Director: Aanand L Rai
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif
In Aanand L Rai's Zero, Shah Rukh Khan plays the vertically challenged Bauua Singh – though in one extraordinary scene, he seems to be playing himself. Earlier in the film, we have seen Bauua perform this trick. He begins counting down from ten – a precursor to him actually being part of a countdown to zero – and at the end, he swipes the sky as though it were a tablet and he was moving to the next screen. And lo, a stationary star slips out of its place and shoots across the darkness. He attempts this again at a party graced by Bollywood celebrities, but look carefully and you'll see it's not a lazy Om Shanti Om-like homage to stars on earth. From Sridevi (Army) to Alia Bhatt (Dear Zindagi), they've all been Shah Rukh Khan's co-stars. They gather around Bauua to see him perform his trick. He tries and tries. The stars above don't budge. Is it the 38-year-old Bauua (who keeps emphasising his dimples and stretching out his arms in love) who's suddenly lost his power? Or are we seeing the fifty-something Shah Rukh Khan, now in a well-acknowledged career crisis, unable to recreate the magic he once did, with the likes of Deepika Padukone and Juhi Chawla?
One of his heroines in this film is Anushka Sharma. She plays (rather showily and inconsistently) a space researcher named Aafia, who's afflicted with cerebral palsy. The character's profession reminds you of Shah Rukh's in Swades, and her unusual-for-the-movies condition is something like the Asperger's syndrome we saw in Shah Rukh, in My Name is Khan. (The latter film also appears to inspire a laugh-out-loud terrorist-themed joke from Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who, as always, gets to play the best friend.) But if you think we're in for another Fan-like disquisition on a star's stardom, consider that Anushka's teary wedding scene brings to mind the one from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Or that the screen goddess Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif), too, blurs the line between true-life and on-screen fantasy. Babita gets a Sheila ki jawaani-like item song (the very catchy Husn parcham, sadly not used in its entirety). But she's had a bad breakup with a "Kapoor", to whom she says, later, "Main pari hoon. Band kamre mein par nikal aate hain mere." (I'm an angel. I have wings.) Now, recall the Zoya Akhtar segment in Bombay Talkies, where Katrina played… an angel, with silvery wings. And what does one make of the dance competition reminiscent of the one in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (a film that starred Anushka), except that, this time, it's to impress Katrina? Could it be no accident that these heroines were chosen to star opposite Shah Rukh so that we'd remember Jab Tak Hai Jaan as well?
Zero riffs on the director's oeuvre, too: his penchant for jagged love triangles with entitled, borderline-obnoxious and sacred thread-flaunting Brahmin characters; the stars we find in his films (Abhay Deol, R Madhavan in a haircut that clearly was inspired by a floppy cabbage leaf); and the small-town colour and flavour that he's single-handedly brought back to our screens again. And perhaps the film is also a nod to Hindi cinema from before any of these names were a part of it. If Bauua breaks into a boisterous dance as Humko tumpe pyaar aaya plays, it's a nod not only to the Kapoor family that has been on screen for almost as long as our cinema has, but also to the Shashi Kapoor-Nanda starrer, Jab Jab Phool Khile, the story of an upper-class girl falling rather improbably for a small-town boy. Throw in Bauua donning Aamir's Dhoom 3 costume and, later, dancing with Salman, and you have one Khan acknowledging the other two Khans who, with him, have dominated a generation of Bollywood.
This is Aanand L Rai's most fluid film. The absurdism cancels out the rocky narrative patches that were so problematic in his earlier (and far more conventional) outings. He makes us take a huge leap of faith, one that involves chimpanzees and cuckoo metaphors and surreal role-playing
When I saw the Shah Rukh-Salman dance in the teaser that was released long ago, I thought Zero would be a very massy movie, that it was Shah Rukh's all-out effort to woo the single-screen audience by co-starring with the single screen's biggest star-icon. But this is not that movie at all – and it's not just the lorry load of meta references crammed into it. What do we have here, then? Put bluntly, it's a tall story woven around a short man. And the tone is established right away, with Bauua telling his friend how he met Aafia. Are we really to believe that a NASA-level scientist's details are available with a matrimonial broker in Meerut, where Bauua is from? Or that this "way out of his league" woman ( as Aafia puts it) would fall for the tenth standard-pass Bauua simply because he doesn't pity her and (due to his height) doesn't have to bend down to speak to her?
But then, would you believe Babita Kumari's story about her parents, which travels from Madagascar to Egypt to Yemen? This is too scattered a screenplay to pin down the "unreliable narrator" trope on, but how else do you explain why Bauua's height is pegged at 4'2" in one scene and 4'6" in another? I was reminded, throughout, of fanciful, outlandish novels where the protagonist doesn't "grow up", in a sense – say, Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, or John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (where the protagonist is, again, a dwarf). The "logical" questions melt away because Rai and his writer, Himanshu Sharma, are in such firm control of the absurdity of it all. This is, after all, a film that opens like a Western, takes detours into the musical and the melodrama, before taking a jaw-dropping leap into sci-fi.
Peel these trappings away – the meta references, the genre-hopping, the absurdism – and you get a classic story of romance and repentance. The cliché "I love you to the moon and back" is amplified into the newspaper headline, "From Meerut to Mars". And boy, do these portions sing. An anti-gravity sequence between Aafia and Bauua is at once bonkers and astounding, and a subsequent scene with shooting stars made my heart swell. There's real movie magic at work here. In an earlier scene, Bauua speaks about how his heart wants Aafia but how his heart wants Babita, too. (He's a crazy… fan.) Usually, such a line would play on the contrast between "dil" and "dimaag", that the heart wants one woman but the mind wants another. But here, as Aafia says, it's "donon dil," both hearts. Zero is all heart. It probably won't work if you start thinking about the probability of it all, but after a wobbly half-hour or so – the narrative takes some time to steady itself, or maybe I needed the time to adjust to these rhythms (or lack of them) – I found the film easy to embrace.
The OTT contrivances are matched by the OTT style. Take the gorgeous Ajay-Atul ballad, Mere naam tu. The symphonic orchestration is OTT. The lyrics (As long as there are mornings and evenings on this earth / You are mine) are OTT. The Holi colours are OTT. The superb (somewhat avant garde) choreography is OTT. Manu Anand's tracking, zooming, sweeping camera is OTT. And just as you think there can be nothing more, the clouds burst forth. And yet, all this romanticism is tempered with an unexpected (and refreshing) brittleness. Tigmanshu Dhulia and Sheeba Chaddha play Bauua's parents, and usually, their disappearance in the latter parts of the film would make you think it's a screenwriting hole – but Bauua is so self-centred that you don't doubt for a minute that he forgets his parents the instant he steps out of Meerut. The way Bauua treats Aafia, at first, is horrible. (He wants to establish his superiority over her.) But he's a man who wakes up every morning and clicks a selfie. The way he looks at it, he's been screwed over by life, too, and when he doesn't pity himself, he can't bring himself to pity others. (Thus, the very trait that endears Aafia to Bauua – that he doesn't pity her, like others do – isn't so much a virtue as unadulterated cockiness.) Shah Rukh is fantastic. The cruel streaks in his character (until he softens at the end) allow him to play more shades than he'd have managed in a standard-issue, limpid-eyed Raj-Rahul role. (The special effects that downsize him are adequate enough to make us believe.)
This is Aanand L Rai's most fluid film. The absurdism cancels out the rocky narrative patches that were so problematic in his earlier (and far more conventional) outings. He makes us take a huge leap of faith, one that involves chimpanzees and cuckoo metaphors and surreal role-playing (like how Babita is dressed exactly like Aafia in a wedding-scene shoot). At every point, the director and writer seem to be thinking: how do we break out of the box? How do you show closeness? By having Aafia pee, with Bauua near her. How do you show Bauua is still thinking of Aafia? By having him spit out a slice of lemon (after a drink) the exact way she did. How do you show the interconnectedness between Aafia and Babita? With mirroring bathroom scenes. How do you show Bauua getting slapped to his senses? With a scene involving his… Aadhar card. Zero is so weird, so out-there, so original that even Katrina Kaif is motivated into giving an actual performance. Babita is brittle, too. She's abrasive with fans, and as self-absorbed as Bauua is. She kisses him on the lips with the supreme confidence that no one's going to believe him when he recounts this incident. But by the end, she looks up at the sky, smiles, and recounts this incident herself: "I kissed this man." It's the triumph of love in the most audacious love story of the year.