June 5, 2019
Ali Abbas Zafar
Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Sunil Grover, Jackie Shroff, Disha Patani, Sonali Kulkarni, Brijendra Kala, Kumud Kumar Mishra, Rajiv Gupta, Shashank Arora, Aasif Sheikh, Satish Kaushik, Nora Fatehi, Cameo: Tabu
At a crucial point in Ali Abbas Zafar’s new venture, the titular protagonist’s father appears to him and says: “Desh logon se banta hai, aur logon ki pehchaan unke parivaar se hoti hai. Tujh mein poora desh hai, Bharat.” (A nation is made up of people, and people’s identity comes from their family. The whole country resides in you, Bharat.) It is a line that at once sounds profound but means little. It also encapsulates the essence of Bharat: a film that wants to be profound but ends up meaning far less despite its bull’s-eyes.
Salman Khan partnered Zafar on the writer-director’s Sultan and Tiger Zinda Hai with spectacular box-office outcomes. Whatever their lacunae may have been, Zafar was successful in mining Khan’s natural goofiness in both, the latter film also playing up the actor’s trademark unembarrassed, unapologetic on-screen bravado to hilarious effect. Bharat sputters on that front but scores elsewhere with mixed results: it is occasionally heart-breaking, occasionally funny, often political albeit hesitantly so, but by and large just plain dull.
Based on the Korean film Ode To My Father, Bharat is a voyage through post-Independence India while walking alongside a common man whose name is Bharat with no surname attached. He was a boy of 8 and a resident of Gaon Mirpur, Lahore, when his life was torn apart by the cruelty of Partition. His entire existence since has been devoted to keeping the promise made to his Dad (Jackie Shroff) that he would take care of the family.
When we first meet him he is an old man touching 70. As the extended family gathers for his birthday, Bharat (played by Khan) recounts his journey between 1947 and 2010 in flashback. Along the way, several familiar historical milestones are crossed. Post-Partition refugee camps, Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, India’s 1983 cricket World Cup victory, economic liberalisation in the 1990s, the 21st century television boom and more pass by parallel to Bharat’s initial struggle to survive in Delhi, his time as a daredevil motorbike rider in a circus, migration to the Middle East for work, his life-long friendship with the banana-eating Syyed Vilayati Khan (Sunil Grover), his long-standing relationship with the government official turned TV anchor Kumud Raina (Katrina Kaif) and unexpected good news.
The voiceover in the trailer had announced, “this country was born 71 years back...” Why then does Bharat’s story stop not at 2018 but at 2010 with the words “the beginning” on screen? Therein lies a tale. Clearly Zafar wants to make a political statement yet stay safe while doing so (the fact that he needs to protect himself is a sad reflection on the current state of our nation, but that is a separate discussion). The 1990s are heralded in the film with the narrator announcing that the new decade was marked by the arrival of two new heroes, Shah Rukh Khan (that’s very generous of you, Bhai) and Sachin Tendulkar, “but the real hero was (Finance Minister) Manmohan Singh” for transforming India’s economy. This is an unexpected ode to the former FM-turned-PM who has been much maligned, reviled and mocked in the public discourse in the past 5 years, most recently in the Hindi film PM Narendra Modi. Another former PM much reviled in recent years is projected as a hottie earlier in the film.
While both comments in Bharat are in themselves brave in the sense that they defy the mob, I suppose the decision to steer clear of 2014 too can be deemed a statement, its import possibly depending on which side of the political divide you stand on. Clever? Somewhat. And if you think about it, amusingly so.
The format of this film is brimming with potential, and has been tapped brilliantly by cinema in the past, Hollywood’s Forrest Gump being a shining example. For the most part though, the historical events cited in Bharat serve more as markers of dates rather than having any interesting or deep connotation in the context of the leading man’s bio. Combine that with the absence of the usual crowd-pleasing Salman Khan madness, and Bharat ends up being neither here nor there.
The humour, for one, is weak. I mean, c’moooon, Bharat’s Mummy says “Tonsil” for “Titanic” (the ship) and he corrects her, pronouncing the word as “Titonic” instead. Aiyyo! Eye roll. Oddly enough, the comedy works in its most juvenile portions because those parts are headlined by the inimitable Sunil Grover or Rajiv Gupta. The two ace their respective scenes.
Khan and Kaif, on the other hand, are off the mark and off colour throughout. Nope, even when Bharat addresses Kumud as “Madam Sir” with the actor’s signature cutesiness it falls flat. Kaif’s Hindi diction has always been problematic, here it is not even papered over with the by-now-standard her-character-grew-up-outside-India excuse and the way she says the English word “store” more than once in a particular scene is very distracting.
Like the duo’s performances, Bharat’s songs too are lacklustre. Irshad Kamil’s lyrics for Slow motion are kinda entertaining, Zinda is sorta catchy, but on the whole I found myself wondering when Vishal and Shekhar will next come up with a soundtrack to match the memorability they delivered in Dostana.
No doubt Zafar means well with Bharat, but his writing often unwittingly displays his social conditioning even when he is attempting a progressive message. This is epitomised by a scene in which Bharat tries to convince an African pirate that there is no colour prejudice in India, which is ironic considering that their conversation is contained in a scene featuring a racist joke about a black-skinned south Indian man.
Unlike the recent Bollywood release Kalank, the villains of Partition in Bharat are not confined to the Muslim community. In a decade when the world and India have been engulfed by Islamophobia, this is significant. However, Zafar’s decision to include the national anthem right in the middle of the film should be questioned, knowing as we do that the anthem has been a source of tension in some halls in recent years with certain audience members choosing to use it as a tool to vent a certain nationalist aggression against others.
At another place Zafar questions the need for marriage, which is a gutsy thing to do for a Hindi filmmaker – and then he pulls back. And the way Disha Patani’s character enters then abruptly exits the scene becomes yet another instance of the dispensability of glamorous women in commercial Hindi cinema.
The best of Bharat comes right in the beginning and then almost towards the end. The initial portrayal of the Partition and later efforts to reunite families separated at the time may seem emotionally over-wrought to some, but I confess I was reduced to tears in both segments. Unfortunately, what comes between, though largely inoffensive is only sporadically rewarding. Far from being a Forrest Gump with Salman Khan, Bharat is mostly a plodding trek through post-1947 to contemporary India.
Rating (out of five stars): **
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: