Defending Aamir Khan’s performance in Laal Singh Chaddha is probably something that even the actor himself will not attempt to do (at least until the tide inevitably turns in his favour again). But it’s important to point out that, while occasionally jarring and generally ill-conceived, the problem here isn’t with his performance at all, but with the fundamental design of the titular character. Think of it as driving expertly through traffic, but in the wrong direction. It would require undeniable skill, but might actually be counterproductive to what you’re trying to achieve.
A remake of director Robert Zemeckis’ modern classic Forrest Gump, which won Tom Hanks the second of his two back-to-back Oscars, Laal Singh Chaddha bombed dramatically upon its release earlier this year. While the film itself wasn’t exactly panned by critics — the general consensus, as the kids would say, was that it was numbingly ‘mid’ — Khan’s central performance certainly didn’t win him any new fans. Instead, burned by the consecutive disappointment of Thugs of Hindostan and now this, it might have actually lost him some admirers.
The definition of a bad performance is when an actor routinely hits the wrong notes, and fails to communicate the underlying emotion of the scene. Khan’s acting in Laal Singh Chaddha, in fact, is actually quite consistent, and dare I say impressive, considering how difficult it can be to play characters like this. He gives Laal ticks and quirks that can be quite alienating, although it’s clear that he was going for naivete instead. The closest comparison that I can think of isn’t Shah Rukh Khan’s performance in My Name is Khan, or even Salman Khan’s in Tubelight — both films were close cousins to Forrest Gump, by the way — but Rowan Atkinson’s career-defining turn as Mr Bean. Admired as he might be, Mr Bean isn’t universally beloved. Unlike Forrest Gump, or even Laal, the audience is often laughing at him, and not with him. I can also imagine that a character like Mr Bean, written in the manner that he was, would’ve likely courted controversy had the show been released now, and not three decades ago.
Atkinson has described Mr Bean as “a child in a grown man’s body,” but the comparisons to Laal are purely superficial. Personality wise, they couldn’t be more different. Laal is an endlessly selfless man, while Mr Bean was generally inconsiderate — a character whose childlike antics would often be indistinguishable from childish tantrums. But still, he was endearing to many, mostly because of how pitch-perfect Atkinson was in the role. Mr Bean, as a character, was divisive because of his behaviour, but Laal is practically a saint. His divisiveness is a byproduct of what has been perceived as a bad performance.
Any actor would tell you that comedy is perhaps the most difficult thing to get right, mainly because, unlike other genres, comedy in cinema is achieved not through performance alone, but through a combination of editing, sound, and of course, writing. Performances such as this are even more difficult to pull off because the actor is required to dance to a beat that isn’t instantly recognisable, but especially when the rest of the cast has been instructed to play it absolutely straight. And so, when characters like the reformed terrorist Mohammad Paji (Manav Vij) and Laal’s mother (Mona Singh) behave in a comparatively more grounded, more relatable manner, it heightens the sense that there is something out of the ordinary — even extraordinary — about Laal. Underneath layers of digital de-ageing, and behind a virtual forcefield of externalised ticks — Khan mms and aahs and opens his eyes real wide — there is a soul.
Consider the two (or three) scenes — one at Marine Drive, another outside his family home in Punjab — in which Laal proposes marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Rupa (Kareena Kapoor Khan). At this point, Laal is aware that he is a neurodivergent person, but crucially, he still perceives this as some kind of weakness, a personality flaw. While he shows zero spatial awareness — figuratively speaking, of course — when he’s casually recalling stories about Shah Rukh Khan and offhandedly mentioning that he founded a business empire, there’s always an undercurrent of sadness in his interactions with Rupa. Deep down, Laal knows that she’s unattainable, and he can’t help but feel that it’s his fault. He shows no such inhibitions in his interactions with Mohammad Paji, or even the train passengers that he is regaling with the story of his life. But there’s always a slight hesitation in his voice when it comes to Rupa.
Khan’s performance is notably muted in these scenes; he’s less animated, even though the superficialities are all still intact. He still mms and aahs and opens his eyes real wide. But confronted with the very real possibility of losing Rupa, he’s more toned down, more careful; there’s a stillness to his physicality, which offers a poignant contrast to how animated he usually is. Laal is somebody who is constantly on the move, but he doesn’t quite know where he’s going. Rupa is both his anchor and his North Star.
It is in these scenes that you recognise, perhaps unexpectedly, that even though he is such an outward character, Laal has internal struggles that would never have been communicated had it not been for Khan’s performance. He was brave on the battlefront, but face-to-face with the love of his life, his voice barely rises above a whisper. “Will you marry me?” he asks her, like a child broaching a taboo topic at home. “Do you even know what marriage means?” she replies. He says he does, but you don’t believe him until Rupa walks away, and director Advait Chandan moves in for a close-up of Laal’s face, lingering briefly on the tears in his eyes.
And at no point do you sense Aamir Khan poking his head from behind the character, like most stars of his stature — across the world — would’ve done. For better or worse, this is Laal. He’s a fully formed person, who through the course of the film, accumulates not only wealth, but also wisdom. If anything, Khan has overcommitted to a flawed bit. I wouldn’t want to presume that Chandan couldn’t sway him to conform with the tone of the film, but this is exactly what happens when a lead star, however talented, isn’t on the same page as their director.
In the film’s final moments, when Rupa introduces Laal to a son that he never knew he had, Khan still mms and aahs and opens his eyes real wide, but this time, it’s as if the very ground has been removed from under his feet. The ticks remain even when he sits down next to Rupa’s grave and tells her about the son whom she won’t see grow up. They aren’t the problem. They were never the problem.
There’s a lot wrong with Laal Singh Chaddha. It’s oddly paced, it’s episodic, and it doesn’t really push the boundaries thematically — in its approach to politics, the film seems positively petrified. But despite the sweeping tonal shifts and the ever-evolving plot requirements, Khan remains determined in his commitment to what is the most unnecessarily over-designed lead character in any Hindi film this year.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.