Dir: Ali Abbas Zafar. With: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Disha Patani, Tabu. 150 mins. Cert: 12A
Since 2015’s cornily effective Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Bollywood strongman Salman Khan has laid siege to the annual Eid holiday, and done much to restore both a once-tarnished reputation and his box-office clout. For his latest vehicle, he’s recalled writer-director Ali Abbas Zafar (who oversaw 2016’s Sultan) to rework the premise of a major East Asian hit: 2014’s Ode to My Father, in which an everyman endured sixty years of Korean history in something like a straitlaced Zelig or Forrest Gump. Star power holds sway here, however, and Khan’s atypically hefty grocer, roaming memory lane while awaiting a train, feels like a brother to Sultan’s wrestler-hero. Once more, we’re asked to cheer for Salman the survivor, whose bruised, battered, still-staggering bulk is somehow intended to stand for India itself. This time, alas, we struggle.
The film’s Achilles heel is its desire to pack so much in, at headspinning pace; tossing causality to the wind, Zafar reduces history to one damn thing after another, resulting in a 150-minute fire sale of period costumes and abandoned story beats. Separated from his father and sister during Partition, the Muslim-raised Bharat joins the circus, romances civil servant Katrina Kaif during a spell as a pipeline worker, expresses dreams of becoming a stationmaster that come out of (and go) nowhere, before dancing through a Maltese brothel while on Navy shore leave. Even by masala movie norms, it feels absurdly overstuffed: a recruitment centre pitstop finds Carry On-style humour in a flyaway pair of underpants, and concludes with Salman leading a rousing rendition of the national anthem, a pivot beyond Sid James or Bernard Bresslaw.
The better moments come when Zafar calms down and closes in on his leads’ well-tended chemistry. Kaif has remained one of maybe five people capable of taking her co-star entirely seriously, and the sincerity in her gaze encourages us to look more favourably upon a protagonist who gets yanked through the ages without making a single compelling choice or facing anything like dramatic consequences. The last half-hour neuters the most substantial idea – a TV show reuniting families split by Partition – by squashing it between a comical encounter with African pirates, and a fight scene intended to sate hardcore Khan devotees. It’s certainly spirited, and almost admirable in its determination to cover every conceivable base, but there’s a fine line between all-embracing and simply all-over-the-shop. Bharat needed rewrites, or some kind of breath test.
Bharat is now playing in cinemas nationwide.