December 21, 2018
Aanand L. Rai
Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Sheeba Chaddha, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Brijendra Kala, Mallika Dua, R. Madhavan, Abhay Deol
Aanand L. Rai’s Zero is divided into two distinct compartments: one where the screenplay allows leading man Shah Rukh Khan’s naturally energetic personality, comic timing and charm to take flight, and the second in which the film appears to be trying to say something very grave and very deep but fails to lift off. Thank the cosmos for Bollywood’s dimpled wonder, his charisma and enthusiasm undiminished by his 53 years, because without him, Zero has little going for it.
The story takes off in Meerut where a 38-year-old (ahem!) scamp called Bauua Singh has forever been taunted for his physical disability. Bauua (SRK) is of very short stature, but does not allow social opprobrium to dampen his zest for life, his self-esteem or his over-sized ego. He is keen on marriage and obsessed with the movie star Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif). In pursuit of a potential spouse, he avails of the services of a marriage broker (Brijendra Kala). In pursuit of his screen idol – “bhabhi (sister in law),” as his friend Guddu refers to Babita – he enters a contest, the prize for which is a chance to attend a party with her.
Somewhere between long-distance trysts with the Bollywood beauty in movie theatres and at fan gatherings, meetings with his broker and fights with his father (Tigmanshu Dhulia), Bauua encounters the genius space scientist Aafia Yusufzai Bhinder (Anushka Sharma). Cerebral palsy is not mentioned by name in the film but her constrained facial expressions, speech and physical movements tell their own tale. The wheelchair is to the brilliant Aafia what height is to Bauua – she has not let it clip her wings.
Zero is the latest collaboration between director Aanand L. Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma who have caused box-office storms so far with Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Raanjhanaa (2013) and Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015). Two things have characterised these hits: their misogyny and their connect with small-town India. Unlike Kanpur or Varanasi in those previous projects, Zero’s screenplay does not quite capture the specific fragrance and feel of Meerut. On the plus side, Zero does not hate women – the downer is that it simply does not know what to do with them.
One thing this film does get right is its hero’s frenetic energy and acerbic humour for which Khan proves to be an excellent fit. Sharma, wisely, does not scrub insensitive language out of the film in the interests of superficial – and unreal – political correctness. Life is not a movie review where a critic spends hours trying to figure out whether “dwarf”, “midget” or “vertically challenged person” would be the most appropriate usage, and Sharma understands that. Characters around Bauua in his hometown hurl the Hindi word “bauna” (dwarf) at him and define him almost entirely by his height without a care for his feelings, as most people in the real world sadly would. Crucially though, the writer and director themselves do not view him through a condescending or contemptuous lens. Bauua gives as good as he gets, piercing through the barbs with a tongue that is sharper than a butcher's knife and a skin that is thicker than rhinoceros hide.
Beyond this though, Zero has nothing to offer. Part of the reason seems to be Sharma’s inability to write relatable women who are neither ridiculously eccentric, brusque and self-centred like Tanu nor selfish and manipulative like Zoya in Raanjhanaa. Remove from the picture the animosity towards womankind that oozed out of Raanjhanaa and the othering in the Tanu Weds Manu films, and what you have are the dead bores Aafia and Babita.
Babita gets one interesting scene in which she tells Bauua about her parents. Aafia does not even get that. No doubt Bauua is funny and feisty, but he is also a big jerk with her every step of the way, making it impossible to understand why she falls for him because the mere fact that he is the only man she has met who is at eye level with her is hardly an explanation, although that is what their conversations imply.
Their separate journeys with Bauua are so terribly contrived and intellectually pretentious that I found myself longing for them to exit the frame each time they were there, and to leave him alone with Guddu so that we might enjoy the crackling banter between the two men.
Zero is, no doubt, attempting to make a profoundly philosophical point at the intersection of the protagonists’ physical disabilities and their joint exploration of the universe, but whatever it is is lost in the swirling mists of the writer’s mind.
One point that does come across is the unspoken intermingling of communities evident in Aafia’s name and her parents’ relationship. Subtlety so relevant in these politically divisive times rears its head elsewhere too – this time with clever comicality – in the matter of marginalised communities within dominant groups (Bauua is male and visibly upper caste, but that does not save him from incessant denigration due to his appearance).
Thankfully, Bollywood has progressed beyond the days when Anupam Kher had to go down on his knees to play a dwarf in Shirish Kunder’s Jaan-E-Mann (2006). Bauua’s small size has been achieved reportedly with the same technology as has been used in the Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit. Some day soon, hopefully the industry will get to a place where it does not need such tech because it has place for actors like the great Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion Lannister in the Game of Thrones series. For the moment though, it is worth celebrating that a mainstream actor, writer and director in this dismally conservative, ableist industry came up with a film that revolves entirely around a vertically challenged man.
That, of course, is not enough. Zero’s storyline is convoluted, confused and dull. Of the female leads, Kaif’s primary job is to look stunning, a duty she fulfills to perfection, while the heavy lifting in terms of acting is left, quite sensibly, to the more talented artiste of the two. Though Sharma totally immerses herself in Aafia’s physicality, there is little she can do to elevate the woman above the dreary writing.
Khan delivers an endearing performance as Bauua, but has more chemistry with Guddu (played by the unfailingly remarkable Mohammmed Zeeshan Ayyub) than with either lady. The superstar has been in experimental mode for the past three years with films like Fan, Raees and Dear Zindagi that have offered him a chance to explore the actor in him. Those films, flawed though they were, were far far far better written than Zero.
Even Ajay-Atul’s music for Zero is limited. The wistful melody and rousing orchestration of Mere Naam Tu comes in one of its most visually appealing scenes. Issaqbaazi – featuring Salman Khan in a neatly conceptualised cameo – is lively but lacks depth. And Husn Parcham is a big yawn.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Zero is Khan’s willingness to laugh at himself along with Messrs Sharma and Rai. In one scene when asked how old he is, Bauua slips up and gives a figure other than 38. The fact that the character is lying about his age serves as an amusing swipe at a superstar who by and large persists in playing characters much younger than he is and/or starring opposite much younger women. Of course the point would have been more effective and would have come across as more sincere if the leading ladies of Zero weren’t 20 years junior to Khan.
In a sense, Aanand L. Rai’s career path in 2018 serves as a metaphor for Bollywood in a year in which this male-star-struck industry has repeatedly struck gold – qualitatively and financially – largely with films it conventionally considers “small” such as Stree, Raazi, Badhaai Ho and Veere Di Wedding, while hyped-up ventures headlined by major gentleman superstars have too often turned out to be damp squibs. As a producer, Rai threw his weight behind the starless fantasy/thriller Tumbbad which released a few months back and has proved to be a pathbreaker with its solid and adventurous writing that earned it glowing reviews and a welcoming audience. Whether or not Zero rakes in big bucks at the box office, it is a spluttering, tottering affair.
If and when you do your next Zero, Mr Rai, do put the screenplay through the same arduous pressure test to which you would subject Tumbbad. Better still, give us more Tumbbads please.
Rating (out of five stars): *1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
164 minutes 15 seconds
This review has also been published on Firstpost: