Director: Ali Abbas Zafar
Cast: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Disha Patani, Sunil Grover
Early on in Bharat, Salman Khan declares in signature Salman Khan style: yeh sher buddha zaroor ho gaya hai lekin shikaar karna nahin bhoola.
That line summarizes everything that's admirable and flawed in the star's new film. It's admirable that Salman, who has built his colossal career largely playing a specific supersized persona, is willing to age onscreen. That our first glimpse of him is as a 70-year-old man with grey hair and furrowed brow. Director Ali Abbas Zafar pushes Salman into a new space. The director and actor, who collaborated earlier on Sultan and Tiger Zinda Hai, step out on a limb but they don't go far enough. The shikaar karna, which essentially means being a superhero, can't be abandoned. So even at 70, a Salman Khan character can beat up bad guys. And even when he plays an average, middle-class Indian, Salman's expansive biceps effortlessly carry the hopes and aspirations of a billion other Indians and the nation itself. Bharat isn't just a man. He is the embodiment of a strong, virtuous India.
Bharat is adapted from the South Korean blockbuster Ode To My Father, which itself has echoes of the 1994 classic Hollywood film Forrest Gump. These films place one man's fictional journey against historic events. You witness the journey of a nation, a culture and a people through the eyes of one man. Like Forrest Gump and Deok-soo in Ode To My Father, Bharat's journey spans decades – it begins with Partition in 1947 and ends in 2010. But there is a crucial difference – neither Forrest Gump, nor Deok-soo are positioned as superheroes. In fact, Forrest's low IQ places him at a distinct disadvantage. Both characters are ordinary men who are pushed by circumstances and their innate decency to do extraordinary things. Deok-soo makes a promise to his father to take care of his family and he does whatever it takes to fulfil that promise.
Bharat is about history but the film isn't aiming for historical authenticity. As the narrative moves through the decades, the demeanour and body language of the characters barely changes
Bharat also makes a promise to his father and spends the rest of the film fulfilling it. But Ali has the mammoth task of telling this ambitious, sprawling story while also keeping intact the Salman Khan mythology. Ali must cater to the legions of Bhai fans so Bharat must have swagger, he must have enough glamorous romantic songs, he must be able to vanquish any odds that come his way. In short, he must be – from the beginning to the end – resolutely heroic. Which takes away from the poignancy and emotion of the journey. I know nothing about Korean history but by the end of Ode To My Father, I was weeping like a baby. The film is a masterclass in melodrama. In comparison, Bharat is bloated and inconsistent.
Bharat begins and ends well. Ali stages the Partition sequence with skill – we see the violence but as the camera swirls around the chaos, the emphasis is on emotion. High emotion also carries the climax. It's impossible not to be moved. The screenplay, by Ali and Varun V. Sharma, is episodic as Bharat goes through various stages of his life and some chapters are more successful than others. The circus stint seems to be designed solely to establish a de-aged Salman's prowess as an action and romantic star. He flirts with a trapeze artist played by Disha Patani. We are in post-Independence India but Disha's bare midriff doesn't reflect the era. Neither does their song – Slow Motion. The lyrics are aaja doob jaaoon teri aankhon ke ocean mein slow motion mein. At one point, she tells him: mera load mat le. Is this how people spoke back then?
Salman plays, as he often does, indestructible. There are glimpses of vulnerability but mostly, he's granite
Bharat is about history but the film isn't aiming for historical authenticity. As the narrative moves through the decades, the demeanour and body language of the characters barely changes. Neither does the language or the clothes. In fact, for long stretches, the historical touch points disappear. We forget what's happening in the country. Instead, in one episode after another, we see Bharat, propped by Julius Packiam's effective background score, display his courage and unwavering moral compass. We even get a sequence featuring sea pirates, which seems inspired by another Tom Hanks-starrer Captain Phillips. The scale is impressive but sequence goes from tense action to comedy and adds little to the story. Before this, Nora Fatehi dances vigorously in the song 'Turpeya' – all of which just seems like padding to ensure a paisa vasool Salman Khan entertainer on Eid.
Salman plays, as he often does, indestructible. There are glimpses of vulnerability – when he confesses his love for Kumud and at the end, when he weeps but mostly, he's granite. The film surrounds him with terrific actors – Sonali Kulkarni, Kumud Kumar Mishra, Shashank Arora – but they don't get much to do. I don't recall Shashank saying a single dialogue. Meanwhile Sonali, who is younger than Salman, plays his mother. The only two who manage to shine are Sunil Grover and Katrina Kaif. Sunil, who plays Bharat's childhood friend Vilayati, adds humanity and ache to the story even when it becomes outlandish. And Katrina imbues Madam Sir with strength and dignity. There is ease and heft in her performance, especially in scenes in which the aged Bharat and Kumud affectionately tease each other. And watch out for a lovely nod to the iconic Doordarshan newsreader Salma Sultan.
Madam Sir, a woman with courage and conviction, is the most memorable character in Bharat. I'd love to see contemporary history told from her perspective. This version has sweep and swagger but not enough soul.