Tuesday 2 May 2023

Oh brother: "Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan"

I barely know where to begin with
Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan, the kind of exhaustingly schizophrenic cut-and-shut destined to leave critics tossing their notes away in despair the moment they've made them. Ostensibly, this is Salman Khan spending two-and-a-half hours attempting to bridge North and South India, but also the two distinct aspects of his own screen persona, parsed out in that already somewhat wearisome title (translation: "Somebody's Brother, Somebody's Lover"). The star gives himself an action hero's entrance. After a brisk tour of a Delhi housing colony that looks suspiciously like a shopping mall somebody's minion has tried to tart up with pot plants, we witness Khan's Bhai leaping off a second-floor balcony and pulling on a leather jacket mid-air, all the while sporting the most preposterous hairpiece since Terry Stone rocked up in those Rise of the Footsoldier sequels. Yet the bulk of the first half depends on Khan, now 57, playing the same sort of mythic bachelor role he was playing thirty-odd years ago. Bhai's three brothers - in actual fact fellow waifs and strays he rescued from a burning orphanage (I know; I know) - have decided they can't marry until the man and the wig who raised them has also found The One. Bhai, for some reason, has never wed. I know what you're thinking: it's the hair. But it may also have something to do with the gang of stubbly randoms who keep attacking him out of the blue. Luckily, there's a new girl in town - Pooja Hegde's feisty southerner Baggy, not a nickname I would have given gently into - and once the brothers have got past their initial misunderstanding she might be a working girl, everyone agrees she's a suitable candidate for bachelor Bhai. Well okay, you tell yourself, it's a quaint Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-type ensemble deal, albeit one destabilised by the heavy thumb the producer-star puts on the scale. It's One Bride for One Bhai, really, and even then more about the Bhai than the Bride.

For starters, you might ask why are there cans and bottles of Pepsi scattered about the colony, even on the tables of physicians surely old and dental-wise enough to have left cola some decades behind them. Simple: it's because Khan currently serves as the drink's brand ambassador, reportedly for a fee in excess of what even megastars get paid to make motion pictures nowadays. Why is Bhai never seen without an item of clothing or merch bearing the legend "Being Human"? Because that's the motto of the star's charitable foundation. One late dust-up takes place before the colony's prominently positioned fitness centre - and, you've guessed it, this is one of a chain of gyms the star owns across India. It's not just that the colony increasingly comes to resemble a theme park - Khan's own Dollywood or Neverland. It's that the action taking place there demands its own star-specific variant of the Bechdel Test: see how long minor characters can go in any given conversation before bringing up their beloved Bhai. Suffice to say, if you've already had your fill of this star, exit swiftly through the gift shop. (As January's Pathaan demonstrated, Khan may now be most effective in small doses, because he's either unwilling or unable to surprise us.) The deal KKBKKJ dangles is to offer two Bhais for the price of one: the first half's burly goofball, and then, in the DEAFENINGLY LOUDER second half by which this Bollywood production attempts to mimic those South Indian roustabouts that have cleaned up at the box office of late, Bhai the mirthless thumper. The effect, almost inevitably, is overkill, literally so in the case of the Bonnie and Clyde-style ambush of Baggy's family that turns out to be... a dream sequence? (Which sicko dreams of offing his entire supporting cast in one fell swoop? Round up the usual suspect.)

The pity is that this violent switch-up also stomps out the residual charm of that cuckoo first hour, which at least stumbles across a couple of good gags. "That was a 400-year-old antique!," gasps a horrified Baggy, after Bhai backs into her at the colony's flea market, causing her to spill the tchotchke she was holding. "Thank God," Bhai drawls. "I thought it was new." (An oldie, but still a goodie.) There's even a joke about that bloody wig: the stars have to disentangle their locks after one mid-film rescue. It's understandable when Bhai submits to a haircut just after the interval: here, the film reassures the star's core fanbase, is the buzzcut action figure you know and revere. But it's also illustrative of how arbitrary the storytelling feels (determined, as it almost certainly has been, by the whims of a pumped prime mover). At every turn, we get glimpses of the more interesting directions the film might have gone in, before it reverts to its default mode of aggressively genial mediocrity. What if cutting off his hair had made Bhai more vulnerable, and not invulnerable? What if he'd set his cap at the original, age-appropriate Baggy - the actress Bhagyashree, Khan's co-star in 1989's Maine Pyar Kiya - with whom Bhai is briefly reunited in the first half? (We even get a clip of the earlier film, and a glimpse of the sweetheart Khan was once considered.)

To pull focus in a way a film as ego-driven as this wouldn't abide: Hegde, for what it's worth, isn't at all bad here. She can't make sense of a character who claims to come from "a very simple family" mere minutes after an extended tracking shot has determined the family home is prefixed by the world's longest courtyard. (It'd take you a week just to put the bins out.) Yet that's a fault of screenwriting and production design, and it does look as though an entire generation of Bollywood actresses has been schooled in the art of playing pliable plot points, deployed to pep up an aging action hero's flagging virility. There are plusses to this: you get top-dollar wardrobe and styling, because Bhai wants his girls to look nice. The downside is that you effectively have to enter into arranged marriage with a figure who, however much his own movies keep banging on about him, may not be the catch he seemed once upon a time. Given that Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan ends with concussing POV headbutts, and our hero singing and dancing to a rap version of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, I'm not even sure Salman Khan is as sane as he once seemed. Many colleagues apparently left the film disappointed or angry; I came away both drained and mildly concerned. Working title for next Salman Khan project: R U OK Bhai hun?

Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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