Director: Aanand L. Rai
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
Early on in Zero, we see Bauua Singh, a 38-year-old Meerut resident with an offensive sense of humour, leap onto the seat of a crusty movie theater and dance with gay abandon. He enjoys an item song. A half-naked Katrina Kaif writhes to music on screen. I think: How quaint, a metaphor detailing Shah Rukh Khan’s fierce post-2010 desire to win over single-screen audiences. An analogy for his accessibility, perhaps. Further proof arrives in the form of a dance-off with Salman Khan, the ultimate single-screen messiah, at a venue that looks like a renovated MMA dungeon. The subtext is undeniable. Even Kaif is playing herself; she obsesses about an ex named Mr. Kapoor.
I find some more subtext: Bauua is a huge Bollywood fan, which is why he behaves uncannily like Shah Rukh Khan, spreads his arms, sings romantic songs, flashes his dimples and references them extensively, woos a girl in the corniest ways possible, sees stars in a polluted night sky, and then flakes on the girl because cinema has given the small-town man an unrealistic perception of love and physicality. “But you drink alcohol; girls like you are not supposed to get serious about guys like me,” he explains. And he chases the glamorous, arrogant larger-than-life superstar instead. I think: How clever, a nod to Gaurav, his starry-eyed counterpart from Fan. Further proof arrives in how he sees everyone from Alia Bhatt to Kajol to Rani Mukerji to Deepika Padukone and the late Sridevi at a randomly placed promotional event.
Once the 580-minute-long second half begins, however, I realize that maybe – just maybe – the writer didn’t quite intend for subtext, or even text at times, as much as I set about looking for some. I saw what I wanted to see, like the cerebral version of that shallow chap from a crass Hollywood comedy who sees people’s inner beauty reflected in their frumpy outward appearance. At one point, a couple argues while floating emotionally in a zero gravity chamber. Zero Gravity. No. No more. That’s when the rose-tinted glasses come off, and it hits me: Is Bauua…a dwarf? Does Afia have…cerebral palsy? Is Katrina playing an alcoholic superstar named…Babita Kumari? Are Alia, Katrina and Deepika really in…one frame? Is this film not called…Hero?
I never thought I’d say this, but here goes: Katrina Kaif is the best thing about Zero. If not for her love affair with Jesus Christ, she might have been the best thing about the god-awful Jab Tak Hai Jaan, too – the last movie starring this doomed trio. The Bermuda Triangle is the only triangle that comes to mind with these three, mostly because the audiences that dare to enter their story never find themselves again. She drinks herself silly, almost as if she can foretell the fate of the film. Almost as if she can see a scene ahead that involves an angry monkey, human baby, gun, wheelchair and R. Madhavan’s haircut on the same stage. A dramatic scene, no less. Followed by a mugging at Times Square and a free-for-all “competition” to qualify as the first human to reach Mars. Maybe she could almost hear Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Ridley Scott (The Martian), Ashutosh Gowarikar (Swades) and Damien Chazelle (First Man) collectively gasp at the prospect of realizing that “Liftoff” in their shuttle-launch countdowns is Zero for the country that invented zero.
I never thought I’d say this, but here goes: Katrina Kaif is the best thing about Zero. If not for her love affair with Jesus Christ, she might have been the best thing about the god-awful Jab Tak Hai Jaan, too – the last movie starring this doomed trio.
Kaif has the most able part in a film that thinks disability is merely an accessory designed to enable an actor’s stature. This isn’t all that surprising in an industry where ambition is measured by the pectoral scale of six-pack abs and protein shakes. Bauua Singh is a gimmick, as is (a horribly performed) Afia. Khan tries, but he has clocked way too many years as a witty conversationalist and dream interviewee to reconnect with the craft that put him in those seats. The more I see him struggling to undo his self-reverence within movies, the more I feel like going back in time and appreciating Fan for its aspirations. It might, after all, be the last Hindi film to feature Shah Rukh Khan as we’d want to remember him: audacious, edgy, talented. As for Anushka, she always swings hard, but it’s only opposite Khan that she spectacularly misses. Afia is a half-Afghani scientist for NASA – which is enough of a “condition” in contemporary cinema. She didn’t need more of our sympathy.
I’ve always maintained that writer Himanshu Sharma is better at colouring a scene – with banter, energy, personality – than connecting them. He is terrible at forming a coherent screenplay out of them; this was especially evident in the Tanu Weds Manu series. Here, this flaw is amplified tenfold, much like how most storytellers’ flaws these days seem to amplify tenfold when Shah Rukh Khan is occupied in their vision. In fact, even the texture of his scenes might have been handicapped if not for the characters’ disabilities. Bauua and Afia are shown to partake in the kind of chemistry where they openly mock each other’s deficiencies – a ‘romantic’ trait that makes us thankful for Barfi being deaf and mute around an autistic Jhilmil.
Some of the film’s best lines, again, belong to Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays the little man’s best friend. But he, too, is half-blind. You get the gist. On another day, I’d have looked at his partial blindness as a metaphor for Bauua’s half-ticket stature or Aanand L. Rai’s half-witted film. Or maybe because he can sense two imperfect halves yearning to form a perfect full. But as they say: subtext lies in the eyes of the beholder. Today, his blindness exists only so that a glass eye makes him the comic in the group of pariahs. Maybe, though, there is more to Bauua’s cosmic gesture of love: he can conjure up shooting stars by simply tracing his finger across the sky. In other words: A star, falling, once the count reaches zero. And crashing down to earth.