Bajrangi Bhaijaan ***
Dir: Kabir Khan. With: Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Harshaali Malhotra, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. 163 mins. Cert: 12A
Hindi cinema traditionally marks the Eid celebrations – denoting Ramadan’s end – by releasing a wholesome entertainment upon which the entire family can feast. This year, the task has again fallen to hulking action man Salman Khan, which might – after the star’s recent court appearances – seem a little like entrusting Katie Hopkins to say a few nice words before dinner. Nevertheless, Bajrangi Bhaijaan proceeds with a narrative that proves both self-reflexive and highly emotive. This tale of a man who, in shepherding a lost child, not only unites a family but builds bridges between India and Pakistan boasts big shoulders and even bigger ambitions.
Foremost among these is a recalibration of the Khan star persona: it’s one of those meathead-softeners in which a long-established tough guy plays a bit of a soft touch. An early flashback reveals Khan’s country boy Pawan had to abandon his wrestling career due to extreme ticklishness; now, he spends his days worshipping the monkey deity Bajrang Bali, and merrily dancing like a chicken. (This may be for home crowds what it is for Western viewers to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger interacting with those talking meerkats: enough to make one ponder the long-term mental effects of consuming all that whey protein.)
Pawan is presumably how Khan now wants to be regarded: as an entertainer, a safe pair of hands, and somebody to be trusted with our children. All these qualities are to the fore when Pawan encounters Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra), a mute six-year-old Kashmiri separated from her mother while crossing from India to Pakistan. To return her, Pawan must interpret the clues his wordless ward inadvertently provides. That she feels far more comfortable around mosques than her guardian is a biggie; her elation at Pakistan’s victory over India in the cricket both ruffles feathers and points the way home.
As these wide-eyed innocents become embroiled in absurd regional disputes, BB overlaps somewhat with last Diwali’s sensation P.K., although there are more than just physical differences between that film’s wily, questioning frontman Aamir Khan and the barrelling Salman. This script plumps for broad, crowdpleasing comedy over its predecessor’s unusually cutting satire – the chanciest it gets is when Om Puri’s imam conceals Pawan from the authorities in a burqa, setting us to wonder how the mosque found one in his size – and is prone to those odd tonal shifts last experienced in Arnie’s would-be cuddly early 90s vehicles, veering from violence to sentiment.
Still, it remains the kind of package perhaps only Bollywood could now pull together: a movie that feels calculated in its grand design, and yet which plays as wholly sincere and heartfelt on a scene-by-scene basis. Central to its appeal is Malhotra, who emerges as an absolute sweetie, liable to spark queues round the block outside Kashmiri adoption agencies. Shahida’s muteness – pre-empting any offputting precocity – may be even more crucial, but her silent responses are just a treat; whenever the director Kabir Khan cuts to her in close-up, you feel your heart being gently warmed like a marshmallow over a campfire.
This filmmaker grasps the bigger picture, too: his sweeping helicopter shots, locating the hulk and his tiny charge amid desert or mountain ranges, offer proof of Kashmir’s great, diverse beauty, impressing upon us how it’s surely vast enough to be shared. By expanding outwards, Bajrangi Bhaijaan works up this pair’s progress – pressing on despite countless pitfalls and obstacles – into a possible analogy for the peace process. It’s simple and picturebook-ish, granted – so simple even an action hero might have it explained to him – but that doesn’t make it, or the film’s potently melodramatic conclusion, any less effective.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.