As narrator Salman Khan, the superstar behind the unremarkable everyman Bharat (named after India) likes to tell it, there are only few stories in the world and yet, everybody has a story within them. Released recently on Eid, a time of the year when Khan gives his annual Eidi to millions of fanboys in the form of his sakshat darshan on screen, Bharat is purported to be the journey of one man and nation together. It’s definitely the journey of one man, glorified beyond logic. It’s possible, along the way, the scriptwriters forgot about the nation.
Salman Khan is no Saleem Sinai (protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, born on the midnight of India’s Independence in 1947) but he is no less than Saleem Sinai either. In the novel, Saleem is endowed with supernatural powers. On screen, Salman is a force of nature. In 2017’s dud Tubelight, he was the man-child mocked by the entire neighbourhood for his dim-wittedness but he was a special kid who had the “self-belief” to move mountains. (There is ACTUALLY a scene demonstrating that very act). Bharat seems to be designed to right the wrongs of Tubelight, but it’s as colossal a misfire as the 2017 disaster was, probably one of the rare few commercial failures of a superstar at the peak of his popularity. However, if the fast-selling tickets in the festive season is anything to go by, Bharat is set to be a box-office winner.
If Tubelight was about a 50-plus superstar with a chest line to match trying so hard to turn on the childlike charm, Bharat is about Salman as a 70-year-old who struts around in a bulked-up body of a wrestler. That physique worked beautifully in Sultan, where the down-and-out has-been emerges out of his slumber to win big. But Bharat has no need for it, except that you are forced by market diktats to include a mandatory scene where the old tiger has lost none of his bite. One scene has the “bade miyan” bashing up a group of attackers on a Delhi street. Bharat also stars Katrina Kaif. If she blew your mind in Zero, she is going to win you over this time with her vastly-improved acting chops. As Bharat’s lady love (Bharat and Kumud, the Katrina character, are, according to the film, “India’s first live-in couple”), she takes the role that Priyanka Chopra didn’t think much of and chews on it until she gets it right. Imagine a film where Katrina Kaif is the best reason to watch it! Sunil Grover, who plays Bharat’s childhood friend, is another actor who makes Bharat somewhat bearable. But in the end, it’s a Salman Khan film and others are hired only to make Salman Khan look like Salman Khan. This includes Tabu, who is utterly wasted.
Tiger in action
In the opening scene, Bharat announces his arrival by roughing up the builder conspiring to construct a shining new mall in old Delhi where Bharat runs a grocery shop. “Yeh sher boodha zaroor ho gaya hai par shikaar karna nahin bhoola,” roars the Ek Tha Tiger star, amidst much applause in the theater. These are the kind of massy lines that audiences have come to expect from the 53-year-old actor. The plot, logic or historical accuracy be damned. Bharat is Salman and director Ali Abbas Zafar’s attempt at a historical sweep. In Kabir Khan’s Tubelight, Mahatma Gandhi was invoked. Here, Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency is quickly glossed over. So is Manmohan Singh’s famous liberalization of the Indian economy, 1983 World Cup win, the advent of Doordarshan and the arrival of cultural heroes like Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin Tendulkar in the 1990s.
There are also hat tips to Amitabh Bachchan, including one supposedly comic scene involving Somalian pirates who turn out to be Big B fans. As the Bachchan playlist is tuned on, the pirates forget that they are here to plunder and instead, dance the night away on 70s hits. Subtle hints at Salim-Javed are strewn all over: rising unemployment and Emergency (the two primary reasons why the Angry Young Man was, err, angry), Kala Patthar, Deewaar and lost-and-found (admittedly, more Manmohan Desai and Kadar Khan than Salim-Javed). Early on, Bharat promises that his life is way more eventful and colourful than the greys on his head and beard. But the film seems to define ‘colourful’ as covering Bharat’s life like a nostalgia trip in which he traverses the great distances without nuance, reducing a great tragedy like Partition to overgrown schoolboy’s limited idea of history.
Salman’s historical sweep
Partition is the one great theme of Bharat. “Keep the family together,” becomes Khan’s dictum whilst he loses his father (Jackie Shroff, who keeps appearing throughout the film in a station master regalia) and sister on the eve of Partition as they board a train to Delhi from native Mirpur. With a name like Bharat, you know patriotism – a subject that has become a huge money-spinner at the box-office in the Modi era – isn’t far away. In the patriotism department, Salman is second perhaps only to Akshay Kumar. One scene even has Bharat initiating the national anthem, a gesture that basically gets him the oil rig job in the middle east that he craves for. In the theater, as that scene played out, many a patriot arose while others, ostensible lesser-patriots, didn’t know how to respond to a situation like this. On June 6, Salman himself tweeted that he felt “happiest and proudest” that people stood up on that scene as a “mark of respect.”
Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan, Tubelight, Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai, almost all recent Salman hits, have pulled in the patriotism angle. Though largely apolitical, Salman is turning out to be unexpectedly good at reading where the narrative is heading. Off to a bumper start, according to trade reports, Bharat is yet another Salman Khan film that is designed purely to flatter the Salman Khan mythology. It plays like a three-hour-long “Being Human” advertisement, telling us how good Bharat is and how he is a metaphor for India itself.