Dir. Kabir Khan
Salman Khan is certainly a subject of much controversy, what with blackbuck hunting, deadly driving, and rumored physical abuse of former lovers. But he is also a sort of Teflon superstar; the controversies don't stick, at least not enough to tarnish the love of his legions of devoted fans, nor enough to bite into the bottom line. I've acknowledged before that I have an incongruous soft spot for him - for his onscreen persona, I mean, which belies with teddy-bear sweetness all the self-absorption and violence of the trouble he's gotten himself into off screen. And in what the cynical will surely see as a calculated masterstroke of public relations, his titular character in Bajrangi Bhaijaan is nothing if not the apotheosis of Khan's childlike, gentle giant avatar that, despite myself, I do find quite appealing.
If you can't bring yourself to watch Salman Khan films because of one or the other rotten thing he's likely done, I won't argue with you about it - it's a reasonable position to take, and I won't begrudge it or judge it or attempt any argument in his favor. But I also advise you not to read any further, because I have nothing more to say about the matter. I have only squeeing delight at the lovable fun that is every minute of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. It is a genuinely entertaining film.(*)
Among its pleasures is a soundtrack that runs the gamut from a couple of terrific traditional qawwalis to a chicken song danced by Khan and Kareena Kapoor; a satisfying fight scene in a brothel that is sufficiently stylized (and bloodless) and crafted with a touch of humor as to have the flavor of a throwback to 70s masala; and a mute little girl with the cutest smile you've seen in the movies since maybe Jugal Hansraj in Masoom. That's right, Salman Khan, the big lug, gets his heart strings pulled by an adorable little moppet, and so do we: Bajrangi Bhaijaan is about as emotionally manipulative a narrative as you'll ever see. But it's no criticism to call this out. Most films are emotionally manipulative, in the sense that they aim to make you feel something, and use craft to varying degrees to achieve that end. Bajrangi Bhaijaan makes no pretense about being emotionally manipulative, and the manipulation itself is so satisfying that submitting to it is a pleasure.
Indeed, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a most Rajkumar-Hirani-esque movie, with its capacity to entertain with cleverly crafted humor while preaching life lessons that ought to be obvious but are somehow charming and leave you grinning like a dope the whole time. It posits a fantastical sort of world, in which innocence is protected and cherished rather than taken advantage of. In this world, love conquers prejudice and even the dourest doubter can be won over just by the desire to put wrongs to right. The title character (whose name is actually Pawan) is Salman Khan's most bhola-bhala incarnation ever, so committed to honesty that he blurts out all kinds of uncomfortable truths - even the little girl, Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra), is sometimes exasperated by his complete lack of self-preservation instinct. (She acquires an adorable gesture with which she expresses this exasperation, a face-palm followed by extending the hand in helpless questioning.) Yet somehow, Pawan's open-faced earnestness makes people want to help him in all kinds of improbable ways. In the world of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Pawan succeeds not by guile, but by utter guilelessness.
When Pawan meets Shahida, he doesn't know she is a Muslim, or from Pakistan. He takes her for a Brahmin because, he says, she is fair-skinned; underlying this is his assumption that his beloved Bajrang Bali wouldn't spark such an emotional connection in him to one not of his caste and community. This bias is not presented as an angry or hateful one, but rather a product of Pawan's naivete. (Contrast the blustery spouting of the same prejudices by Pawan's soon-to-be father-in-law, in whom it is wholly unsympathetic.) It is a slow process of correction by which Pawan comes to see the truth about Shahida. Pawan is stunned to find Shahida eating meat, but he rationalizes this discovery by concluding that she must be a Kshatriya - not Brahmin, but still sufficiently savarna as to not be too different from his sphere. And after he recovers from his initial shock, he and Rasika (Kareena Kapoor) take her to a restaurant that serves chicken a hundred ways, and sing a whole delightful song to her about it. Later, to Pawan's horror, Shahida trots off into a mosque, and finally the truth comes out when she commits the most egregious blasphemy of all: rooting for the wrong side in the India v. Pakistan cricket match. (She is, after all, named for Shahid Afridi.) And so Pawan's prejudices, and the path he takes to overcome them, are presented lovingly, as the opening of a heart that is already more open than one might have thought possible. Indeed, when Rasika finally makes explicit the implicit message here - that casteist and communal prejudices are stupid - she tells him that she wouldn't expect that great big heart she fell in love with could never harbor such small-minded notions.
But the real reason that Pawan can adjust his world view to make room for Shahida is because by the time he figures out her origins he is completely in love with her. And so are we. Shahida looks out at the world through saucer-sized eyes, and flashes a mischeivous, radiant smile delicious enough to upstage the high-wattage star power that mills around her. I would say that she is the true delight of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, but that would undersell the other terrific performances in the film, like Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Chand Nawab, a two-bit TV reporter in Pakistan (think the "Danka TV" guys from Tere Bin Laden) who, like many others in the film, is won over by Pawan's purity of heart and joins his quest to reunite Shahida with her family. Nawab, too, is happy to join in the movie's fantasy world, a respite from our much harsher, more cynical world.
And then there is Salman Khan, delivering all this innocence joyfully, which makes him charming to watch when his character is happy, makes you feel like an indulgent older relative when he's stupid, and wrenches you when that innocence is taken advantage of. It may be a calculated move on his part, shielding himself with an adorable little girl the way a criminal uses a hostage. But it is a sweet, sweet movie, and its messages of love and unity are simple and pleasant. It is a lot easier to watch the movie and let it do its magic than to think too hard about whether doing so is a kind of complicity in Salman Khan's misdeeds. And on a sweltering July afternoon, I'm happy to take the easier path.
(*) I still can't get my head around the fact that this gentle, delightful story was written by the same screenwriter responsible for the bombastic, unappealing heroics of Baahubali.