Director: Aanand L. Rai
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma
The truth is that I’m still trying to understand Zero. The story begins in Meerut and somehow moves to Mars. It’s so bizarre and implausible and incoherent that I kept wondering if pages in the script went missing or too many scenes were slashed or if I’m just missing the point. There are so many ferociously talented people both in front of the camera and behind it, starting with director Aanand L. Rai, writer Himanshu Sharma and of course superstar Shah Rukh Khan. But I walked out, feeling like Dhritarashtra from the climax of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. I could only ask: yeh sab kya ho raha hai?
The beginning is smashing. We are introduced to Bauua Singh, a 4 foot 2-inch ball of cockiness and charm. It’s Shah Rukh grabbing the riskiest role of his career with both hands and owning it one hundred percent. Bauua is at half-mast only physically. What he lacks in height, he makes up with attitude, swagger and a wicked sense of humor. In one scene, he’s sitting in the women’s bathroom and he tells someone: aajao aunty main toh bachha hoon. He occasionally rails against the universe for loading the deck against him at birth but Bauua doesn’t feel sorry for himself and he doesn’t allow you to do it either. Most importantly, Bauua dreams in 70 mm. When he falls in love, he says: sapne size dekh kar nahin aate. Is liye is chote se aadmi ne aapka dekh liya.
And this is precisely where this promising premise derails. Cinema is all about suspension of disbelief. And for more than 25 years, Shah Rukh has made us believe that any woman can fall in love with him. But here Aanand and Himanshu set up a match so outlandish that your eyes roll up into your brains. Aafia is a globe-trotting, world-famous scientist who has discovered water on Mars. She even tells Bauua, “Main tumhari league se bahut bahar hoon.” And then of course she falls for this vertically challenged, uneducated man because, she says, “Mujhe ganwar pasand hai.” Aafia has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheel chair so she is one of the few people who match Bauua’s eyeline. Basically, the film suggests that all her accomplishments are flattened by her condition. She and Bauua are equal.
I think Aanand and Himanshu are attempting here to create a fable-like love story that suggests beauty in incompleteness and how two seemingly disadvantaged people can make a whole. But they aren’t willing to fully let go Shah Rukh’s heroism so he must have a romantic ballad in which he wears a tux and stretches his arms. At the end, he’s also established as a brave patriot. Anushka Sharma’s inconsistent and clumsy rendition of cerebral palsy doesn’t help either – for a far better take, see Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw. Incredibly, Katrina Kaif does much better as Babita Kumari, the Bollywood superstar lost in drink and a fog of sadness after being dumped. Babita is brittle and fully comprehending of the ugliness behind the spotlight. With constantly running mascara and a bottle in her hand, she’s a mess. Katrina hits all the right notes. It’s her best performance in years.
These characters are individually interesting – there’s enough material here for another film about Bauua’s fractious and superbly funny relationship with his dad, played nicely by Tigmanshu Dhulia, whom he calls by his name, Ashok. But the connective tissue between these people is so thin that the narrative starts to wobble precariously. Which leads to compensation through cameo – Salman Khan arrives to shake a leg. There’s a Bollywood party scene featuring a line of stunning leading ladies including the late Sridevi. But with each scene, we get further and further away from Aanand and Himanshu’s core talent, which is creating rooted worlds about real people, that are propelled by rich emotion. Eventually we end up at a space center in America where a gun, a chimpanzee and a baby occupy the same stage, and later, a character utters this classic line: According to you, chimpanzee ki family usse Mars nahin jaane de rahi hai.
Zero strains for sweep and scale. The visual language suggests a glamorous fairy tale. The VFX is convincing and I loved the Ajay-Atul ballad Mere Naam Tu. But the rest of this film left me stumped and eventually, sad. Because when artists take such ambitious creative risks, you are really rooting for them to succeed.