Qalandar on BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN (Hindi; 2015)


Excerpt: “Everyone deserves a second chance, and in retrospect, Ek Tha Tiger was the appetizer to the main course that is Bajrangi Bhaijaan: and a damn good meal it is (and, it must be noted, one not without some Andhra spice, written as it is by K. Vijayendra Prasad, a man credited with more blockbusters – including the continuing phenomenon of Baahubali — than most have hits). By now everyone knows the plot — good-hearted Hanuman bhakt Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi finds a mute Pakistani girl lost in India, and resolves to cross the border to re-unite her with her family — but let’s pause to acknowledge that this itself is a welcome relief from the nauseating flood of routine love stories packaged as something different; or the clothes, fashion, and lifestyle ads that masquerade as films in Bollywood. And then there is the question of the social milieu the film is set in: I found myself rooting for the fact that this film isn’t populated by people toting D&G and acting as if progressive cinema consisted of ripping off off-beat American filmmakers, rather than plagiarizing other sources. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, people take the bus, eat at dhabas, drink tea from roadside stalls, not because the director is trying to tell us something (in far too many contemporary Hindi films, these representations would mean either that we are talking about the hinterlands of UP and Bihar, with crazy violence sure to follow; or that it’s a question of a film about some “them”, made for some “us” that is assuredly not “them”), but because that’s simply where his characters live and how they commute to work. It’s delightful because it’s so normal. (That I have to make this point at all testifies to the sad pass the industry has come to.)”

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The term “masala” has been much bandied about in recent years, all-too-often by people with scant respect or understanding of its rhythms, of the precise contexts it grew out, indeed of how vanishingly brief its efflorescence was — essentially coterminous with the arc of Amitabh Bachchan’s and Manmohan Desai’s careers, more accurately with the intersection of the two careers in the 1970s and 1980s. At some point, “masala” became a lazy stand-in, for films from any period prior to this century, for anything that pre-dated the Hollywoodization of the Hindi film aesthetic, for anything outlandish or spoofish, for films we were embarrassed about, for films we didn’t just make any more. Until, that is, we did, when, after the path breaking success of 2008’s Ghajini, a particular variant of popular (primarily Telugu) cinema was able to be married to The Big Bollywood Star, and has been a fixture of Hindi screens ever since — in a particular way. For the likes of Ready, Kick, Rowdy Rathore, are not mainstream movies in the sense that they set the pace for the industry, exemplars of a tradition at its prime; rather, these films only make sense in the context of an industry that (commercially speaking) has moved on (to an extent because of changing tastes; but also, in no small measure, because of its ability to pitch products to smaller and smaller demographic groups. Unlike the industries all over the world that seek to broaden their footprint, Bollywood, wittingly or no, prefers to focus on smaller groups of more affluent consumers). Contemporary masala makes sense, and can be successful, only because there isn’t very much of it, and what there is harkens to a general sense of Bollywood’s history; it is thus essential that it be married to a veteran star, whose long career itself imbues him with an aura of authenticity. That context paradoxically means that the masala movie, however well-made, simply cannot mean what it used to: its excellence vis-a-vis other films might have brought success once upon a time (think of Sholay, as opposed to Khotay Sikkay); today, its rarity, its status as a kind of specimen (the Hindi/Urdu word namoona does come to mind) is crucial.

The above accounts for many of Salman Khan’s recent films: unquestionably Southern masala in one sense, films like Dabangg, Dabangg 2, Ek Tha Tiger or Kick were also careful not to alienate the multiplex audience, packaging what they were selling in tongue-in-cheek humor, and Hollywood length (Dabangg, for instance, was under two hours in length). They were easy to consume, both for an audience that wanted “this sort” of film but couldn’t get it anywhere else, and for an audience who needed escapist fare but was embarrassed by itself for being so silly. Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger offered a fascinating glimpse of the potential and pitfalls of this sort of film could be: shorn of sexism or even the overt nationalism that one might have expected from its subject (an Indo-Pak romance between two spies), just as the film gets interesting, with the star-crossed lovers fleeing with RAW and the ISI in hot pursuit, it, um, ends, almost as if the filmmakers knew that you couldn’t risk getting too serious, too, well, masala anymore.

Everyone deserves a second chance, and in retrospect, Ek Tha Tiger was the appetizer to the main course that is Bajrangi Bhaijaan: and a damn good meal it is (and, it must be noted, one not without some Andhra spice, written as it is by K. Vijayendra Prasad, a man credited with more blockbusters – including the continuing phenomenon of Baahubali — than most have hits). By now everyone knows the plot — good-hearted Hanuman bhakt Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi finds a mute Pakistani girl lost in India, and resolves to cross the border to re-unite her with her family — but let’s pause to acknowledge that this itself is a welcome relief from the nauseating flood of routine love stories packaged as something different; or the clothes, fashion, and lifestyle ads that masquerade as films in Bollywood. And then there is the question of the social milieu the film is set in: I found myself rooting for the fact that this film isn’t populated by people toting D&G and acting as if progressive cinema consisted of ripping off off-beat American filmmakers, rather than plagiarizing other sources. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, people take the bus, eat at dhabas, drink tea from roadside stalls, not because the director is trying to tell us something (in far too many contemporary Hindi films, these representations would mean either that we are talking about the hinterlands of UP and Bihar, with crazy violence sure to follow; or that it’s a question of a film about some “them”, made for some “us” that is assuredly not “them”), but because that’s simply where his characters live and how they commute to work. It’s delightful because it’s so normal. (That I have to make this point at all testifies to the sad pass the industry has come to.) [In fact, Kabir Khan’s representation of the film’s worlds has led to some off-screen confusion with more than one urbane Bombayite puzzled over the use of terms like “Mohammedan” in the film – a sure sign of one’s unfamiliarity with certain North Indian milieus.]

There are other signs of a new normal: Pawan isn’t just a Hanuman bhakt but a rather closed-minded Hindu: he’s the son of a RSS shakha pramukh, is shocked by even the smell of meat wafting over from a Muslim neighbors house, and is completely disgusted to see the child he’s so fond of wolf down chicken. He’s also communal, pleading for Hanuman’s forgiveness upon entering a mosque, is shocked that the child in his care even wants to tie a thread at a dargah, and further evidenced by his desperation to come up with an explanation of the girl’s meat-eating ways that doesn’t have her be – shudder – a Muslim. Kshatriyas eat meat, he reasons, an addendum to his earlier reasoning that the girl’s light skin means she must be a Brahmin. And then there’s his literal-mindedness: much of the film’s comedy is centered on Pawan’s attempts to live his life according to the precepts of Lord Hanuman: never lie, deceive, or do anything under-handed. All this isn’t just director Kabir Khan and writer Vijayendra Prasad looking down at some simple-minded bigot who makes the rest of us feel better about our own “tolerance”. On the contrary, the representation of Pawan’s bigotry as completely, banally, normal, so much so that it’s Pawan’s lover Rasika who seems odd when she snaps that all this stuff about staying away from those of “paraaya dharm” is nonsense, stays with the viewer. Pawan’s attitudes aren’t abnormal or unusual, they are all too common across large swathes of Indian society, and the film doesn’t let us forget it precisely because it evokes that reality in a seemingly non-judgmental way.

This isn’t the syncretic Hindu that we are familiar with from a long line of Hindi films, but almost the first post-Modi Hindu film hero, one with a communal identity so clearly demarcated, so abundantly policed and vigilant of borders (witness Pawan about to step into a dargah for the first time – and this is on the Indian side of the border), one might mistake him for a monotheistic fundamentalist. The jibe against the Sangh is subtle, but unmistakable: what the new normal – an ignorant one, I might add: a second after Rasika asks Pawan if he’s read the Mahabharata she remembers who she’s dealing with, following it up with “you must have at least watched the TV serial?” – amounts to isn’t anti-Muslim so much as it is un-Muslim, a conception of India and Indianness that has nothing whatsoever to do with the likes of Muslims. The new normal, that is to say, aims at fulfilling the logic of Partition, by creating a Hindu Pakistan to mirror the Muslim one across the border. So while I celebrate Bajrangi Bhaijaan for its insight and appreciation of the stakes here, my appreciation is tinged with sadness: because the film also reminds us, in a way no Indo-Pak bonhomie at film’s end can undo, how complete the logic of Partition is for so many people, whether they live in India or Pakistan. Indeed that cross-border bonhomie reinforces the stability of the border, a point that seems to have eluded the filmmakers: stated differently, a more daring film would have tackled the Hindu-Muslim “borders” within a city like Delhi, and the challenges those frontiers pose to sustaining a genuinely pluralistic polity. The Wagah border can be oppressive, but it doesn’t upset either Hindu or Pakistani nationalism because it keeps everyone in their place (to be fair, this film does have a brilliant sequence where things are out of place, when India loses a cricket match to Pakistan and everyone in the house Pawan and Rasika stay in is distraught, with only Munni jumping up and down in excitement, and then kissing the Pakistani flag on the TV screen).

But — and this is perhaps the best thing about this film — Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s magic lies in the sly way it upsets expectations by making an “other” of its lead protagonist, and, by extension, of the audience. The film’s second half is set entirely in Pakistan, and at one fell swoop it is Pawan who sticks out like a sore thumb: his name, the words he uses, his religiosity, makes him seem as aberrant in Pakistan as, well, a Muslim guy at a RSS shakha. I can’t think of another Hindi film that does so much with this trope, in the sense that Pawan isn’t oppressed in Pakistan for his religion, it’s just that his oddity is reinforced at every turn (the scene where Pawan asks for vegetarian food at a roadside dhaba was hilarious, and rang true, reminding me of more than one Muslim acquaintance), and he has to cope with being strange in a milieu that otherwise includes plenty of the familiar. This is a double estrangement, not simply borne of alien-ness, but of an alien-ness that also feels, in many ways, familiar. (Perhaps I should speak of a triple or even quadruple estrangement here, given that Pawan is played by Muslim Salman Khan; but a Muslim who can recite the Hanumanchalisa with no trouble at all, and one who is himself, in a perverse twist that would have done Proust proud, closer to the Hindu Right than just about any other Muslim celebrity in India.)

The second half of Bajrangi Bhaijaan introduces us to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing the rather shabby Pakistani journalist Chand Nawab, who becomes smitten by the story of the big-hearted Indian on an odyssey to re-unite Munni with her parents. Salman Khan’s character is strangely passive and quiet in the second half, and Nawazuddin propels the action here, with wonderful comic timing and that ever-present misery in the actor’s eyes. It isn’t often that one speaks of another actor in a Salman Khan film (Nawazuddin himself had no more than ten good minutes in Kick), but it must be said that he has tons of screen time, and holds the film’s second half together. I could see this film again just for him. That’s not a knock on Salman, but merely an acknowledgment that Kabir Khan hasn’t been as flattering to him here as he was in Ek Tha Tiger: there are fewer great dialogs, only one crowd-pleasing action sequence, the music – as one would expect from Pritam – is pedestrian, and no Sallu song choreography worthy of the name (E le le is not a patch on, for instance, Hum ka peeni hai from Dabangg; although the Kukdu ku song celebrating the charms of non-veg food, features delightful lyrics by Mayur Puri).

What is the film’s message (apart, that is, from, as Baradwaj Rangan has noted, the notion that Salman Khan is a wonderful human being)? That we should all get along, for sure, but there’s another, more sly thread here: what happens to Pawan illustrates the limits of literal-minded adherence to religious or moral precepts – if you keep admitting you crossed the border illegally into Pakistan, expect to be beaten by the police and border security personnel, however pure your intentions – and on more than one occasion, Prasad and Kabir Khan evoke the Mahabharata: Rasika does it most explicitly early on, trying to explain to Pawan that he needs to add some Krishna to his Hanuman bhakti. “Never tell lies” is not just a moral precept, it’s a sure way to make one’s life unlivable. By film’s end, Pawan seems to get it: he still won’t tell lies or deceive, but will mislead and enable others to do so to serve a good end. Chand Nawab has never heard of the Mahabharata, but the writer ensures we are reminded of it in the latter portion of the film: as every good Hindi film fan knows, Natwarlal is the most masala-friendly of all Deities.

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40 Responses to “Qalandar on BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN (Hindi; 2015)”

  1. One almost tires of saying this Qalandar but this is easily one of your best and most thought-provoking pieces. As always your reading is singular.

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  2. Interesting read. I dont understand your last line about Natwarlal.

    Did they shoot in Pakistan?

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  3. About vegetarianism. Most of the hindus are non vegetarians.
    Pakistanis must be sniggering about this. Just watch our cookery shows.

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  4. omrocky786 Says:

    Pawan who sticks out like a sore thumb: his name, the words he uses, his religiosity, makes him seem as aberrant in Pakistan as, well, a Muslim guy at a RSS shakha
    Ha ha, I can see you almost wanted to say India and then replaced it with RSS shakha !! lol

    This is a pretty deceptive review, and kind of a continuation of that outlook piece.
    The difference is that in India there are probably more Madrasas than RSS shakhas, and RSS Shakhas teach India first whereas Madrasas teach Islam first.

    Also to suggest that all Sanghis have no idea of Ramayan and Mahabharat and know their religion only thru DD is again just wrong and suits the general tone of the piece.
    I think the lying part was taken from Ashwathama ( Haathi) mar gaya .
    Salman Khan and Bajrangi slice and dice nahee hotey, Dil mein Hotey hain !!
    Q sir, you have made some very good points and some just to keep the Outlook crowd happy… maza nahee aaya !!

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    • Actually rocky: that’s precisely the point: I DID NOT want to say INDIA and ended up saying RSS shakha; the former statement would have made no sense, and hence it didn’t even occur to me. I don’t think anyone familiar with my comments or posts would assume that’s what I “wanted” to write.

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      • omrocky786 Says:

        I am familiar with your comments and posts and that is why I was surprised and disappointed Q.
        It seems the Indian Libertards may have finally gotten to you ! LOL!!
        Do not follow Pragya Tiwaris, Namrata Raos etc., and the Kashyap Bhakto kee toli, stay original ! Ha ha…
        Aside- Kabir Khan’s Interview with Komal Nahata, and his recent interview in the Indian Express are really good …
        I will try and put up the links later…..Chalo Later !
        P.S.- Bhabhi jee ko kaisee lagee Pichchar ???

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  5. Wonderful write up. Agree with every word. And thankfully, you do not invokle Manmohan Desai. I think Kabir Khan and Vijay Prasad are a lot more socially rooted and thinking persons thatn the Desai and his creative team.

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    • “I think Kabir Khan and Vijay Prasad are a lot more socially rooted and thinking persons thatn the Desai and his creative team.”

      with all due respect if you can make such a statement then you’ve understood nothing about Desai..

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  6. Splendid write-up Q, loved reading every bit of it. I had a very different sense of the film though. Incidentally what did you think of the ending? I thought the climax was handled really well. Here is what I thought of it-

    “SPOILERS ahead-

    The ending though is a masterstroke (the one unfettered triumph of Vijayendra Prasad’s otherwise muddled script) and raises the film’s quality by a notch or two. It is remarkable in terms of ideological address, more fascinating than the rest of the film, opening a space for an imaginary dialogue on cross border cultural politics. Through the social media efforts of reporter Chand Nawab (Nawaz), ordinary people from India and Pakistan amass on the Kashmiri border, demanding Bajrangi be allowed to return home safely. Finally, Shahida speaks for the first time, quoting Bajrangi’s reverence for his faith, invoking a fantasy wish fulfilment, and visualizing peaceful relations, both politically and religiously. There is a veiled truth to the final shot when Bajrangi lifts Shahida into the air. Director Kabir Khan uses a freeze frame so that Shahida is left suspended in mid-air with Bajrangi looking up to her, ready to catch her. Choosing to finish on a purgative note can be interpreted ambiguously, translating metaphorically into a commentary on Indo-Pak relations, that they also remain suspended, in limbo, unresolved. Just like Aamir’s eponymous character in P.K., Shahida is still a child and thus has not been poisoned by the Indo-Pak culture of hate; it is not so much her innocence at stake but rather the mentality of a generation who might potentially opine differently about their respective neighbours. Glib this message maybe, and exponentially preachy, and while Bajrangi Bhaijaan is certainly not great cinema, it strives clumsily to a denouement of apocryphal cathartic proportions in which the hedonistic, emotional release is romanticised as a trait that only Bombay cinema knows how to manufacture with a completely benign morality.”-

    https://satyamshot.wordpress.com/2015/07/25/saurabh-on-bajrangi-bhaijaan/

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  7. MSDhoni Says:

    As usual a very nice read here ‘Qalandar’.

    I kind of agree with OmRocky786, ‘Salman Khan and Bajrangi slice and dice nahee hotey’. This was a major block in my head while going into this movie. But somewhere ‘dil’ part overpowers the mind and we’re able to enjoy the roller-coaster ride.

    Qalandar, I have been reading your blogs and previous travelogue and always a silent admirer of your thought process. I have no shyness / reservations in anointing you to a real life ‘BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN’. I wish to dedicate this song to you bro –

    ****( Satyam, apologies for repeating a link to the same song I put in the other thread)

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  8. An excellent and thought provoking read Qalandar! Although would not go this far of “anointing you to a real life ‘BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN’.” lol.
    I agree with you that I could watch this film over again just for Nawaz! his most natural performance till date…was rolling in my seat.

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  9. Yeah Agyaat true….got bit carried away !

    Personally I hate messaging in a movie and cinema can never achieve the desired change in society it yearns for so many time.
    (we have all clapped so many times at Nana Patekar movies in the past and look at current state of affairs and the actor himself has become irrelevant) .

    IMO, whatever be the genre,whether it is action , emotion , fantasy, drama or heck even superheroes ( TDKR ), the job of cinema is to simply touch that one chord of a human anatomy and do the awakening and in that respect BB scores above many movies seen in the past few years.

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  10. “Perhaps I should speak of a triple or even quadruple estrangement here, given that Pawan is played by Muslim Salman Khan; but a Muslim who can recite the Hanumanchalisa with no trouble at all, and one who is himself, in a perverse twist that would have done Proust proud, closer to the Hindu Right than just about any other Muslim celebrity in India.)”

    u have missed the biggest estrangement here …

    He has a Muslim father in real life

    But his mother in real life is Hindu …

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    • Apex that is true of Kabir Khan as well…

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    • HIs mom is converted and has changed her name to Salma. She/her father belonged to Jammu.

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    • He is clearly the most secular of all 3 Khans. Total Amar Akbar Anthony family hai. No wonder he is loathed by fundamentalists of all stripes and colors.

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      • How have you come to this conclusion?, if i may ask so!!

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        • Because he has not taken his parents for haj pilgrimage like aamir and he has not taken Pakistani players in IPL’s like SRK.

          Salman is the neext candidate for Bharat Ratna according to NyKavi.

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        • Aamir and SRK have baggage and burden. Salman is the new darling because he has not taken his parents for Haj pilgrimage like aamir and he has not taken Pakistani players for IPL like SRK.

          Salman is the next candidate for Bharat Ratna according to NyKavi.

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      • “He is clearly the most secular of all 3 Khans.”

        Its Salim Khan who is secular and did everything from marrying to Hindu, Christian and adopting a street kid. Salman is just reaping his benefits. If anything, Salman is just irreligious, not secular.

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  11. Here Salman taking his BB success too seriously and writing 14 tweets in support of Yaqub Menon for being not complicit in his brother’s loathsome crime!! This is furthest one could take one’s success and begin acting as if one is supreme, another foolhardy buffoonery.
    Salman Khan ‏@BeingSalmanKhan 9h9 hours ago
    Brother is being hanged for tiger. Aarrre Whr is tiger?

    Salman Khan ‏@BeingSalmanKhan 9h9 hours ago
    1 innocent man killed is killing the humanity

    Salman Khan ‏@BeingSalmanKhan 8h8 hours ago
    been wanting to tweet Tis fr 3 days n was afraid to do so but it involves a man’s n family. Don’t hang brother hang tha lomdi who ran away.

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  12. And it’s really laughable coming from somebody like Salman as he could not summon the so called courage to speak the truth in Hit and Run case and here he is exhorting a terrorist to behave like unSalman-like!! Suddenly his empathy for the family wakes him up and even make an appeal (fully filmi istyle) to Nawaz Sharif to hand over Tiger to India!! It shows the Salman’s shallow knowledge on such a sensitive issue with out comprehending the repercussions it might have after such dimwitted tweets.

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  13. oldgold Says:

    I think every generation will define ‘masala’ their own way. Originally the name ‘masala’ itself was coined by literally taking into consideration what a masala does;
    ” A mixture of various spices to enhance taste of food.”

    I remember my father calling a film masala because it had comedy, tragedy, hero, villain, song, dance, romance, and normally a happy ending. You name it and it’s there.
    Some waited for the ‘fight’ scenes’.
    Some waited for the comedian.
    Some waited for thr romance.
    Some for the song/dance…… and so on.

    Personally, I think people make too much of sticking to THIS is masala and not THAT.

    I’m pretty sure another definition will soon come up.

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    • oldgold Says:

      This is the reason why the industry had Johny Walker, Mehmood, Rajendernath and a whole lot of earlier comedians.
      Then there were villains like Pran, KN Singh Ajit etc
      These ingredients of masala were all there representing coriander powder, zeera powder, and all else that would go into making the masala.

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  14. To repeat what I said initially Qalandar this is one of your best pieces and more importantly much as with the Bahubali piece there’s really nothing one could add here. I liked the film a lot, specially the second half, which as you’re rightly pointed out is really powered by Nawazuddin. On the other hand and though this is quite probably Salman’s best film ever (unfortunately this says something about the rest of his film choices.. one could mention the Barjatya films which are enjoyable but fluff.. and then HDDCS which I continue to have a weakness for, can’t even think of anything else where he has a major role and that is truly worthwhile.. even Khamoshi isn’t his film) to paraphrase Mark Twain reports of his ‘performance’ here are greatly exaggerated. He’s perfectly fine in the film in the sense that his persona is well-suited for this terrain. But precisely in this sort of outing does one can get an even greater sense of his limitations. Not that this film requires a high caliber performances or something, Salman assuredly generates empathy but this is a result of his overall persona being handled properly rather than anything else. For instance I don;’t think SRK would have been credible in this part so I am otherwise hardly underestimating his recent history and the persona linked to those films. And on the film once again I liked it a lot (though I should have seen it before Bahubali, it’s not even a patch on the latter!) and it’s ultimately hard not to be moved by its gestures everywhere, specially in the second half, much as it’s hard to not succumb completely to the girl’s wonderful (and central) performance, or for that matter to not totally invest in the bond between her and Bajrangi. Even in the first half the question of the girl’s identity is resolved rather seamlessly and some of the echoes that carry over into the second half (the cities being catalogued and so on) are inspired cues. The one thing I wish this film was better on is the music. Barring the theme song that keeps coming up this is a rather miserable soundtrack. Amazed Pritam couldn’t bring himself to do a better job here.

    And so I’d say the film’s strengths are a completely convincing, compelling narrative which makes a virtue out of the simplicity of its humanistic message. And the story such as it is progresses quite smoothly throughout with Kabir Khan avoiding the temptation of cynical tonal shifts intended to push right audience buttons. Here my only problem was with the climax which seemed a bit uncontrolled or formulaic given everything else that had preceded. I understand the need to provide that sort of cathartic touch at the end but it seems more corny than anything else in the film. And this in some ways gets to the heart of the matter. The film is essentially a comedy. There is never any danger of anyone being in too much trouble here irrespective of how may borders they cross or how many times they cross the security machinery of the state in all sorts of ways. In this sense the cathartic ending seems unearned. Suddenly one feels one is in a different sort of movie. I wouldn’t say this constitutes a huge objection on my part though. More importantly I think this film might have been fleshed out a bit more. It is still mostly about situational comedy in both halves. Well handled either way and again Nawazuddin S in the second half really takes over the film but this story offers so many rich possibilities that one wishes Kabir Khan had a film somewhat more dramatic than the present one. Once you remove the bond that Salman and the girl share and which of course anchors the work it is basically about a lot of comedic moments (and it’s utter nonsense to pretend that this is high drama that couldn’t have touched PK or something as some have here.. if you remove the cross border landscape this film has no more real drama than PK.. in fact the latter has one more terrorist attack than this film! which is an accomplishment given the subjects in question!). And to repeat I didn’t have an issue with the film’s pace as such nor did I not enjoy all its important moments but I wish this were more the sort of work that involved real costs. For instance the brothel scene shakes up the viewer a bit. But the film doesn’t have enough of this stuff. And at this late date to have more or less a comedy (structurally and often literally) on this sort of serious subject perhaps leaves something to be desired. it might have been on my terms even more masala than it is. And here one just has to look at Desai’s own ‘comedies’. Even something as obvious as AAA. Yes by the end everything is alright but nothing can bring back years of separation from one’s parents and/or children. That time is lost. Which is why perhaps a tragic ending might not have been so bad in Bajrangi, even appropriate. A reminder that after all the fun and games these cross border dynamics involve real and irreparable consequences.

    Nonetheless the sharpest of the film’s gestures is once again what you’ve already highlighted. The sense that the film starts completely in Bajrangi’s corner of the sandbox (if you will!) and then goes over to the other side. The majority becomes the minority and vice versa. And these gestures are often handled very smartly. So when the girl’s in Pakistan and the cop questions Bajrangi who tells him the girl is Pakistani he looks at her locket and doesn’t believe it, the very locket Bajrangi has given her in India when he doesn’t know she’s a Muslim. Then it’s the cricket game that punctuates such questions of identity in a more comic vein. And of course you have ‘good’ people acting in ‘good faith ‘s both sides. To be honest a lot of this seems fantasy given the extreme politics on both sides of the equation in these matters (whether people actually resort to extreme acts or not the discourse is simply too toxic either way and of course in the context of Pakistan all the Islamisms are particularly problematic because they’re not ‘checked’ by democratic guarantees in any sense). I’m not against a feel good film but one that engages in ‘politics’ but sidesteps all of this completely ought to raise some caveats and as far as I’m concerned there might have been a way to stay true to politics in this sense and also create that deeper narrative.

    More importantly (for this still does not constitute a great demerit) for a while I wasn’t completely sure about this move. This idea of Pakistan being the mirror image of India. Because it seems to me that this confirms the two nation idea in a rather perverse way. No one has a problem believing that there are ‘good people’ on each side but the homogenous nature of religious identity on either side reinforces that Partition fiction. And because the film operates on such a principle the minority in the Indian half of the film though represented (and these sequences are key… specially the one in the mosque) has to be kept at a bit of distance so as to make that contrast between the two countries more glaring. Now in fairness this objection can be easily countered. We really see the film through the girl’s eyes in many ways and despite being a Muslim she finds it rather easy to get absorbed into these ‘new ways’ that Bajrangi represents. Also Bajrangi’s own devotion is most often comically expressed in the film. Plus it’s because he has a limited perspective that the film must necessarily be so. If the minority does not have a significant part in the first half it’s because Bajrangi cannot ‘see’ them as much. When he himself becomes a minority he starts thinking differently. Easily one of the most valuable moves in this work. And when this happens the film is moving much closer to a Desai view of the world where and to get a bit more theoretical about it the minority must be placed at the heart of the majority. Identity is always ‘contaminated’ by the ‘other’ in this sense whether one recognizes it or not. In subcontinental terms there is simply no way of being ‘Hindu’ that does not incorporate the ‘Islamic’ and similarly on the other side of the border there is simply no way of being ‘Muslim’ that does not include the same ‘Hindu’ history. The ‘Indo-Islamic’ is that which fuses both identities and to the point where these cannot be separated even if one of necessity follows one faith or the other (here let’s not forget other important minorities even if these are not important in the context of the present film). Any film then that preserves such a ‘split’ feeds what is essentially a right-oriented discourse on both side. To Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s credit it starts turning towards that fusion over the course of the film. Even if Desai’s was an idealization it represented something real that was already part of the subcontinental fabric and it certainly was true to any aspiration a democracy might have or ought to have given these complex histories. Bajrangi (the film) at any rate makes this turn and by the end we have that grand ‘we-are-the-same’ closure to the story but also one which by that point is predicated on the majority and minority approximating Desai’s vision or being ‘switchable’ in this way on both sides of the border. The ‘commonality’ of belief finding different channels is perhaps the central message here far more than Indo-Pak relations. In this sense the film and for all the obvious distinctions might not even be that far from some of PK’s central concerns.

    Having said all that there is still a ‘problem’ that remains. if one makes a political film that is about relations between the two countries the Desai-like framework as I see it isn’t necessarily an issue. However if one focuses more on religion then a certain obvious question comes into play. Or at least a certain suspicion comes alive. Is it perhaps the case that for all the film’s ‘good faith’ in this matter and for all its humanistic sincerity there is something missing in this ‘picture’? The very fact that Desai’s dialogue takes place ‘within’ India (or for that matter PK’s.. people have misread it and I suspect on both sides of the border.. it’s a critique of bourgeois religiosity and all the consumerism attached to it and for which the majority religion is a privileged example.. this film however is not a critique of ‘Hinduness’.. it has scenes involving Sikhs and Muslims and christians.. it offers the same critique there as well but ultimately it has to stick with one community for narrative reasons and it chooses the majority.. it would for instance be odd to make a film critiquing religiosity in America but ignoring Christian evangelical communities and focusing instead on Jewish groups! commercial cinema is usually about the paradigmatic..) whereas the same inter-faith dialogue here is staged as a cross-border political issue. Put differently the very ideal that the film seeks to celebrate is already available (including on Desai’s terms) in India. Here Amar Akbar Anthony already have a great life together! And consider the very production of this film. It is made in India. It sells to an overwhelming religious majority a narrative that involves a Muslim actor Salman Khan become the ultimate Hanuman bhakt and then learn the error of his ways when he’s a minority among Muslims. This does not involve him diluting his beliefs in any sense but it does entail his developing a more expansive sense of the world he lives in. Even in the age of cross-border terrorism (including one event just recently) where Pakistan (and to put it bluntly) usually means bad news for India this film with such a ‘we-are-ultimately-the-same-nice-people’, seemingly dubious under the circumstances, gets embraced so whole-heartedly in India. It’s one of the biggest grossers, it does far better than any other Salman film. All of this wouldn’t be possible if at some deep level its primary audience could not accept this message of larger subcontinental unity. Once again and from my perspective this is the Nehruvian charge (and its Desai-esque idealization in popular culture) that remains alive in the midst of a politics that has otherwise taken a rather different turn. Doesn’t this film’s reception prove at least this? And for this very reason I find it problematic that Bajrangi (the film) can bring about this religious conversation or engage these two identities only by also implicating this cross-border politics. It’s not as if the film otherwise gets into those other political issues. Throughout the narrative not a single one of those points of friction is even mentioned. One could almost believe these are neighbors like the US and Canada. perhaps there are political problems involving spies and so on but the real issue is about religious exclusivity either way. No matter how much I value the film otherwise I cannot accept ‘these’ terms of the debate. could there have been way a way of resolving this? Certainly. A more properly political subject (admittedly leading to lesser overseas grosses! let’s not pretend this isn’t part of the calculation, at least for these big films) or on the other hand (and this would have been my preferred choice) an even more masala drama with politics or religion intersecting the story at many points without the film being only about this stuff. So once again that richer film I started out with.

    All of this doesn’t mean I am seriously criticizing the film or something. I did enjoy it a lot and I was certainly moved at many points. But certain obfuscations come at a bit of a cost. Or at least I can’t ignore them. Otherwise I would easily recommend this film to anyone as one of the better contemporary efforts out of Bollywood.

    [as an aside and as another not altogether minor cavil.. notice another ‘politically correct’ shift the film performs which is a bit strange given all the ‘realities’ of the situation.. the only very religious or caste conscious or what have you.. folks in the film live in India.. in Pakistan you get ‘normal’ types represented by Nawazuddin but beyond this even the girl’s very religious parents are the types who frequent a shrine (of the sort that is always acceptable to every faith in the subcontinent).. meanwhile the one madrasa figure seems extraordinarily liberal.. the security forces (police et al) might seem unpleasant but not for any religious reason and ultimately here too one guy becomes a kind of hero at the end.. meanwhile in india you have Salman and his adopted family.. even when he ventures into the mosque you have a rather somber kind of visual pattern and everyone seems a bit too serious and so forth.. Kareena is the only ‘normal’ person on the Indian side in this sense.. put another way it’s almost like Desai’s ideal citizens live on the Pakistani side while in India you have the Hindutva types.. Salman’s father among other things also heads a shakha.. but of course the Pakistani madrasa seems like a fun summer camp! yes this is a commercial film trying to be fair to push a message.. but surely this is a bit absurd! and it’s not enough to say that all this happens because Bajrangi is that kind of guy.. he needn’t have been surrounded by people like himself! in the end the family sees the error of its ways but presumably the Om Puri religious figure on the other side is already there!)

    But again guys and those who haven’t done this already… watch Bahubali! Still the real deal this season!

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    • LOL, if others right long posts I can put up post-like comments. But I won’t write my own posts!

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    • I also realize how crazy it sounds when I say ‘nothing more one could add’ and then add these massive comments! Not by design though. On this film I thought I’d be done in a couple of concise paragraphs!

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    • Satyam: you articulate superbly perhaps the only reservation I had about the film; as I touched upon this film might have been more, not just daring but in a sense TRUE if it had dealt with the internal “borders”. The fact that it doesn’t suggests an acceptance of the logic of partition (that is, it has been internalized and accepted, now the only thing to do is live in peace), hence my comment that Salman’s character is the first post-Modi hero in a sense…

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      • yes loved the longer line that opens that paragraph. The film certainly had those digs including the Sanskrit one.

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      • and reflecting more on your statement on Salman as a post-Modi hero (which would also explain why no one really has a problem with the film whereas Haider enrages many of the same folks) perhaps the alternatives I’ve offered in terms of where the film might have gone are also wishful thinking. And in the very same sense Bahubali is on the same side of the equation (won’t repeat what I said about this elsewhere). In other films that operate with good faith but that are nonetheless in keeping with the temper of the times in terms of these representations.

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    • PS — your comment is also spot on on a move that many Indian liberals often make — that of Pakistan and India as mirror images of each other. I’m one of the few people I know with intimate experience of both “sides” here and that’s the wrong frame in my view. I understand why liberals often don’t want to go there (it could feed into a paradigm of Indian smugness, OR reinforce the two nation-theory) but nevertheless it betrays a certain lack of familiarity with Pakistan. Stated differently, the two states (all states) need to be critiqued, but it’s not the same critique.

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      • the problem in all of these issues always is that on the one hand you have to be a bit strategic about political interventions and be careful that you’re not being co-opted. On the other hand if you keep fearing your essential beliefs and are terrified of co-optation you will end up in that place anyway and more importantly this will have revealed some essential weakness in your original framing. for instance the Dems are always worried about the fact that their traditional blue-collar base in the Industrial midwest has been skeptical of them for a very long time and has often voted Republican. They criticize the latter for siphoning off this vote on cultural issues. All of this might be true but the essential weakness lies with the Dems themselves. Once the Dems addressed the issues of this class and then they stopped doing so. For whatever historical reasons or otherwise and that’s a different debate. But that class felt its issues weren’t being addressed anymore and started going in a different direction (at least their vote wasn’t as dependable from that point on). In the Indian context it’s true that Congress has often played vote-bank politics. But the true response isn’t to skirt this issue. One must say ‘everything’. That this isn’t the only vote bank politics out there. In fact the very term suggest a coded anti-minority stance. Because when the same vote bank politics is played with other castes or groups it is portrayed as a ‘normal’ or speaking to ‘normal issues’ whereas if you talk about Muslims or lower castes or whatever it’s suddenly vote bank politics. But again parties then use it cynically. The Congress can just say ‘we’re for you x’ (whatever group that ‘x’ represents) and not have to do very much more. However this cynicism is nonetheless enabled by an ideology which is that in their imagining of the nation-state the minority is ‘central’ and not somehow an accommodation to be made. Similarly one must also highlight the complete lack of good faith on the other side. It’s like Republicans complaining that their anti-affirmative action policies because they believe it keeps blacks down and that their policies would truly make them equal. yeah right! The ‘abstract’ language of political and economic equality is often used effectively in democratic politics to cancel out that which in the system is unequal and will remain so without introducing seismic shifts in existing political and economic arrangement. So you can say that all blacks will have the same opportunities as whites but then do nothing to improve their educational standards and so forth. You can keep peddling the fiction that everyone who really wants to can rise out of poverty while the ‘obscene’ reality is that 99% of the time a certain economic (and hence political) progress is only possibly for groups that start out with certain advantages. and hence unless you redress this situation in some way you can have all the economic dynamism you want but this won’t change existing power equations. In this sense the danger of democracies is always precisely this — you can say people are free or everyone is free and equal but this is so only as a ‘formal’ political fiction. ground realities are completely different. And if parties play vote bank politics and so forth the answer is to run these programs better and not to abolish them altogether. So it’s bad faith on the other side but it’s also hypocritical even otherwise. In our ordinary lives we are forever eager to resent those who we think loosely belong to our social class but have been helped because of family connections or whatever. So in our positions of relative advantage we somehow don’t think we can close that gap but we expect people who come from very economically depressed sections of society, who’ve faced centuries and even millennia of oppression to suddenly get up and become our equals. And we not naive when we say this. We too are opportunists because we don’t wish to see these realities. We too are invested in the same abstract politics that obfuscates everything because we don’t want to question our own positions. It’s like blaming corporations all the time for factories in Bangladesh. Yes there’s a place for that critique but we want the cheapest shirts possible too. We’re not exactly dying to pay double for the same shirts if they’re made in the US!

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