationships. Bharat takes everything in its sweep, and tops it with a big, fat dose of patriotism. The film opens with a dedication “to all the fathers who are our heroes… and all the mothers who are our superheroes.” The latter could be Mother India. At one point, Bharat launches into the national anthem in its entirety and some of the people around me began to stand up. Bharat is the kind of film you’d expect Akshay Kumar to make.

Also Read: Bharat Movie Review: Sweep And Swagger But Not Enough Soul

The scene with the anthem exists in the 2014 South Korean melodrama Ode to My Father, whose screenplay begins in the present day — with an aged protagonist (the wrinkly makeup is iffy) — and keeps dipping into events from the past. Bharat is an official adaptation, and it follows this format faithfully, right down to the iffy, wrinkly makeup. Its screenplay is some sort of tour through the highlights of our country’s history, starting with the Partition. But the grand unifying idea of Bharat the Man Forrest Gump-ing his way through milestones of Bharat the Nation never comes together.

The problem isn’t the source, which is so blatantly manipulative it practically cries out for an Indian remake. Even with no holds barred, a South Korean melodrama is still “tasteful” (or “Western”) enough to make us sense the dissonance between form and content. Better to do it our way. With songs and colour and score (Julius Packiam) and emotions that can be picked up by the outer galaxies, our mainstream format is practically an udder for milking tears. (It’s possibly another reason the cow is a national metaphor.) Take the early scene, set in 2010, where Bharat meets a broker who wants him to sell his small shop to developers with “foreign” interests. The man is literally hung from a noose, and when you see the name of the shop, you see why. How can any self-respecting son of Bharat — especially one named after the country — tolerate this attempt to sell out “Hind Ration Store”? You can go crazy ping-ponging between the use of the film’s title as the name of a man, and as the name of a nation.

The comedy consists of drawstring-style underwear being blown this way and that by table fans. As for tragedy, key people die off screen

As a fan of Sultan, also directed by Ali Abbas Zafar (he wrote this film with Varun V Sharma), I came into Bharat with hope. This is a filmmaker who knows his way around what we now call “old-fashioned” storytelling. He knows which beats to amp up. He knows how to make us stand up and cheer for his protagonists (and not just because the national anthem is playing). But Bharat is rooted neither in the cinema traditions of the decades it covers nor is it the designer masala of this day. It’s a series of very perfunctorily staged scenes that flit past us. This happened. And then, this happened. And then this.

There’s no emotional mooring, because Bharat makes the same mistake that the original did. The crux of both films is that the protagonist is separated from his father and sister, and his whole life is dedicated to his father’s request at the time of parting: Look after the family. This leads to a powerfully sentimental reunion scene (at least in Ode to My Father) towards the end, but this emotional thread is constantly frayed amidst all the rummaging around in history. We want characters whose fates will make us laugh and cry. But the comedy consists of drawstring-style underwear being blown this way and that by table fans. (The laugh quotient is… nada.) As for tragedy, key people die off screen. This is not a plea for drawn-out deathbed moments, but in a film so mindful of history, wouldn’t it help to at least witness the decoupling of another link to the past?

Just wait till you get to the action scene in Bharat, near the end. You can smell the desperation that they’ve gotten this far without any bhai-ceps being flexed

Even the romance between Bharat and Kumud (Katrina Kaif, who still pronounces “bilkul” like “bill cool”, and is unconvincing from start to finish) produces no great feeling. The film treats this angle as simply a pretext for a generic duet, or a wedding dance-off. I’m no fan of Salman’s Tiger movies, but at least they exist in a la-la land where you don’t wince at the commercial elements. Just wait till you get to the action scene in Bharat, near the end. You can smell the desperation that they’ve gotten this far without any bhai-ceps being flexed. It’s less about Bharat beating up a bunch of goons than Salman Khan ensuring his eager fans don’t beat up the man running the projector.

A very game Sunil Grover crosses the very low bar of delivering the film’s finest performance. And the razzle-dazzle kitsch surrounding Vishal-Shekhar’s catchy Slow Motion number is fun on the big screen. Otherwise, I was reduced to playing little guessing games to entertain myself. Will Shashank Arora stop with the reaction shots and actually speak, or is he playing the world’s first movie character mimicking a series of emojis? Maybe Priyanka Chopra decided to marry Nick Jonas because she came to the awful Malta scenes in the script and realised she needed an excuse, any excuse, to wiggle out of this movie? And what about Disha Patani, who’s named Radha and saddled with a line suited to Sangam-era Vyjayanthimala? “Maa baap ne naam rakha Radha. Kisi bhi Radha ko uska Krishna milta nahin.” What, wait! She was in the film for three seconds and now she’s in love with Bharat? He’s Krishna, now? The God whose crown had a feather from… India’s national bird? Ah, now it all makes sense. I think. In any case, the only line that matters in Bharat is the one that a seventy-something Bharat growls: “Yeh sher boodha zaroor ho gaya hai par shikaar karna nahin bhoola.” In other words, India’s national animal is alive and kicking. Tiger Zinda Hai!

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